Imagination is not just something for creative endeavors — it is a real-world tool that can not only shape the way we act in the future, but also affect how we feel right now. Think about the dread you feel the day before a tooth extraction, imagining the pain to come. New research finds that you might be able to lessen those feelings by changing your visual point of view — imagining yourself as an outsider.
Our imaginations rarely seem to be that imaginative, says Brittany Christian, a postdoc at the University of Chicago. “Instead, our mental worlds look an awful lot like our physical worlds — adorned with the very same people, places and activities that generally feature in our everyday lives,” she says.
But there’s one big difference: When we imaging something, we can switch between a first-person point of view — the world just as it would be seen through your own eyes — and a third-person point of view — the world as it would be seen from an outside perspective, almost like seeing yourself on TV.
“While we can only experience the world from a first-person point of view, we often imagine it from a third-person perspective,” Christian says. So she and colleagues at Dartmouth College and the University of Aberdeen wanted to explore how this ability to shift our visual perspectives could influence something as basic as pain perception.
The researchers asked participants to imagine a total of 90 painful scenarios, such as stubbing a toe on a rock, from three different visual perspectives: first person, third-person for themselves; or third-person for someone else. While lying in an fMRI scanner, the participants would imagine 10 scenarios from one perspective before switching to another perspective. After imagining each scenario, participants reported how clearly they were able to imagine the event and also how painful they imagined the event to be.
As published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, imagining the pain scenarios from the first-person perspective elicited greater activity in the right anterior insula, a brain area that supports visceral sensations and emotional awareness, than for the third-person self perspective. Additionally, the first-person simulations evoked greater activity in brain areas associated with visual imagery and “the sense of body ownership,” the authors wrote.
This difference in brain activity, Christian says, is likely due to the difference between how we experience the visual perspectives in the real-world. “If you have ever burned your hand on a hot stove or stubbed your toe on a protruding table, you did so from a ‘first-person’ point of view,” she explains. But when we witness another person doing the same, the experience no longer has the visceral-level details about the pain.
“We believe that a third-person self perspective is akin to a third-person other perspective in that it is stripped of many of the sensations that accompany actual experience,” she says. “In everyday life, we are able to see others’ experiences from an outside perspective, but we can’t directly feel them — the differences that we found in brain activity between first- and third-person self simulations suggest that the imaginary world preserves this distinction between experiencing and observing even when the person we are ‘watching’ is ourselves.”
Indeed, somewhat surprising to the researchers, people’s assessments of imaginary pain were not different when imagining themselves from a third-person perspective compared to imagining another individual from a third-person perspective. “Generally, there are clear distinctions between predictions about self compared to other experiences, such as ‘my pain will be greater than your pain,’” Christian says. “Our work suggests that adopting a third-person view of the self may diminish these self-other differences. If I view ‘me’ from a third-person perspective, then I no longer predict that my pain will be worse than yours.”
This work is among the first to look at the difference between how we view pain from the first person perspective compared to the third-person perspective for ourselves. Most past research has focused solely on first person or on how we view others in pain versus ourselves.
“This work emphasizes that the way we imagine something can have a significant impact on how we assess the event,” Christian says. “If I have to go to the dentist tomorrow, imagining it from a third-person perspective is likely to make the experience seem like it will be less painful which may not only make for a more pleasant today, but also keep me from canceling my appointment tomorrow.”
-Lisa M.P. Munoz