An image saying the title of the story "Parallel Paula Part 2" and author "Helena Hartmann". It also includes the logo of Science & Fiction and a picture of two mirrored faces of a woman.

Who ist Paula 2.0 and why does she look like me?

Content warnings

  • medication intake
  • anxiety
  • panic attacks
  • depression

The short story

Before you start, read part 1 of this story here.


I’ll call her Paula 2.0 for now, because I don’t know what else to name her. I blink once, and blink again, squeezing my eyes together as hard as I can. I shake my head from left to right, as if I was not believing myself. This is unreal. She stands out of the huge crowd of people coming from the platform, like a bright spotlight is shining on her. Suddenly, time goes slower. Everything goes quieter. Looking at her is like looking into a mirror saying that you are the most beautiful girl in the world, but you know the mirror is lying. I am, I mean she is, embedded in the crowd of people coming from the train platforms, her hair windswept, a few raindrops on her coat. She is dressed in warm winter clothes, a dark blue dress with white stripes peeks out from a heavy, dark gray, woollen coat. She wears a matching dark blue scarf, hat, and gloves. Her legs are wrapped in dark blue, opaque tights and end in black leather boots. Her reddish blonde hair peaks out from under her hat and barely touches her shoulders, just like mine does. Golden earrings that look familiar dangle from her ears. Where have I seen those earrings before? She seems taller than me, but then I notice her shoulders are just not as slumped as mine usually are when I walk. Her freckled face is slightly flushed, exactly like mine when I am hurrying somewhere. Her stride is confident and determined (not like me, I immediately think, or exactly like me? Give yourself a break, Paula.).

She elegantly navigates herself and her suitcase through and out of the crowd around her, towards the doors leading outside. She seems to know where she is going, although she keeps looking around her, as if she is expecting someone to appear. She nearly clashes with another person but moves out of the way at the last second, laughing a laugh that sounds like my laugh, but somehow seems more sincere. Her eyes show a fierceness that make me stare at her. ‘Sorry, my bad!’, she shouts – even though her voice sounds just like mine, it feels off. Happy, cheery, light-hearted. (At least one of us is, I think to myself, 1:0 for Paula 2.0.) How can a person look so similar but also so different at the same time, I wonder, watching her every move and not letting her out of my sight.

My first impulse is to go towards her, confront this bizarre situation head-first, but I quickly come to my senses. I turn around, hiding behind one of the large marble columns in the main hall, hiding my face. Hiding from myself. This is too crazy to be true. Maybe I have a secret twin I don’t know about. Maybe I am sleeping, dreaming of a distant futuristic society where we all have doubles casually walking around to get all the stuff done that one person could never achieve in one lifetime. Maximum productivity demands that we have more than one version of ourselves. For a moment, I have to laugh at the absurdity of this thought. This is not what life should be about, getting done as much as you can, as fast as you can, needing another version of yourself to help out with day-to-day tasks to get them all done in time. The problem is not us, but this fucked-up world that demands more and more of us each day. As if it is the most normal thing in the world. But what is even considered normal nowadays?

My half-smile fades. I have to find out what’s going on here, because this is definitely not the typical, boring Saturday afternoon I was expecting. I realize I don’t even know what day of the week or date or even year today is. This situation is ridiculous and scary and exciting at the same time. My mind still a tired, foggy mess, I try to sort the little facts I have in my head: Paula 2.0 looks exactly like me, at least, physically. Personality-wise, she looks like a better version of me, she seems to have everything together. At least that is my first impression, but then again, I have always thought more positively about other people than about myself. I always focus on my own flaws and others’ achievements. I should probably do some form of imposter syndrome coaching or something like that. Paula, stop it, I tell myself. I hear my therapist say: ‘Tell me three things you like about yourself, Paula. Tell me something good that happened today, Paula. Tell me about a time in your life where you were happy, Paula.’ I don’t know. I don’t fucking know.

