A team of researchers, led by scientists from Michigan State University in East Lansing and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, set out to examine the neuropsychological effect of talking to oneself in the third person on controlling one’s emotions.
The researchers’ hypothesis was that talking to oneself in the same way that one would about others would provide some much-needed psychological distance, which may help to control emotions.
The new study – which is published in the journal Scientific Reports – consists of two neuroscientific experiments that tested this hypothesis.
Using an electroencephalograph
In the first experiment – which was conducted at the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab and led by Prof. Jason Moser, of Michigan State University – participants were asked to look at emotionally aversive images (for example, a man pointing a gun at their heads) and neutral images.
They were asked to view these images in both conditions: the first-person condition, and the third-person condition.
In the former, the participants asked themselves, “What am I feeling right now?” But in the latter condition, they asked themselves, “What is [participant’s name] feeling right now?”
The participants’ brain activity was monitored using an electroencephalograph.
Referring to themselves in the third person reduced the participants’ brain activity across the neural mechanisms that are known to be involved in emotional regulation – and it did so almost immediately, within 1 second.
Interestingly, the brain activity – as recorded by the electroencephalograph – did not show an increase in cognitive control markers, which suggests that the strategy is effective at managing stress in a cognitively effortless way.
Talking to oneself inside an fMRI machine
In the second experiment, participants were asked to recall emotionally distressing experiences from their past in both first-person and third-person conditions.
This time, however, their brain activity was monitored using a functional MRI (fMRI) machine.
The second experiment revealed decreased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area known to be a marker for self-referential emotional processing.
So, the third-person technique decreased activity in the brain area involved in processing painful autobiographical emotional memories.
However, reinforcing the findings of the first experiment, the second experiment did not reveal increased activity in the brain network involved in the cognitive control of emotions, the frontoparietal network.
This suggested, once again, that talking to oneself in the third person may be a simple and cognitively inexpensive way of reducing negative emotions on the spot.
“Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain. That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”
Prof. Jason Moser
“What’s really exciting here,” says the leader of the second study, Ethan Kross, of the University of Michigan, “is that the brain data from these two complementary experiments suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotion regulation.”
“If this ends up being true – we won’t know until more research is done – there are lots of important implications these findings have for our basic understanding of how self-control works, and for how to help people control their emotions in daily life,” concludes Kross.