An image saying the title of the story "Parallel Paula Part 3" 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 and part 2 here.


Then, all of a sudden, I remember where I know the earrings Paula 2.0 was wearing from. Emma gave them to me for my 30th birthday. Emma is my younger sister and the biggest support I have in life. We are similar in some respects, but so fundamentally different in others. She doesn’t have my anxiety, my panic, my constant worry. (I think? Most of the time she seems calm, quiet, deep in thought. Carefully assessing the situation and reacting accordingly. Sometimes I admire her. What am I saying, I have always admired her.) She is not like me. Concentrate, that other you is wearing the same earrings you have. Okay, something is definitely wrong, and I need to find out what (or who) it is. I glance to the front of the car that is now picking up speed as we take a long, winding route slightly uphill, the black car with Paula 2.0 only a few card in front of us. It might be a while before we stop or it might be in the next minutes, since I have no clue where she lives or what she is going to do next. I try to take deep breaths and calm myself down, relaxing into the black leather cushion of the taxi. The head rest feels nice against my head, like a soft pillow made of clouds. What did the therapist say last time? Imagine you are standing on the side of a busy street watching your thoughts, worries, problems. If they come up, acknowledge them, and let them pass by. As if it were that easy.

I remember the last time I was in the back of a taxi, right after my first ever panic attack. I don’t know how or why it started, but I woke up one morning, my heart beating at what seemed like a million times per minute, so fast that it seemed to stand still. My whole body tensed and angry, alert and tired, twisted and anxious. As if somebody was constantly pressing on the red panic button, constantly switching the lights on and off, constantly turning your body temperature from hot to cold. Relentlessly. I was so surprised by this experience that the only thing I could do was call the last person in my call list, Emma. I didn’t have to say a lot, I only said ‘Emma’, nothing more. She paused for a second, then replied ‘I am on my way.’ She was at my place ten minutes later and picked me up from the (physical and metaphorical) floor, led me outside and into a taxi that was waiting for us. (Had she called it already before coming up to get me?)

’Six seventy’, the taxi driver says, brutally bringing me back to reality. We are not driving anymore but stopped in a quiet street with many small houses next to each other. How long did we drive?  ‘Huh?’, I say, confused, turning my attention from the window back to him. ’Six seventy’, the taxi driver repeats a bit louder and taps on the meter stuck to the windshield. He sounds impatient and annoyed. I go hot and cold and the same time. Shit, shit, shit. Do I have any money? I start rummaging around in my coat pockets and find my phone, now showing 3:47 pm, a brown hair tie, a used tissue and some loose coins that add up to (yes!) €11,50. I pay the driver quickly, mumble a thanks, open the back door and look out of the car. I spot the black car across the street, parked in front of a small light blue house. Paula 2.0 is getting her suitcase out of the trunk, waves goodbye to the mysterious driver and starts moving towards the house. I get out of the taxi and stay where I am, another parked car hiding me from view from my other me. She gets out keys, opens the front door and then she is gone. What was my plan again? It takes me what feels like another ten minutes to make my way to the front door of the blue house. I walk slowly, fully expecting a camera team to jump out of the bushes any minute to tell me this was all a big joke. If it was, it was really bad one, though. With a heart that beats to fast, I have trouble disentangling the single beats anymore, I knock on the front door.

I stand there, so unbelievably nervous that, for a moment, I think I might faint right here on the spot, and then all that Paula 2.0 will open the door to, is a crumbling mess on the floor that looks like herself. But my curiosity triumphs over my panic, and I stand there, not able to move, both feet firmly on the ground, listening to the tiniest noises I hear from behind the door. Everything else around me blurs. And then the door opens to myself. Now that I am this close to Paula 2.0, I notice all the many similarities that I didn’t see or pay attention to before. How her/my nose is slightly too big for her/my face. How her/my eyes are the color of dark molten chocolate. How her/my collarbones stick out a little more than they should. How her/my fingertips are slightly red from nervously chewing on them. I stare at her what felt like ages. I don’t know what to say. What do you say when you meet yourself for the first time? ‘Hi, you look good. Have you done something to your hair?’

Paula 2.0 smiles broadly and extends her hand towards mine. ‘Paula, it’s about time you arrived. It’s nice to finally meet you in person’, she says in my voice, laughing that quiet laugh that sounds like mine but also not. ‘I’ll make some black tea for us - you like it with milk and sugar, right?’ I cannot reply, my tongue is stuck. ‘You better come inside, we have a lot to talk about’.

This story was originally written in English.

The paper

Hartmann, H., Lengersdorff, L., Hitz, H. H., Stepnicka, P., & Silani, G. (2022). Emotional ego-and altercentric biases in high-functioning autism spectrum disorder: Behavioral and neurophysiological evidence. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13.

Connection between story and paper

The paper and last part of the short story again make us think how easy it is to take the perspective of another person, especially if we have a completely different perspective. What humans tend to do, when they are asked to judge others, is use their own mental and emotional states as a guideline. This works when the states are the same between self and other, but becomes difficult when they are not. Such a tendency to project one’s own emotions onto others is called emotional egocentricity bias. And this bias is exactly what the study wanted to investigate. More specifically, the authors wanted to see whether people with autism spectrum disorder do this even more than people without autism. Thenty-one participants with autism and 21 participants without autism were asked to complete a task that measured egocentricity while they were lying in an MR scanner that measured their brain activity. Surpisingly, the two groups had comparable biases, meaning that they judged the emotions of another person similarly. However, two brain regions that are key for processes such as self-other-distinction and perspective taking were active in a different way: the temporoparietal junction and the supramarginal gyrus, both in the right hemisphere of the brain were used differently by people with and without autism while they were doing the task.

Do you find it easy to put yourself in the shows of other people?

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)