People who enjoy fantasising are most likely to lose themselves in fiction, new research finds.
Those high in fantasising — or ‘trait identification’, as the researchers call it — experience strong involvement with the feelings and actions of characters in books, plays and movies.
They may feel as though they actually are one of their favourite fictional characters, experiencing their emotions and imagining how it would feel if those events were happening to them.
The more people get immersed in fiction, the more they use a part of the brain to think about fictional characters that they use to think about themselves.
The study involved 19 fans of the book and TV show ‘Game of Thrones’, who were asked to pick their favourite character
Their brains were scanned while they thought about themselves, a friend or a Game of Thrones character.
The results showed that people high in trait identification (fantasising) showed higher activation in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in how we think about ourselves and close friends.
The area of the brain was particularly active when people thought about the character they identified with the most.
Mr Timothy Broom, the study’s first author, said:
“People who are high in trait identification not only get absorbed into a story, they also are really absorbed into a particular character.
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 study helps show why fiction can be so powerful for some people.
Dr Dylan Wanger, study co-author, said:
“For some people, fiction is a chance to take on new identities, to see worlds though others’ eyes and return from those experiences changed.
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 was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Broom et al., 2021).