Loneliness Blurs Distinction Between Fictional Characters and Real Friends in the Brain, New Research Reveals

by Santiago Fernandez
5 comments
Loneliness and Brain Perception

Recent scientific research has uncovered a fascinating connection between loneliness and the brain’s ability to differentiate between fictional characters and real-life friends. This study suggests that lonely individuals may form emotional connections with their favorite fictional characters in a manner akin to their relationships with actual friends.

The investigation involved brain scans of avid “Game of Thrones” enthusiasts as they contemplated various characters from the series alongside their real-life friends. Prior to the study, all participants underwent a loneliness assessment.

The findings were significant, with the most lonely participants exhibiting minimal boundaries between the representation of real and fictional characters in their brains, according to Dylan Wagner, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at The Ohio State University. Conversely, the brains of the least lonely participants clearly delineated between the two categories.

These results imply that lonelier individuals may perceive their cherished fictional characters as if they were genuine friends. Timothy Broom, co-author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University, collaborated with Wagner on this research, which was recently published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The study, conducted during the seventh season of the HBO series “Game of Thrones” in 2017, involved 19 self-described fans of the show. These participants underwent brain scans in an fMRI machine while reflecting on themselves, nine of their friends, and nine characters from the series. Notably, the characters chosen included Bronn, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, Petyr Baelish, Sandor Clegane, and Ygritte.

Participants were asked to identify the “Game of Thrones” character they felt closest to and liked the most. The series’ complex narrative and extensive character roster made it an ideal subject for this study, as it offered a diverse array of characters to which people could become emotionally attached.

During the fMRI scans, participants were presented with names, including their own, one of their nine friends, or one of the nine “Game of Thrones” characters, along with associated traits. They responded with a simple “yes” or “no” to indicate whether the trait accurately described the person, while researchers simultaneously monitored activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) of their brains.

The analysis of brain patterns in the MPFC revealed clear distinctions between real and fictional individuals for non-lonely participants. In contrast, among lonelier individuals, these boundaries became less apparent, blurring the lines between the two groups.

These findings suggest that lonely individuals may turn to fictional characters as a source of companionship that may be lacking in their real lives, as reflected in their brain activity. As Wagner points out, “The neural representation of fictional characters comes to resemble those of real-world friends.”

However, the study also found that even the least lonely participants exhibited brain patterns that aligned more closely with their favorite “Game of Thrones” characters than with other characters from the show, highlighting the powerful impact of beloved fictional figures on our perception, regardless of one’s level of loneliness.

This research, titled “The boundary between real and fictional others in the medial prefrontal cortex is blurred in lonelier individuals,” provides intriguing insights into the complex interplay between loneliness, fictional narratives, and the human brain.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Loneliness and Brain Perception

What was the main focus of the research?

The main focus of the research was to investigate the relationship between loneliness and the brain’s ability to differentiate between fictional characters and real-life friends.

How was the study conducted?

The study involved brain scans of 19 “Game of Thrones” enthusiasts during the show’s seventh season in 2017. Participants were asked to reflect on themselves, nine of their friends, and nine characters from the series while undergoing fMRI scans.

What were the key findings of the research?

The research found that for lonely individuals, the boundaries between real friends and beloved fictional characters became blurred in a specific part of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). This blurring of boundaries was not as pronounced in less lonely participants.

Why was “Game of Thrones” chosen for this study?

“Game of Thrones” was chosen because of its complex narrative and extensive character roster, providing a wide range of characters to which people could emotionally attach.

What implications does this research have?

The research suggests that lonely individuals may turn to fictional characters for emotional connection, potentially compensating for a lack of companionship in real life. It also highlights the powerful impact of beloved fictional figures on our perception, regardless of one’s level of loneliness.

Where was the research published?

The research was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex under the title “The boundary between real and fictional others in the medial prefrontal cortex is blurred in lonelier individuals.”

Who conducted the study?

The study was conducted by Dylan Wagner, an associate professor of psychology at The Ohio State University, and Timothy Broom, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University.

What was the role of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) in this study?

The MPFC was of particular interest in the study because it is known to show increased activity when people think about themselves and other people. It was used to assess how the brain represents real friends and fictional characters in lonely and non-lonely individuals.

More about Loneliness and Brain Perception

  • Cerebral Cortex Journal – Link to the research paper titled “The boundary between real and fictional others in the medial prefrontal cortex is blurred in lonelier individuals” published in the Cerebral Cortex journal.
  • The Ohio State University – Dylan Wagner’s profile at The Ohio State University, where he conducted the research.
  • Columbia University – The institution where Timothy Broom, co-author of the study, is a postdoctoral researcher.
  • Game of Thrones – Official HBO page for the “Game of Thrones” series, which served as the subject of the study.
  • Medial Prefrontal Cortex – Wikipedia page providing information on the medial prefrontal cortex and its role in social cognition and self-processing.

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5 comments

ScienceGeek42 November 29, 2023 - 4:17 am

This is fascinating research! Brain scans and “Game of Thrones” characters? Who’d have thought they’d go together!

Reply
Reader123 November 29, 2023 - 7:36 am

wow, this study’s so intresting! brains rly do weird things, lol!

Reply
AcademicNerd November 29, 2023 - 8:19 am

Great use of fMRI to study the brain’s response. Interesting implications for social psychology!

Reply
CuriousMind November 29, 2023 - 10:17 am

i get why lonely people might connect more with fiction, but even less lonely folks too? surprising!

Reply
ResearchJunkie November 29, 2023 - 2:57 pm

I wonder if this applies to other fictional stories, not just “Game of Thrones.” Cool stuff!

Reply

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