What your friends’ brains look like when they think of you

Summary: To accurately perceive another person, your neural representation of that person has to match the pattern in the persons’ brain when they think about themselves.

Source: Ohio State University

If you ever wondered what’s going on in your friends’ brains when they think about you, new research may provide a clue.

It turns out that the brain activity patterns found in your friends’ brains when they consider your personality traits may be remarkably similar to what is found in your brain when you think of yourself, the study suggests.

Those same friends will have a different brain activity pattern when they think of someone else in your group – and more in alignment with that person’s pattern, findings indicate.

It was somewhat surprising to see the close similarity in brain patterns between individuals and their friends, said Dylan Wagner, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

“It didn’t have to be that way. We thought it was equally possible that you would think of me in the same way as I think of myself, but the way your brain encodes that information could be totally different,” Wagner said.

The study was led by Robert Chavez, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, who did the work as a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State. Their research was published online recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition.

Chavez and Wagner made this finding using a research design that had rarely been used in functional neuroimaging experiments before. They recruited 11 people who were all friends with each other to varying degrees. (“They were a pretty tight-knit group from the same academic program who all spent time together at the university as well as outside of it,” Wagner said.)

The novel part is that the researchers used a round-robin design in which everyone evaluated each other – and evaluated themselves – on a variety of personality traits, Wagner said.

In one session, each participant rated each of the other 10 and themselves on a variety of personality traits in a written questionnaire.

In a separate session, the 11 participants conducted similar evaluations while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

The fMRI took images of each person’s brain while they completed a task similar to the one they did earlier. They rated each of their friends and themselves on 48 traits, including lonely, sad, cold, lazy, overcritical, trustworthy, enthusiastic, clumsy, fashionable, helpful, smart, punctual and nice.

As they expected from previous research, the researchers saw activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain implicated in thinking about the self and close others, as the participants thought about the personality traits of themselves and their friends.

The study found that for each participant, the combined brain activity of their friends evaluating them looked a lot like their own brain activity.

This suggests that order to accurately perceive another person, your neural representation of that person – your patterns of brain activity for their identity – has to essentially match the pattern in that persons’ brain when they are thinking about themselves, Wagner said.

This shows a group of friends

Those same friends will have a different brain activity pattern when they think of someone else in your group – and more in alignment with that person’s pattern, findings indicate. The image is in the public domain.

The researchers note, however, that their data only suggest this in aggregate, as the analysis focused on taking the brain patterns of all a person’s friends and averaging them together, an approach commonly taken in non-fMRI personality research when comparing friends’ consensus judgments of each other.

In some ways, that is not surprising, Chavez said.

“Each one of your friends gets to see a slightly different side of you. When you put them all together, it is a better approximation of how you seen yourself than any one person individually,” Chavez said.

The researchers plan to follow up this initial study with a larger version of this round-robin design focusing on different groups of people (i.e., work friends vs. personal friends)

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
Ohio State University
Media Contacts:
Dylan Wagner – Ohio State University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“The neural representation of self is recapitulated in the brains of friends: A round-robin fMRI study”. Dylan Wagner et al.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology doi:10.1037/pspa0000178.

Abstract

The neural representation of self is recapitulated in the brains of friends: A round-robin fMRI study

Humans continually form and update impressions of each other’s identities based on the disclosure of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. At the same time, individuals also have specific beliefs and knowledge about their own self-concept. Over a decade of social neuroscience research has shown that retrieving information about the self and about other persons recruits similar areas of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), however it remains unclear if an individual’s neural representation of self is reflected in the brains of well-known others or if instead the two representations share no common relationship. Here we examined this question in a tight-knit network of friends as they engaged in a round-robin trait evaluation task in which each participant was both perceiver and target for every other participant and in addition also evaluated their self. Using functional MRI and a multilevel modeling approach, we show that multivoxel brain activity patterns in the MPFC during a person’s self-referential thought are correlated with those of friends when thinking of that same person. Moreover, the similarity of neural self–other patterns was itself positively associated with the similarity of self–other trait judgments ratings as measured behaviorally in a separate session. These findings suggest that accuracy in person perception may be predicated on the degree to which the brain activity pattern associated with an individual thinking about their own self-concept is similarly reflected in the brains of others.

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