The latest research has shown that lonely people think about their favorite characters in movies or TV series in a similar way as they think about people close to them.
Loneliness has a huge impact on our mental health. Contrary to appearances, it is not just spending time alone, but a very important aspect of our lives. Loneliness can lead to a sense of alienation, anxiety disorders, and even the development of depression. This condition makes it difficult to cope with stress and may also trigger unhealthy behaviors (for example, reaching for various types of substances that induce an artificial feeling of happiness). Recently, researchers have proven that this is not the end of the elements that loneliness affects.
Research involving Game of Thrones fans
Scientists have concluded that the more lonely a person is, the more blurred the line between real people and their favorite fictional characters is in their brain. Scientists from Ohio State University used fMRI scans to scan the brains of Game of Thrones fans. 19 people took part in the study.
Why were fans of this particular series selected for the study? According to scientists, this is an ideal material for research because the series’ cast consists of many diverse characters. This, in turn, allows people to become attached to them. The study was described in the magazine “Cerebral Cortex”. Data for the study were collected in 2017 during the seventh series of the HBO series “Game of Thrones”.
How does loneliness affect the perception of fictional characters?
It turned out that how we perceive fictional characters may be influenced by whether we are lonely or not, as well as the scale of this loneliness. “In the least lonely people, the boundaries between fictional characters and real people were clear,” said Prof. Dylan Wagner, study co-author. The scientist added that in lonely people these boundaries were almost non-existent.
The changes that occurred in the brains of the subjects concerned the medial prefrontal cortex. This is an area of the brain that is activated when someone thinks about themselves or other people. “When we analyzed brain activity patterns in the medial prefrontal cortex, real characters were clearly distinguishable from fictional characters in people who were not lonely,” noted Prof. Wagner.
“Among lonely people, these boundaries begin to blur. We do not observe clear lines separating the two groups,” he explained. Scientists believe that people may direct their thoughts and feelings towards fictional characters because they have an unmet sense of belonging, and this is their way of trying to fulfill this need. The boundaries between real people and some fictional characters were almost non-existent for the loneliest participant.
Loneliness and distinguishing fictional characters – research
How was the research conducted? While observing the brains of the subjects, scientists showed them specific names. Sometimes these were the names of themselves, sometimes their friends, but also the characters of the series. For each name, the participant had to specify the characteristics associated with the given name. Study participants could choose from the following pool of traits: sad, trustworthy, smart. Participants simply answered yes or no as to whether the trait accurately described the person, while researchers simultaneously measured activity in the part of their brains responsible for the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). The researchers compared the results when participants thought about their friends with the results when they thought about fictional characters. All participants also took a test measuring their level of loneliness.