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What happens in your brain while you're lost in fiction

A new study from Ohio State University reveals what is going on inside of your brain when you get lost in a fictional fantasy. The experts discovered that the more immersed we become in the lives of our favorite characters of fiction, the more our brain activity reflects how much we identify with them.

“When they think about a favorite fictional character, it appears similar in one part of the brain as when they are thinking about themselves,” said study lead author Timothy Broom.

The research was focused on self-described fans of the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” The individuals were instructed to think about themselves, nine of their friends, and nine characters from the drama series. The participants also reported on which character they felt closest to and liked the most.

According to Broom, Game of Thrones was ideal for this study because it attracted a devoted fan base and the large cast presented a variety of characters that people could become attached to.

One of the key findings involved participants who scored highest on “trait identification.” These individuals agreed most strongly with statements like “I really get involved in the feelings of the characters in a novel.”

“People who are high in trait identification not only get absorbed into a story, they also are really absorbed into a particular character,” said Broom. “They report matching the thoughts of the character, they are thinking what the character is thinking, they are feeling what the character is feeling. They are inhabiting the role of that character.”

The researchers used an fMRI machine to measure activity in various parts of the brain through small changes in blood flow. As the participants’ brains were scanned, they were evaluating themselves, their friends, and Game of Thrones characters. 

A part of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC) is known to show increased activity when people think about themselves and, to a lesser extent, when they think about close friends.

While in the fMRI, the individuals were shown a series of names – including themselves, friends, or characters – along with a trait, such as lonely, sad, trustworthy, or smart. The participants simply said “yes” or “no” to imply whether the trait fit the person.

As expected, the vMPFC was most active when people were evaluating themselves, less active when they evaluated friends, and least active when they evaluated characters from Game of Thrones.

However, among those who were high in trait identification, the vMPFC was more active when they thought about the fictional characters than it was for participants who identified less with the characters. This region of the brain was particularly active when the individuals evaluated the character they identified with the most.

Study co-author Dylan Wanger said the findings help explain how fiction can have such a big impact on some people.

“For some people, fiction is a chance to take on new identities, to see worlds though others’ eyes and return from those experiences changed,” said Wagner.

“What previous studies have found is that when people experience stories as if they were one of the characters, a connection is made with that character, and the character becomes intwined with the self. In our study, we see evidence of that in their brains.”

The study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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