Have you ever been reading a book and suddenly the lines get blurred between yourself and the character? You can start to use turns of phrases the character would use, or even start to think of things from their mindset. No, it’s not a sign of something sinister, but the way your brain links your most beloved fictional characters to your very own.
Researchers at Ohio State University investigated how fans of fiction experience this overlapping and adoption of fictional character traits by studying brain scans of fans of the “Game of Thrones” series. The participants were questioned about which characters they related to the most and a common thread between people who seem to lose themselves in the fiction they are reading was identified as “trait identification.”
People with high trait identification became most intimately involved with the characters about whom they were reading. In essence, they began to actually feel the emotions of the characters themselves. In the study, the participants were shown names of people from “Game of Thrones,” their own name, and names of their friends which was labeled with adjective descriptions. The participants were asked to respond yes or no if the descriptions matched the names.
Most of the participants had increased activity in the part of the brain that is activated when thinking of themselves or close friends, the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. This area showed the most activity when people thought of themselves, and gradually decreased as they thought about their own friends, with a significant decline when they think of fictional characters.
The results showed that the people with high trait identification had the most brain activity in that region when they thought about the fictional characters, in a similar way to how that area of the brain responds to thinking about themselves.
These people were able to embody and personify the characters because they identified strongly with the character in a way that was actually engaging their brain in the same way that they thought of themselves. For some people, reading is an opportunity to try on different personas and escape into the life of another person, as seen through their very own eyes without leaving the comfort of their homes; or in this case, the comfort of their own brains.
Timothy W Broom, Robert S Chavez, Dylan D Wagner. Becoming the King in the North: identification with fictional characters is associated with greater self–other neural overlap. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2021; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsab021