Your Self-Perception Shifts as You Age, Study Says

Older man looks into a small mirror

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Key Takeaways

  • One's self-perception may become compressed over time.
  • Brain imaging can demonstrate temporal self-compression.
  • These findings may explain how some individuals struggle to plan ahead given challenges seeing themselves in the future.

Self-awareness is often encouraged, but it can be challenging. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found brain imaging evidence that self-perception becomes compressed over time.

This research was based on 4 studies, whereby participants rated themselves at time points in the past and future, and found that they compressed their past and future selves in comparison to their present self, which was also evidenced by scans from brain imaging technology.

Given that these research findings show how perceptions of self become smaller and take up less space over time, it may help to understand how some individuals have greater difficulty remembering their decisions from the past precisely.

Understanding Temporal Self-Compression

Based on 4 separate studies, this research demonstrates how perceptions of past and future selves get more compressed as their distance increases from the present time point, so they may appear blurry.

Researchers found that brain imaging can provide evidence for how future and past selves are viewed more similarly to one another compared to the current self through compression over time.

Older participants were found to display less change in self-perception compared to younger participants and viewed themselves more positively when rating personality traits.As people age, they may be motivated to solidify how they perceive themselves, especially if they see few viable options to change their personality.

A limitation of this research is that these findings regarding older adults may be related to other contributing factors than only temporal self-compression, including impact of the aging process itself.

Blurring Things Mentally

Psychiatrist with MindPath Care Centers Rashmi Parmar, MD, says, "This study draws attention and provides neurobiological proof of a very basic human trait of blurring things mentally the further we go forward or backward in time."

Dr. Parmar explains, "We have all come across temporal recall bias at some point in our lives, whether intentionally or not. The further the said moment is in the past the harder it is to recall details accurately."

Since details from similar events from the past may be mixed up if they occurred close together, Dr. Parmar says, "This study applies the same principle to not just memory or cognitive recall but to our overall representation of self in our mind, i.e. self-perception."

Dr. Parmar notes, "The study also used fMRI to assess how the brain appears in relation to self-perception over different time points. The results show that the brain images become less and less discernible the farther out you think about yourself in time."

Given that the researchers highlight how individuals lean towards an optimistic view of the self in general, Dr. Parmar says, "This explains why we have a better self-perception in the present moment as compared to our past and it improves even further when we look at our future selves."

Rashmi Parmar, MD

We tend to be more precise, detailed and accurate in our observation and perception of things in the present moment and our mental images get blurrier as we move out further away in time.

— Rashmi Parmar, MD

Dr. Parmar notes, "The neural mechanisms underlying our ability of self-perception may be much more complicated than it appears on the surface. There may be several underlying cognitive pathways, neurotransmitter systems as well as external events that influence our self view."

As with other cognitive processes, Dr. Parmar highlights that individual traits like IQ, visual and auditory processing speed, memory, etc. can all lead to variable results regarding self-perception.

Dr. Parmar explains, "In clinical practice as well as in my personal life, the compression effect is very real. We tend to be more precise, detailed and accurate in our observation and perception of things in the present moment and our mental images get blurrier as we move out further away in time."

Having often noticed that patients have a hard time recalling things about themselves from the past during clinical assessment, Dr. Parmar highlights how this tends to happen more if it has occurred at a distant point in time.

Dr. Parmar notes, "At times, they often confuse or blur memories of separate events that may have occurred close together in their past timeline, which can complicate the clinical picture."

In the same way, Dr. Parmar says that she has noticed patients struggling at times to provide an accurate account of their symptom changes over time, as it is much easier for someone to tell her how they are feeling today or in the past few days, but it gets harder to recall things from the past.

Trauma Has No Time Stamp

Neuroscience coach and clinical social worker, Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says, "We have difficulty seeing our past or present selves with clarity. Although the research is unclear as to why this is the case, there is still utility for being aware of this information."

Weaver further explains, "For example, many people struggle when it comes to goal-setting, future planning, dieting, vision-boarding or creating positive affirmations. Because of this, many people feel stuck."

While this was not covered in this study, Weaver highlights the effect of trauma on the brain as relevant to this discussion. "Trauma has no time stamp and because of that we can create a story about our identity that occurred years ago but feels like it just happened yesterday," she says.

Weaver notes, "It’s difficult to see our future self being, doing or feeling differently than we do right now. That is why trauma work is so important when it comes to grief or other areas that we feel stuck."

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

It’s not to say that their past was better, but as the study said, our former and our future selves get blurred the farther we get away from real and perceived time.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

In this way, trauma work can help individuals to move forward. "Trauma work doesn’t erase what happened to us but it erases the negative effects that are happening in us. This is especially true for people of color that might have a history of being and/or feeling marginalized," she says.

With respect to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Weaver explains that time may feel as if it stopped in 2020 for many people across the globe, so one’s current identity may be defined by all that uncertainty.

Weaver says, "I can’t help but think about imposter syndrome and the busyness of people of color, how we can operate out of a survival state and find it hard to relax as we see our current self through a trauma lens."

Even when people of color achieve, Weaver notes, "We may continue to do more and more because we don’t see ourselves as enough. We are identifying our current self by our historical, culture, family past with the hope of becoming better in some elusive future."

Weaver explains, "First-generation clients experience the tug-of-war between their family/cultural identity, their current identity, grieving their past selves and feeling uncertain for their future selves. It’s not to say that their past was better, but as the study said, our former and our future selves get blurred the farther we get away from real and perceived time."

What This Means For You

As the research demonstrates, self-perception blurs over time. These findings may help to understand how some have trouble recalling how they had been in the past or planning ahead for their future self.

1 Source
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  1. Brietzke S, Meyer M. Temporal self-compression: Behavioral and neural evidence that past and future selves are compressed as they move away from the presentProc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021;118(49):e2101403118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2101403118

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.