The intense moments of deep immersion are caused by something more complex than empathy. Brain imaging shows our brains are tricked into ‘becoming’ a character for our own benefit.
We all had moments when we got a bit too much into a film or book, cheering on fictional characters as if they were our actual friends fighting to survive. Perhaps, you were so immersed in the world painted before you that suddenly all the joys and atrocities of your favourite character felt like your own. In February 2021, researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Oregon presented what happens in our brains when we live vicariously through the eyes of fictional characters. Using the combined powers of the Game of Thrones TV series and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) Broom, Chavez and Wagner set out to find previously uncertain explanations for psychological phenomena known as parasocial relationships and identification.
Many of us grew up thinking we were superheroes. As Twitter and Instagram will show you, characters and those who portray them leave an imprint on us; we often grieve their loss as if they were close to us. Psychologists describe this as parasocial relationships, where we form one-sided attachments towards celebrities or fictional characters. It seems like imaginary friends in childhood days were not for nothing – the imagined interactions such as these often feel like real ongoing friendships and alleviate loneliness. Another phenomenon called ‘identification’ is like a transportation into a first-person perspective of a specific character, where we briefly adopt a different identity. When we engage in this ‘make-belief’, seeing the world through other’s eyes is a chance to learn about ourselves, pointing towards directions of growth and expanding our own perspective.
There was some speculation over how that occurs, but scientists were largely baffled. To solve this, Broom and colleagues recruited nineteen Game of Thrones fans, known for their attachments to the show’s characters and the inevitable heart-break that follows their brutal on-screen deaths. The fans then rated twenty-five characters on scales related to how close they felt to them, alikeness and whether they felt friendship with the characters, including feelings of emotional attachment.
They predicted a region situated right before the frontal portion of our brains – the vMPFC (ventral area of the medial prefrontal cortex) – will activate to names and traits of fictional characters in similar patterns as it activates in response to tasks that recall self-knowledge. By showing names of fictional GoT characters (including Jon Snow, Bronn and Jaime Lannister), Broom and colleagues found that the higher someone’s ability to transpose into a first-person perspective of characters, the more they processed the characters’ experience as their own. This included exact neural activation in the vMPFC, which was previously seen to be activated for self-knowledge recall as well as in response to seeing individuals similar to ourselves. Parasocial relationships were also found to originate from this area, as activation after seeing GoT names was partially overlapping with activation following names of friends.
This incredible experience of immersion happens when we neurologically become characters towards which we form emotional attachments, even if they are not similar to ourselves. We merge our identities with others’, and Broom with his team showed what incredible neural activity underlies that. The next time I feel cooped in, I will reach for fiction knowing that my brain believes I’m the one chasing dragons through unknown lands. It may just make lockdown a touch more bearable.