Mar 16 2021

Lose Yourself

How absorbed to you become when you read fiction? How immersed in the world, how connected to the story, and how much do you identify with specific characters? More importantly (from a neuroscientists point of view), what is happening in your brain when all this going on?

A recent study brings all this into focus, looking at fMRI activity while people think about themselves, their close friends, and fictional characters from a popular work of fiction, the Game of Thrones saga. Prior research shows that when we think about ourselves, or access autobiographical information, a particular part of the brain becomes active – the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC). When this part of the brain is damaged people have impaired ability to access autobiographical information.

Always I have to add the caveat that the human brain is a complex mesh of different networks producing any end-result. It is difficult, to say the least, to tease apart all these components, especially for any higher-level function. But we can get a glimpse into some specific components that influence specific brain functions in order to flesh out our neurological map. With that said – what did the study find?

They looked at activation of the vMPFC when subjects thought about themselves, about 9 of their close friend, and about 9 characters from Game of Thrones. Not surprisingly, the activation was greatest for the self, least for the fictional characters, and intermediate for close friends (on average). It was known from prior research that we respond neurologically to close friend more similarly to ourselves, so this was not surprising. I will get into why this may be in a bit.

The authors, however, then went further and had the subjects rate themselves, their friends, and the GoT characters on specific personality traits. They found that for the GoT characters that were more similar in personality (which they call trait identification) there as a linear relationship to greater similarity in activation of the vMPFC. In other words (and this is the top-line conclusion) – for fictional characters that we highly identify with, our brains respond in a way that is more similar to how we think about ourselves. The same pattern exists for close friends as well, but not as significant (perhaps because there was less variance to begin with). What does all this mean?

There are several interpretations. One is that narratives are powerful partly because when we sufficiently identify with a fictional character, we actually mentally become that character. We start to experience the story from their first-person perspective. We internalize their thoughts, feelings, and destiny.  Supporting this interpretation are studies of video-gamers, who have an even greater self-identification effect with their avatars. Video-games are more immersive by design, and controlling the actions and fate of the character you are playing encourages self-identification.

Another factor is parasocial behavior. We identify with our close friends because we are a social species and such connections are important to our survival. What happens to them affects us emotionally because we are invested. We don’t necessarily mentally become our friends, but we feel a close social bond with them. Perhaps this parasocial bond transfers to fictional characters. This is supported by lots of research showing that people can feel fictional characters are their friends, feel less lonely, and react to their loss (like the ending of a series) similarly to losing a real friend. These first two options are not mutually exclusive, and can operate at the same time with varying fictional characters, and perhaps even with real friends – a social connection vs an identification.

Another hypothesis refers to the “personal significance of stimuli.” In this interpretation we mentally judge how significant events are to ourselves. We are mostly concerned with what happens to ourselves. But the fate of our friends can have a significant impact on our own lives, so when thinking about our close friends the same part of the brain and is concerned with our personal fate lights up. This phenomenon can be transferred to fictional characters if we mentally think of them as our friends.

Regardless of these interpretations, the bigger picture here is that we definitely can respond to fictional characters as if they are real. As I have discussed before, our brains don’t really distinguish on an emotional level between real and imaginary. If something acts like it has agency, even if it is a two dimensional cartoon, our full emotions are involved. We can speculate as to why this might be the case. Perhaps our brains simply did not have to make such a distinction for most of its evolution. There are no cartoon characters or even fiction out in the world. Such things would not have come into play until very recently, long after our basic neurological function was determined. Further, there may in fact be an evolutionary advantage to assuming that anything that acts like it has agency probably does.

Further still, our brains fundamentally work through analogy and pattern recognition. When we imagine an image, for example, the same parts of our brains light up as when we are seeing that same image.

We also know that as extremely social creatures, we have the neurological ability to think about what other people are thinking and feeling (so-called theory of mind). We need to be able to imagine what someone else is likely feeling, and how they will respond to those emotions. Are they my ally, are they mad at me, will they start plotting against me? How do I make that person fall in love with me, or follow me into battle where they may be killed? Anything that enhances social bonds would likely contribute to the fitness of social species.

Storytelling may be, ultimately, an epiphenomenon, but it is powerful none-the-less. As the authors state,

“When individuals engage in narrative experiences, they have the chance to take on countless new identities, to see worlds through others’ eyes and to return from these experiences changed. The notion that narrative fiction has such an impact on individuals, long argued by literary scholars, is strongly supported by empirical evidence that identification with a fictional character can lead to changes in individuals’ self-beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.”

Narratives not only work to shape individuals, they can shape cultures and societies. TV shows instill values in young people. The stories that we tell says a lot about us, but also shapes who we are. I wrote yesterday about mixed media – it seems inevitable that the adoption of this technology will increase as it progresses. Mixed media is more immersive by design, and more emotionally powerful. This may raise the stakes on the power of our storytelling. But even just reading text can be fully immersive, although this is another trait on which people vary. A typical person, it seems, can fully lose themselves in the words on a page, to the point that they mentally become a character with whom they highly identify.

It’s important to recognize and respect the power of storytelling. It is connected fundamentally to how our brains work.

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