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Can we distinguish an “I” and “ME” during listening?—an event-related EEG study on the processing of first and second person personal and possessive pronouns

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Theoretically, stimuli can be related to the self as subject (“I”) or object (“ME”) of experience. This event-related brain potential (ERP) study investigated whether listening to personal and possessive pronouns elicits different modes of self-processing regarding time-course and neural sources. Going beyond previous research, first (1PP) and second person (2PP) pronouns were included to determine the specificity of self-processing. Participants listened passively to German pronouns while the electroencephalogram was recorded. Modulation of ERPs revealed a processing advantage for the 2PP personal pronoun “du” (“you”) already in early time windows. Regarding possessive pronouns, N1 amplitudes indicated increased attention orientation to the 1PP pronoun “mein” (“my”), whereas during later time windows, processing of 1PP and 2PP possessive pronouns did not differ but differed from the third person pronoun “sein” (“his”). ERP source imaging suggests that primary sensory brain regions (auditory cortex), the insula and cortical midline structures are differentially involved into these two processing modes. The results support the idea of distinct self-processing modes (“I” and “ME”) and confirm their dynamic nature. Moreover, they demonstrate that on a neural level neither “I” or “ME” are invariantly tied to the first person, in line with the hypothesis that self-processing is relational and context-dependent.
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Keywords: I; Me; Self; cortical midline structures (CMS); event-related brain potentials; first and second person perspective; insula; language; medial prefrontal cortex; pronouns

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Institute of Psychology and Education, University of Ulm, Ulm, Germany 2: Department of Psychology, University of Würzburg, Würzburg, Germany 3: Mind, Brain Imaging and Neuroethics, Institute of Mental Health Research, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada

Publication date: March 3, 2016

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