The Neuroscience of Association and Dissociation
One of the key concepts in NLP is that we can view our own experiences either from an associated perspective (through our own eyes) or a dissociated perspective (from an observer’s point of view). This idea was reported by Nigro & Neisser1(983) who first discussed our ability to switch the view point of our memories. Since then, many psychological research studies have demonstrated that a switch in perspective can impact on our sense of self (Sutin & Robins, 2008), affect our mood (Holmes et al., 2008) and alter our behaviour (Libby et al., 2007).
The personalised memories that allow us to remember specific experiences from our own lives are known as autobiographical memories. To provide a concrete example of an autobiographical memory, try to recall a day from your junior school. There are two possibilities: you might remember a generic day with little detail about who was there or what happened specifically or how you felt. This is not autobiographical. Alternatively, you might remember a specific event, including who was there, the time of day or year, where exactly you were sitting and other details specific to this event including, importantly, what you were feeling. This is an autobiographical memory of a day at school. Only autobiographical memories are coded with emotions intact.
Both the NLP community and psychologists (Bernsten & Rubin, 2006) have long known that changing perspective from associated (own view) to dissociated (observer view) reduces the emotional content of an autobiographical memory. However, the neuroscientific underpinnings of this effect were unknown until very recently.
The first study to look at the effect of changing from own view to observer view demonstrated that there was greater activity in an area of the brain in the posterior parietal cortex called the precuneus when observers were dissociated than when associated (Grol, Vingerhoets & De Raedt, 2017). This part of the brain has also been found to be active when individuals are asked to construct a complex visual scene.
St. Jacques, Szupnar and Schachter (2017) speculated that changing the visual perspective of an autobiographical memory would result in changes in activity in the the precuneus and that this change would also be associated with alterations in the emotional intensity which would be maintained over repeated recall of the memory.
In their study, participants were asked to retrieve a large number of autobiographical memories from prompt words (e.g. birthday party, holiday, sporting event, etc.). They were asked to code whether the memory was remembered from an associated or dissociated perspective along with information about the emotional intensity of the memory. From this large pool, memories were chosen that were recalled from strongly associated position to be tested in an fMRI experiment.
At a later point, participants returned to the lab for the fMRI phase where they were asked to recall each chosen event three times. In one condition, the participant was asked to recall the event each time from the associated perspective (no switch) while in another condition, they were asked to switch perspective on the second recall to an observer perspective and then retain this new perspective on the third recall.
Results showed that emotional intensity dropped during the switch condition in comparison to the non-switch condition. In addition, the perspective of the memories that were viewed from a shifted perspective were maintained in the new perspective when recalled again. This suggested that changing perspective resulted in a re-coding of the memory. Decreases in activity in the precuneus was found to predict both reduction in emotional intensity and ease with which the new perspective was sustained in memory.
This confirms that moving from an associated to a dissociated perspective does just what the NLP community has believed – it reduces emotional intensity and recodes the memory so that it becomes easier to retrieve it as a dissociated memory on future occasions. It also shows us that there is a specific part of the brain that is responsible for this shift.
What it does not tell us, unfortunately, is whether the same part of the brain alters its activity when changing from a dissociated perspective to an associated perspective. We would predict that this would increase the emotional intensity. We’ll let you know when the research has more to tell us.
Berntsen, D. & Rubin, D.C. (2006) Emotion and vantage point in autobiographical memory. Cognition and Emotion, 20, 1193–1215.
Grol, M., Vingerhoets, G. & De Raedt, R. (2017) Mental imagery of positive and neutral memories: a fMRI study comparing field perspective imagery to observer perspective imagery. Brain and Cognition, 111, 13–24.
Holmes, E.A., Coughtrey, A.E. & Connor, A. (2008) Looking at or through rose-tinted glasses? Imagery perspective and positive mood. Emotion, 8, 875–879.
Libby, L.K. & Eibach, R.P. (2011) Visual perspective in mental imagery: a representation tool that functions in judgment, emotion, and self-insight. In: Zanna, M.P., Olson, J.M. (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Academic Press, San Diego, 185–245.
Nigro, G. & Neisser, U. (1983) Point of view in personal memories. Cognitive Psychology, 15, 467–482.
St. Jacques, P., Szupnar, K. & Schachter, D. (2017) Shifting visual perspective during retrieval shapes autobiographical memories. NeuroImage, 148, 103-114.
Sutin, A.R.& Robins, R.W. (2008) When the "I" looks at the "Me": autobiographical memory, visual perspective, and the self. Conscious Cognition, 17, 1386–1397.