Neural responses to heartbeats distinguish self from other during imagination

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Imagination is an internally-generated process, where one can make oneself or other people appear as protagonists of a scene. How does the brain tag the protagonist of an imagined scene as being oneself or someone else? Crucially, during imagination, neither external stimuli nor motor feedback are available to disentangle imagining oneself from imagining someone else. Here, we test the hypothesis that an internal mechanism based on the neural monitoring of heartbeats could distinguish between self and other. 23 participants imagined themselves (from a first-person perspective) or a friend (from a third-person perspective) in various scenarios, while their brain activity was recorded with magnetoencephalography and their cardiac activity was simultaneously monitored. We measured heartbeat-evoked responses, i.e. transients of neural activity occurring in response to each heartbeat, during imagination. The amplitude of heartbeat-evoked responses differed between imagining oneself and imagining a friend, in the precuneus and posterior cingulate regions bilaterally. Effect size was modulated by the daydreaming frequency scores of participants but not by their interoceptive abilities. These results could not be accounted for by other characteristics of imagination (e.g., the ability to adopt the perspective, valence or arousal), nor by cardiac parameters (e.g., heart rate) or arousal levels (e.g. arousal ratings, pupil diameter). Heartbeat-evoked responses thus appear as a neural marker distinguishing self from other during imagination.




Babo-Rebelo, M., Buot, A., & Tallon-Baudry, C. (2019). Neural responses to heartbeats distinguish self from other during imagination. NeuroImage, 191, 10–20.

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