Self-representation: do you really know yourself?

Satwat Bashir, MSc Cognition and Computation student, reports on Dr Lara Maister’s Science Week talk.

Dr Lara Maister

In our daily life, we spend a great deal of time focusing on ourselves; whether we are buying shoes, preparing for a job interview, posting on social media or impressing a date. But how exactly are we aware of ourselves? Do we ever think about it? Ehh… no.  When Donald Trump described himself as a ‘not smart, but a genius and a very stable genius’, he was accused of being mentally unhealthy and lacking self-awareness. But scientific research is beginning to reveal that people’s self-awareness is not as accurate as we think, despite the fact that we are the only ones in the universe with direct access to every thought and feeling we come across. Lara Maister’s talk took a very thought-provoking, curious and engaging way to share the science behind our ‘selfhood’. What could be more interesting than to know about your own body and mind?

At the start, Lara gave a general introduction on how we perceive the ‘self’. She made a distinction between two often-related forms of ‘self’, namely; bodily-self and conceptual-self. She explained the conceptual-self as concerning our beliefs, feelings, preferences and attitudes, and that its formation and development is strongly related to social interactions and comparisons. In contrast to this, bodily-self is understood through our subjective experiences of bodily ownership and physical appearance. For example; I experience my body moving when I tell it to move, and I always have a mental image of how I am appearing in the world. Interesting!

Lara went on explaining the cognitive neuroscience story behind these selfhoods and how these two forms are malleable and can influence each other, eventually changing the whole ‘self’. First focusing on the ‘bodily self’, she discussed a rare neurological condition that leads to the loss of the sense of bodily ownership which has motivated the investigation into the nature and processing behind our ‘self-hood’.

The rubber hand illusion is one of the methods used to probe the ‘bodily self’. Researchers were able to induce a feeling of ownership over a prosthetic hand, using synchronous visual-tactile stimulation. She explains that it is basically the result of the brain’s ability to synchronize the touch felt on real hand with the touch seen on the prosthetic hand. This discovery extended the scope of bodily illusions investigations and researchers are now able to produce and observe the similar effects with other senses that result in illusory body ownership, like voice illusions and face illusions.

Lara kept the curiosity high and went on unfolding the mysteries and shared the studies in which she and her team tested how accurate people are when they picture their appearance in their mind, compared to what they actually look like. She uses a task, which allows participants to develop a ‘self-portrait’ via the computer, which represents how they think they look in their mind’s eye. The results showed people are generally good at predicting their facial characteristics; for example, if someone has a bold nose or striking eyes, their self-portrait will have these features, so in general, people are well aware of how they look like in the real world.

The most attention-grabbing result from her investigation demonstrated that participants’ beliefs about their personality traits influenced what their self-portraits looked like. For example, if they think they are considered neurotic in their social circles, then their self-portrait contains such features that look ’neurotic’ – irrespective of their real facial features. A very interesting example shown by Lara was of two females which are very alike in their physical appearance, but they have exactly opposite self-conception about themselves; one thinks she is attractive and trustworthy and other thinks she is unattractive and untrustworthy. Importantly, they made very different self-portraits too; the one who believed she was unattractive and untrustworthy saw her face as being much less attractive and agreeable than the participant who was more self-confident. Why is this so? Another mystery! Lara explained that researchers believe our feelings and beliefs about ourselves affect our bodily mental representation of our own appearance.

But how is self-esteem affecting the representation of our bodies, as well as our faces? Lara shared another investigation focusing on self-esteem and our mental images of our body shape. The results are very fascinating and confirm the previous finding that self-esteem plays a significant role in a person’s beliefs about themselves and that most of the time we are inaccurate in determining how we look. Specifically, the researchers measured the hip size of people’s mental pictures of their own bodies, and what they thought a ‘normal’ body looked like. Not only were people’s mental pictures of their body shape quite inaccurate, the data pattern depicts that hip size is inversely related to self-esteem; the larger the hip size of the self-portrait, the lower the self-esteem. So, what’s going on with our self-esteem, and how can we know our true selves?

The studies explain a variety of phenomena from our daily life, ranging from our choices when buying clothes, to our social worth and comparisons. Lara excellently explained a potential method to look into the self in different personality disorders, as well as mental disorders such as dysmorphic disorders and eating disorders.

The investigations are still ongoing and we are anxiously waiting for the new findings so we can better understand and welcome our true selves!

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