Timothy Broom is fascinated by how people are affected by the stories they choose to engage with. He’s also a huge fan of Game of Thrones finds he identifies with the Starks as he immerses himself in the story. And that’s what inspired his work as a doctoral student: to understand what happens in the brain when we lose ourselves in a story.
Now in a new study, Broom and his co-authors found that when people who really get into ‘becoming’ a fictional character use the same same part of the brain to imagine the character that they do to imagine themselves. And that helps explain why some people can be transformed by fiction in the way others are by personal experience.
“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 Dylan Wagner, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State in a press release.
Broom can relate to that. “It is one of my favorite things in the world to lose myself in a good story and I absolutely find myself inhabiting the perspectives of characters, feeling what they feel and wanting them to succeed in their endeavors,” he told me. “I remember feeling genuinely depressed after reading the chapters in which the infamous “Red Wedding” happens, and it never ceases to amaze me that a fictional story can evoke such strong emotional reactions.”
But where in the brain does that happen? According to Wagner, “previous studies have found… 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,” said Wagner.
The brain and fictional characters
This study is the first to identify the brain region involved when people strongly identify with a fictional character. To do this, the researchers scanned the brains of nineteen Game of Thrones fans while they focused on themselves, or nine of their friends, or nine GOT characters. For the fans out there, the characters were Bronn, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, Petyr Baelish, Sandor Clegane and Ygritte.
“Choosing characters from Game of Thrones served a very practical purpose because there are so many characters that evoke different reactions in different people,” Broom told me.
But beyond brain scans, the other key element of the study was evaluating study participants for ‘trait identification.’ “People who are high in trait identification not only get absorbed into a story, they also are really absorbed into a particular character,” Broom said in the press release. “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 fMRI brains scans, which locate brain activity by following blood flow, found that there was a key difference between study participants high in trait identification and those who were not. Specifically, the scans showed differences in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC), which prior research has shown to be very important when people think about themselves.
In the study, when people were thinking about themselves, their vMPFC showed lots of activity. It was still active but less so when they thought about friends, and it was much less active when they considered Game of Thrones characters.
But the brain scans looked very different in the study participants who were high in trait identification. For this group, the vMPFC was surprisingly active when they thought about the fictional characters. And when they thought about their favorite character or the one they felt closest to, they vMPFC showed even more activity.
Fiction and the self
All of this means that this kind of identification with fictional characters is happening in the same place we identify with ourselves.
“What we are showing in the study is neural evidence that people who habitually inhabit the first-person psychological perspective of characters really do internalize those experiences,” Broom told me. “One of the things that I find pretty amazing is that the participants in the study are bringing these characters to mind long after the narrative experience is over, and yet still we find evidence of this connection to the self.”
The findings give a scientific grounding for the transformative power of fiction. Narrative has already been applied in therapeutic settings to help people, and these findings may give incentive to pursue such applications farther.
But most important of all: those of us who have always been mystified by Comic Con can stop wondering what it’s really for.