Is that me in the mirror? Depersonalisation modulates tactile mirroring mechanisms

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Abstract

Our sense of self is thought to develop through sensory-motor contingencies provided, not only by observing one's own body, but also by mirroring interactions with others. This suggests that there is a strong link between mirroring mechanisms and the bodily self. The present study tested whether this link is expressed at early, implicit stages of the mirroring process or at later, more cognitive stages. We also provide, to the best of our knowledge, the first demonstration of how inter-individual differences in our sense of bodily self may affect mirroring mechanisms. We used somatosensory event-related potentials (SEPs) to investigate the temporal dynamics of mirroring highly self-related information (viewed touch on one's own face) compared to other-related information (viewed touch on a stranger's face), in individuals with low and high levels of depersonalisation, a mental condition characterised by feeling detached or estranged from one's self and body. For the low-depersonalisation group, mirroring for self-related events (P45) preceded mirroring for other-related events (N80). At later stages (P200), mirroring was stronger for other-related than self-related events. This shows that early, implicit and later, more cognitive processes play different relative roles in mirroring self- and other-related bodily events. Critically, mirroring differed in the high-depersonalisation group, specifically for self-related events. An absence of early, implicit mirroring for self-related events over P45 suggests that the associated processes may be the neural correlates of the disembodiment experienced in depersonalisation. A lack of differential mirroring for self- and other-related events over P200 may reflect compensatory mechanisms that redress deficiencies in mirroring at earlier stages, which may break down to give rise to symptoms of depersonalisation. Alternatively, or in addition, they may represent an attenuation of processes related to self-other distinction. Our study thus shows that mirroring, especially for events on one's own face, can be strongly affected by how connected the observer feels to their own bodily self.

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