While I am lost in thought, Paula 2.0 has nearly reached the exit of the train station. Just as she drops out of sight, my body wakes up again. ‘Follow her!’, my mind shouts so loud I have trouble understanding. ‘Don’t let her get away!’. Maybe she knows what is going on here, that would make one of us. My body suddenly feels like a big magnet, being pulled towards its opposite. I can feel my legs move, one foot in front of the other, following the other version of myself out of the train station (at least my basic instincts still work). As soon as I leave the main hall, a cold gust of wind and rain hits my face, making me recoil and nearly turn back inside. It looks like a typical rainy, cold afternoon outside, but I still have no clue where I am. Focus, Paula, you have a task. Having tasks helps, keeping me busy and making me feel safe. One task after the others. My eyes dart around for Paula 2.0, and I spot her standing on the side of the street outside the station, shielding herself from the wind and rain. She looks like she is searching for someone. A few seconds later, she starts smiling and waving furiously. I see a black car with tinted windows pulling up and she waves to someone inside that I cannot see. A friend? A partner? A family member? Paula 2.0 drops her suitcase in the trunk. Someone opens the passenger seat door from the inside and she walks around the car to slide inside.

Without thinking, I run to the taxi stand ten meters behind the black car and rip open the back door of the front-most taxi. ‘Follow that black car!’, I want to shout, but then laugh at how ridiculously movie-like that sounds and instead say ‘Sorry, can you please drive after the black car? My friends didn’t have space anymore and I said I’d take a taxi to their place.’ My voice sounds all raspy and weird, like I haven’t talked in a while, and I have to clear my throat a few times before the words come out understandably. Luckily, the taxi driver doesn’t even look at me, but nods and starts the engine, just as the black car that Paula 2.0 stepped in a minute ago starts moving. At least I am somewhere where people speak my language. I sigh with relief when he doesn’t ask me for the exact address but effortlessly steers his car into the running traffic, two cars behind the black one. I sit back, realizing I am out of breath. Relax, Paula, I say to myself, knowing that I can do anything but relax right now. I look out of the window, remembering I still have no clue where I am. Cars and people and houses speed past me while we follow the black car through anonymous streets.


Read part 3 here!

This story was originally written in English.

The paper

Garbarini, F., Fornia, L., Fossataro, C., Pia, L., Gindri, P., & Berti, A. (2014). Embodiment of others’ hands elicits arousal responses similar to one’s own hands. Current Biology, 24(16), R738-R739.

Connection between story and paper

The paper and second part of the short story is about putting oneself in the shoes of another person. The paper explains that empathy for someone else in pain could be achieved and increased by incorporating other people’s body parts that are in pain into our own body. This, in turn, engages our own somatosensory and motor regions in the brain (i.e., regions where different body parts are represented, from the head to the feet). In order to investigate this, they did a study where 30 participants saw hands of different skin colors getting painful needle injections, either on a screen in front of them or on a screen that overlay the shown hand with their own hand. In the latter situation, the authors hoped that people could better incorporate that other hand in their own, and empathize better. They used an electroencephalogram to measure the brain activity of people during this task. Indeed, empathy-related brain activity was stronger in people who reported that they felt a stronger overlap with the other hand ( = thinking more that the other hand belonged to them). Creating such a strong overlap also removed the so-called ethnicity bias, e.g. when people have less empathy for people who have a different skin color than themselves. We don’t know who Paula 2.0 is yet, but Paula seems to be able to put herself in the shoes of her alter ego and is curious to find out more about her.

How easy is it for you to empathize with people who are different from yourself?

The author

Helena has developed Science and Fiction and writes many of the stories herself. Her current research as an active scientist focuses on the behavioural and neural basis of pain, pain modulation and treatment expectations based on placebo and nocebo effects. She completed her PhD at the Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience Unit at the Institute for Psychology of Cognition, Emotion and Methods at the University of Vienna, where she investigated empathy and prosocial behaviour in the area of pain.

Dr. Helena Hartmann
Dr. Helena Hartmann
Neuroscientist, psychologist and science communicator (she/her/hers)