A recent neuroimaging study published in Cerebral Cortex has shed light on how loneliness can affect the way our brains process real-life friends and fictional characters from television shows. The study indicates that lonely individuals may blur the boundary between real friends and beloved fictional characters, experiencing a more similar neural response when thinking about both, compared to their less lonely counterparts.
The backdrop to this research stems from the challenging period of the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited opportunities for socializing with friends and acquaintances. People around the world turned to television series, books, and other forms of fiction to fill the void left by physical isolation. In the United States alone, individuals reported spending an extra 30 minutes a day on personal interest activities like watching TV or reading during the pandemic.
A similar trend was observed in the United Kingdom, where adults increased their daily streaming service usage by a whopping 71%. With subscriptions to streaming services surpassing 1 billion during the pandemic, it’s clear that engagement with fictional narratives reached new heights. Simultaneously, there was a growing concern about loneliness, especially among young adults.
Prior research has shown that individuals tend to seek a sense of social connection from mediated experiences, such as engaging with fictional characters, when they are feeling socially rejected or lonely. This study aimed to explore the relationship between loneliness and the way the brain represents real friends and fictional characters.
“My students and I have long been interested in how the brain makes sense of other people,” said study author Dylan D. Wagner, an associate professor of psychology at The Ohio State University. “How we learn about them, how that knowledge is stored and retrieved, how it may be different for different people. Along the way, we became interested in how people feel and think about fictional characters and form so-called parasocial relationships with them. In this study we sought out ‘Game of Thrones’ superfans who had a deep commitment to the show and felt close to many of the main characters.”
The study involved 19 right-handed participants (10 females, median age = 24) who were fans of the popular television series “Game of Thrones.” The researchers selected this show because it featured a large and diverse cast of characters, allowing for a variety of attachments. Data was collected during the seventh season of the show, which aired in 2017.
Participants were recruited from The Ohio State University community, primarily through flyers and university emails. All participants were self-reported fans of the series, and they had watched all 60 episodes prior to the seventh season. During the functional neuroimaging process, participants’ brains were scanned using fMRI technology.
In the study, participants were shown a series of names, including themselves, nine of their friends, and nine characters from “Game of Thrones,” including Bronn, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, Petyr Baelish, Sandor Clegane, and Ygritte. These characters were selected based on participants’ prior ratings of familiarity, closeness, similarity to self, liking, emotional attachment, and whether they viewed the character as a friend.
Each name was accompanied by a trait descriptor, such as sad, trustworthy, or smart. Participants simply had to respond “yes” or “no” to whether the trait accurately described the person while researchers monitored their brain activity.
After scanning, participants completed a final survey that included additional ratings of the targets (friends, fictional characters, and self). Participants also completed various individual difference measures, including the UCLA Loneliness Scale, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, the Transportability Scale, and the Ten-Item Personality Inventory.
The results showed that within both the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex (PC/PCC) there was a clear distinction in neural representations between real-life friends/acquaintances and fictional characters. Both the MPFC and PC/PCC are well-known regions of the brain associated with social cognition and self-processing. They play critical roles in how individuals perceive and process information about themselves and others, making them relevant areas to investigate when studying the neural representations of people.
The study also examined whether real-life friends/acquaintances or fictional characters were more similar to the self in terms of neural representation. It was found that real-life friends/acquaintances exhibited higher self-other neural similarity than fictional characters within the MPFC and PC/PCC. This suggests that individuals’ neural representations of people they have actual relationships with are more similar to their self-representation compared to fictional characters.
“I was personally struck by just how stark the boundary between real and close fictional others was,” Wagner told PsyPost. “For decades psychological research has utilized short descriptions of ostensibly fictional others as a stand-in for real people, but our research suggest that there is something very unique in how the brain represents real others that should give pause when generalizing from descriptions of what are basically fictional persons.”
However, the study revealed a stark difference in brain activity between participants who scored highest on loneliness and those who scored lowest. In individuals experiencing higher levels of loneliness, the boundaries between real and fictional characters in the brain’s MPFC became increasingly blurred. Lonelier participants exhibited less distinct neural representations of real and fictional people, suggesting that they thought of fictional characters similarly to real friends.
Even among participants who were not particularly lonely, the study found that their favorite “Game of Thrones” characters were processed in their brains more similarly to real friends than other characters from the show. This suggests that people, regardless of their loneliness levels, tend to form deep emotional attachments to their favorite fictional characters. These characters, who resonate with viewers on a personal level, elicit responses in the brain that make them feel more “real” in the minds of viewers.
Crucially, the blurring of boundaries between real and fictional others in the brains of lonelier participants remained consistent, even after accounting for trait perceptions measured on personality domains. This suggests that the findings are primarily linked to the impact of loneliness on neural representations and not driven solely by differences in how participants perceived the traits of real friends and fictional characters.
“The main takeaway is that even though we may feel deeply invested in the world and characters for the shows and stories we love, the brain nevertheless categorizes real and close fictional others very differently,” Wagner explained. “However, among lonelier individuals that boundary breaks down, with the closest fictional characters looking more and more like acquaintances.”
While this study offers intriguing insights into how loneliness can impact the brain’s perception of fictional characters, there are several limitations to consider. The fictional characters studied were from a fantasy series, potentially affecting the results due to the characters’ extreme traits and settings. Additionally, the selection process for real friends and fictional characters differed, as real friends were self-selected, while fictional characters were chosen by the researchers.
“One caveat is that although we focus primarily on the idea that, among lonely people, fictional characters look more like friends,” Wagner added. “There is some hint in the data that it could also go the other way. That is that in lonely people, real others begin to look more similar to fictional characters, perhaps owing to a lack of interaction with close friends and acquaintances.”
The study, “The boundary between real and fictional others in the medial prefrontal cortex is blurred in lonelier individuals“, was authored by Timothy W. Broom and Dylan D. Wagner.