Yours, mine, ours: When you and I share perspectives

February 18, 2009

While reading a novel, as the author describes the main character washing dishes or cooking dinner, we will often create a mental image of someone in the kitchen performing these tasks. Sometimes we may even imagine ourselves as the dishwasher or top chef in these scenarios. Why do we imagine these scenes differently - when do we view the action from an outsider's perspective and when do we place ourselves in the main character's shoes?

Psychologist Tad T. Brunye from the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) and Tufts University, along with Tali Ditman, Caroline R. Mahoney and Holly A. Taylor from Tufts University and Jason S. Augustyn from the US Army NSRDEC, investigated how pronouns can influence the way we imagine events being described.

In these experiments, volunteers read sentences describing everyday actions. The statements were expressed in either first- ("I am..."), second- ("You are...") or third-person ("He is..."). Volunteers then looked at pictures and had to indicate whether the images matched the sentences they had read. The pictures were presented in either an internal (i.e. as though the volunteer was performing the event him/herself) or external (i.e. as though the volunteer was observing the event) perspective.

The results, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicate that we use different perspectives, depending on which pronouns are used. When the volunteers read statements that began, "You are..." they pictured the scene through their own eyes. However, when they read statements explicitly describing someone else (for example, sentences that began, "He is...") then they tended to view the scene from an outsider's perspective. Even more interesting was what the results revealed about first-person statements (sentences that began, "I am..."). The perspective used while imagining these actions depended on the amount of information provided - the volunteers who read only one first-person sentence viewed the scene from their point of view while the volunteers who read three first-person sentences saw the scene from an outsider's perspective.

The researchers note that "these results provide the first evidence that in all cases readers mentally simulate described objects and events, but only embody an actor's perspective when directly addressed as the subject of a sentence." The authors suggest that when we read second-person statements ("You are..."), there is a greater sense of "being there" and this makes it easier to place ourselves in the scene being described, imagining it from our point of view.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Imaging study reveals differences in brain function for children with math anxiety

Related Stories

Imaging study reveals differences in brain function for children with math anxiety

March 21, 2012
Scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown for the first time how brain function differs in people who have math anxiety from those who don't.

Why being bilingual helps keep your brain fit

August 8, 2016
In a café in south London, two construction workers are engaged in cheerful banter, tossing words back and forth. Their cutlery dances during more emphatic gesticulations and they occasionally break off into loud guffaws. ...

Psychologists seek to unlock secrets of children's complex thinking

August 14, 2014
What is it about the human mind, as opposed to those of other animals, that makes it able to comprehend and reason about complex concepts such as infinity, cancer or protons?

What sudden insights look like inside the brain

August 4, 2015
Insight—you know the feeling. It's that amazing idea, the solution that hits you like a bolt of lightning. It can come to you while you're mulling over a problem, or days later, when you're making a sandwich or mowing the ...

How our bias toward the future can cloud our moral judgment

March 8, 2016
People are often forgiven for actions that they would never get permission for in the first place – a phenomenon described as "Stuart's Law of Retroaction". Children who watch TV for longer than they are allowed to, teenagers ...

Recommended for you

Before assigning responsibility, our minds simulate alternative outcomes, study shows

October 17, 2017
How do people assign a cause to events they witness? Some philosophers have suggested that people determine responsibility for a particular outcome by imagining what would have happened if a suspected cause had not intervened.

For older adults, volunteering could improve brain function

October 17, 2017
Older adults worried about losing their cognitive functions could consider volunteering as a potential boost, according to a University of Missouri researcher. While volunteering and its associations with physical health ...

Magic mushrooms may 'reset' the brains of depressed patients

October 13, 2017
Patients taking psilocybin to treat depression show reduced symptoms weeks after treatment following a 'reset' of their brain activity.

Living near a forest keeps your amygdala healthier

October 13, 2017
A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has investigated the relationship between the availability of nature near city dwellers' homes and their brain health. Its findings are relevant for urban ...

Scientists researching drugs that could improve brain function in people with schizophrenia

October 12, 2017
Virginia Commonwealth University researchers are testing if drugs known as HDAC inhibitors improve cognition in patients with schizophrenia who have been treated with the antipsychotic drug clozapine.

Researchers find a fine timeline between delusion and reality

October 12, 2017
The line between reality and delusion may be just a matter of time, a new Yale study suggests.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 23, 2009
Writers (and readers)have known this for a long time. And that is why the writer does not "jump around" and change the point of view of fiction arbitrarily. A good writer will bring the reader closer to the action of the story, by choosing the point of view that involves the reader best(for that particular story). Most writers change the point of view when the antagonist becomes the focus. This creates the illusion of distance (and therefore rejection) between the reader and the antagonist in the story.

This is, of course, an over-simplification of a writers use of point of view. And is not true for all styles and genres, however, it is a common technique.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.