But for animals, like humans, that inhabit a complex social universe, the autobiographical self offers another advantage: the opportunity to regulate feelings. We live in a sea of emotionally significant stimuli, from the neighbor’s snapping dog to an unexpected hug, and it is vital to our mental and physical health that we respond appropriately—which may involve replacing a knee-jerk emotion with a more reasoned view. Once we bring charged emotions into the realm of awareness, we can neutralize their stressful physiological effects, such as an elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating and trembling.
In 2007, building on previous work by Kevin N. Ochsner of Columbia University and James J. Gross of Stanford University, my colleagues and I explored the neural basis of a technique known as cognitive reappraisal that depends, by definition, on self-awareness. Using this method, people learn to reflect on a situation and reframe it in a positive way.
This article was originally published with the title Me, Myself and I.