Some individuals struggle to recall who they were in the past and who they might be in the future. In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s Rashmi Parmar, MD, explains how time affects who we think we are and out self-perception.

Your Self-Perception Shifts as You Age, Study Says

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.

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

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.1As people age, they may be motivated to solidify how they perceive themselves, especially if they see few viable options to change their personality.

Blurring things mentally

Psychiatrist with Mindpath Health 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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

Dr. Parmar 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.”

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.

Trauma work can help individuals 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,” Weaver 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.

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, and 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 our former and our future selves get blurred the farther we get away from real and perceived time.”

Read the full Verywell Mind article with sources.

Rashmi Parmar, MD

Newark, CA

Dr. Rashmi Parmar is a dual board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. Dr. Parmar's treatment philosophy involves making patients and their families feel heard and understood while tailoring their treatment goals. She educates her patients to make well-informed treatment choices and believes in achieving the overall well-being of an individual rather than targeting the illness itself. Dr. Parmar is well ... Read Full Bio »

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