Friday 24 July 2009

First-Person and Third-Person

An experiment by Daniel Ames, Adrianna Jenkins, Mahzarin Banaji & Jason Mitchell (2008), which used fMRI brain-imaging, is of interest to writers and readers of fiction. The authors started with a previous finding that when people think about themselves, for instance about their attitudes and preferences, a specific region of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is activated (Mitchell, Macrae, & Banaji, 2006). What happens then, the authors asked, when one thinks about another person in the same way as one thinks about oneself, as for instance in first-person writing? Does that same area of the brain become more active?

The authors asked for a first-person perspective by showing participants the face of someone they did not know, and saying: "Imagine for a moment that you are this person, walking through the world in their shoes and seeing the world through their eyes." Participants were also asked to take on a third-person perspective, in which they were shown the face of another unfamiilar individual and requested: "to gather as many clues as you can about what this person might be like and to think about how they might experience the given event." (The order of taking up these perspectives was randomized.) Then participants were given five minutes to compose a brief narrative using each perspective. Next they underwent fMRI imaging while they were shown first one and then the other photo of the individuals they had thought about and written about, and while they were asked to make judgments about that person's attitudes and preferences, for instance "enjoys playing video games," and "prefers autumn to spring." They were also asked to report judgments about their own attitudes and preferences in response to the same questions. The neural activity in the ventromedial prefrontal region was higher for the judgments they made about the person they had described in first-person terms, than about the one they had described in third-person terms. They were also asked to make judgments about the personality of themselves and another person they knew well in terms such as "curious, intelligent, neurotic," and so on. When making judgments about themselves in this way, as compared with making judgments about someone else, the ventromedial prefrontal region was again preferentially activated.

The authors' conclusion was this:
We suggest that conscious attempts to adopt another person’s perspective may prompt perceivers to consider that person via cognitive processes typically reserved for introspection about the self ... our results suggest that the prosocial effects of perspective taking, such as increased empathy and reduced prejudice, may result from a blurring of the distinction between self and other. (p. 643).
The implication for writers may be different from those for readers. For writers there may be a danger of writing in the first-person, because unconsciously one may then write not about the character but about oneself. For readers, a first person narrative may make it easier to identify with, and to become, the character. One should not take this latter conclusion too far, however, because we know that skilled writers can invite identification in third-person narratives, using such literary techniques as free indirect style (click here for discussion).

For both writers and readers this experiment strengthens the case that empathy involves using the self to simulate others, and provides a basis for identification in fiction.

Daniel Ames, Adrianna Jenkins, Mahzarin Banaji & Jason Mitchell (2008). Taking another person's perspective increases self-referential neural processing. Psychological Science, 19, 642-644.

Jason Mitchell, C. Neil Macrae, & Mahzarin Banaji (2006). Dissociable medial prefrontal contributions to judgments of similar and dissimilar others. Neuron, 50, 655-663.


Nicola Morgan said...

I was really interested in this. But imagine how even more interesting it might be to look at any differences in neural activity between skilled writers performing such activities and "ordinary" ie non-professional/skilled writers doing the same??? What do you think we'd find - and has anyone done this, do you know?

Raymond A. Mar said...

The study you describe is very similar to projects I have planned with a collaborator (Dr. Allen Braun, NIH/NIDCD). It may be some time before we get to those studies, but they are certainly something that we have discussed and intend to do. Rest assured that the results will appear here at OnFiction once they become available.

blog nerd said...

Intriguing post. This returns to the idea of advisory and empathic projection (Lakoff and Johnson) that I posted about in the combox here before.

It seems that third person leans toward advisory projection and first person toward empathic projection, based on this finding.

This is interesting in terms of fairy tales which are always in third person--contemporary fairy tales (Dahl, Rowling, etc.) seem to adopt this indirect, free style first person. Is this related to third person with an "attached" point of view? Are you familiar with this termniology? I believe Emma would be an example of third person with an attached point of view. I've read Emma but cannot recall exactly, but I seem to think overhearing thoughts would only occur with Emma and the narration only occurs when Emma is in the room.

This is of interest with children--anti-heroes or flawed heroes for children are of concern, naturally, because parents don't wish children to emulate serious errors in moral decision making the characters might make. But if the child is encouraged to distance themselves as in advisory projection, its easier for them to draw morals from both positive and negative space in the stories.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Blog Nerd, for these interesting thoughts. It is often something an author has to choose, whether to write in first person, or some version of third-person, and the distinction between empathetic and advisory is useful. It had not occurred to me that fairy tales are always in third-person. Your idea about why this should be is thought provoking. Although there are ways of inviting empathy from a third-person position, it seems much more difficult to set up a distance between narrator and reader using first-person narrative.

blog nerd said...

Thanks for the reply, Keith--and of course the classic example of what you mention in the last graph above, is Nabakov in Lolita. The book is troubling because we find Humbert Humbert, a pedophile, so intriguingly empathetic, specifically because of the first person point of view. The book would be thoroughly repugnant from third person objective, and maybe even from third person subjective.

Whether or not to do such a thing is "prosocial" or not is up for debate, but it is, of course, why the book troubles some and fascinates many.

Unknown said...

But this study specifically asked a random person (presumably not a professional writer) to assume the identity of another as they wrote in the first person.

I do believe this is fundamentally different from a (skilled) writer of fiction who deliberately makes a choice of first person POV.

A writer is quite capable and exquisitely aware of the difference between herself and the POV character, regardless of narrative voice.

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