The Self in the Mind’s Eye: Revealing How We Truly See Ourselves Through Reverse Correlation

Is there a way to visually depict the image people “see” of themselves in their minds’ eyes? And if so, what can these mental images tell us about ourselves? We used a computational reverse-correlation technique to explore individuals’ mental “self-portraits” of their faces and body shapes in an unbiased, data-driven way (total N = 116 adults). Self-portraits were similar to individuals’ real faces but, importantly, also contained clues to each person’s self-reported personality traits, which were reliably detected by external observers. Furthermore, people with higher social self-esteem produced more true-to-life self-portraits. Unlike face portraits, body portraits had negligible relationships with individuals’ actual body shape, but as with faces, they were influenced by people’s beliefs and emotions.

We show how psychological beliefs and attitudes about oneself bias the perceptual representation of one’s appearance and provide a unique window into the internal mental self-representation—findings that have important implications for mental health and visual culture.

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