When Fiction Feels Real: Scientists Discover That Lonely Brains Can’t Differentiate Between Fictional Characters and Real-Life Friends

Brain Man Sitting on Bench

Recent research indicates that loneliness can blur the distinction between real and fictional characters in the brain, suggesting that lonely individuals may seek emotional connections with favorite fictional characters similarly to real-life friends.

New research sheds light on how friends, story characters are represented in the brain.

A recent study discovered that for individuals who often feel lonely, the distinction between actual friends and beloved fictional characters gets blurred in the part of the brain that is active when thinking about others, a new study found.

The study involved brain scans of “Game of Thrones” enthusiasts as they reflected on different characters from the series and their real-life friends. Prior to the study, all participants had undergone a loneliness assessment.

The difference between those who scored highest on loneliness and those who scored lowest was stark, said Dylan Wagner, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

“There were clear boundaries between where real and fictional characters were represented in the brains of the least lonely participant in our study,” Wagner said.

“But the boundaries between real and some fictional people were nearly nonexistent for the loneliest participant.”

The results suggest that lonelier people may be thinking of their favorite fictional characters in the same way they would real friends, Wagner said.

Wagner conducted the study with Timothy Broom, a Ph.D. graduate of Ohio State who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University. It was published recently in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Study Details and Procedures

Data for the study was collected in 2017 during the seventh season of the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” The study involved scanning the brains of 19 self-described fans of the series while they thought about themselves, nine of their friends, and nine characters from the series. (The characters were Bronn, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, Petyr Baelish, Sandor Clegane, and Ygritte.)

Participants reported which “Game of Thrones” character they felt closest to and liked the most.

“Game of Thrones” was a fantasy drama series lasting eight seasons and concerning political and military conflicts between ruling families on two fictional continents. It was ideal for this study, Wagner said, because the large cast presented a variety of characters that people could become attached to.

For the study, the participants’ brains were scanned in an fMRI machine while they evaluated themselves, friends and “Game of Thrones” characters. An fMRI indirectly measures activity in various parts of the brain through small changes in blood flow.

The researchers were particularly interested in what was happening in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which shows increased activity when people think about themselves and other people.

While in the fMRI machine, participants were shown a series of names – sometimes themselves, sometimes one of their nine friends, and other times one of the nine characters from “Game of Thrones.”

Each name appeared above a trait, like sad, trustworthy, or smart.

Participants simply responded “yes” or “no” to whether the trait accurately described the person while the researchers simultaneously measured activity in the MPFC portion of their brains.

Observations and Implications

The researchers compared results from when participants were thinking about their friends to when they were thinking about the fictional characters.

“When we analyzed brain patterns in the MPFC, real people were represented very distinctly from fictional people in the non-lonely participants,” Wagner said.

“But among the lonelier people, the boundary starts breaking down. You don’t see the stark lines between the two groups.”

The findings suggest that lonely people may turn to fictional characters for a sense of belonging that is lacking in their real life, and that the results can be seen in the brain, Wagner said.

“The neural representation of fictional characters comes to resemble those of real-world friends,” he said.

But even the least lonely participants were affected by the characters they cared about most in “Game of Thrones,” the study found.

Results showed that the participants’ favorite characters in “Game of Thrones” looked more like their real friends in their brains than did other characters in the show.  That was true for all people in the study, no matter how lonely and no matter who their favorite character was, Wagner said.

“Your favorite characters are more real to you, regardless of loneliness,” he said.

Reference: “The boundary between real and fictional others in the medial prefrontal cortex is blurred in lonelier individuals” by Timothy W Broom and Dylan D Wagner, 03 July 2023, Cerebral Cortex.
DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhad237

2 Comments on "When Fiction Feels Real: Scientists Discover That Lonely Brains Can’t Differentiate Between Fictional Characters and Real-Life Friends"

  1. It is astounding how capable the human brain is at coping and adapting. Literally changing it’s reality if it doesn’t like the one it finds itself in!!

  2. It is astounding how capable the human brain is at coping and adapting. Literally changing it’s reality if it doesn’t like the one it finds itself in!!

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