The power of fiction over the mind

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay reporter

WEDNESDAY, March 24, 2021 (HealthDay News) – It’s not unusual for a fictional character to ring such a chord that their story shapes your life.

Think of educators inspired by Robin Williams’ character in “Dead Poets Society”, lawyers drawn to the profession by Perry Mason or Atticus Finch, or medical professionals motivated by doctors on “ER” or “Grey’s Anatomy”.

Now, researchers believe they’ve figured out why fiction can affect a person’s reality so strongly, thanks to a study of the brain using the fantasy TV show “Game of Thrones”.

It turns out that when you strongly identify with a fictional character, you activate the same region of the brain that you use to think about yourself and your loved ones, the researchers report.

“People really internalize these experiences and draw inspiration from them, almost as if they’ve had those experiences themselves,” said lead researcher Timothy Broom, a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State University. “They use the same neural mechanism by which they access autobiographical information.”


For this study, Broom and his colleagues scanned the brains of 19 self-proclaimed “Game of Thrones” fans while thinking of themselves, nine of their friends, and nine characters from the HBO series.

Participants also indicated which character from the show they felt closest and loved the most. (For “GOT” fans: the characters were Bronn, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, Sandor “The Hound” Clegane and Ygritte.)

The research team was studying a phenomenon called “trait identification,” Broom said.

“This is where you get really immersed in the story and the narrative, but it’s not just that you get immersed in it. You specifically immerse yourself in the psychological perspective of one or more characters in the story.” , said Broom.

“You tend to think what the character thinks,” he continued. “You feel what they feel. You really want them to achieve the goal they’re trying to achieve. It’s really in a way almost like you become the character. You really inhabit their perspective.”


“Internalization of experiences”

The researchers scanned a part of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, or vMPFC, which is strongly related to self-reflection.

“If you have a task where you think about yourself or think about other people, this region of the brain is reliably showing up study after study,” Broom said. For example, people with lesions in this part of the brain are not able to fully access autobiographical information.

Overall, study participants felt more response in this region of the brain when they thought of themselves than when they thought of friends or fictional characters from the TV show.

But some participants were better than others in their ability to relate to fictional characters, and the activity in the vMPFC region was especially active for these people when they rated the “Game of Thrones” character they admired. the most or to which they felt the closest, the researchers said. .

“They really internalize the experiences of these characters, because they’re living the story from that perspective,” Broom said. “They really internalize that and incorporate that character into their self-image.”


These findings show the power of fiction over people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, said Nancy Mramor, media psychologist and author of the book “Get Reel: Produce Your Own Life”. She did not participate in the study.

“I recommend that viewers watch carefully so that they are aware of their biological and emotional reactions to any or all heroes they see, whether in the news or on a crime show,” Mramor said.

“Know when to engage and when to step back and watch from a distance, especially if your favorite character is on an emotional roller coaster and taking you with him,” she continued. “Decide what and who you want to influence yourself and make choices.”

Using fiction to plot real life

Even gripping dramas aren’t healthy if the content is too disturbing. “And everyone has to make that choice for themselves,” Mramor said.

Public health campaigns could benefit from skilled writers who create compelling characters that readers or viewers can relate to, Broom said.


“If people really identify with the characters in these stories who are targeted in these health interventions, people will continue to engage in healthier behaviors,” he said.

You might even be able to help direct your own emotional growth through your choice of fiction, although that depends on your ability to relate to the characters, Broom added.

“It’s probably possible, in theory, to trot your own path for your own personal growth goals, finding characters who meet the criteria you’re trying to achieve,” Broom said.

“I think it would be something that wouldn’t necessarily happen right away,” he said. “It would happen over a longer period of time, and would probably be easier for people who are already used to engaging with fictional characters in this way.”

The new study was published online recently in the journal Cognitive and affective social neuroscience.

More information

Stanford University has more on brain patterns when reading fiction.

SOURCES: Timothy Broom, MA, doctoral student, psychology, Ohio State University, Columbus; Nancy Mramor, PhD, media psychologist, Pittsburgh; Cognitive and affective social neuroscience, February 18, 2021


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