‘Game of Thrones’ study shows what happens to the brain when immersed in a fictional show

Researchers say fans subconsciously ‘become’ their favorite characters when fully engaged with a favorite program.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Are you a Stark or a Lannister? Who was your pick to sit on the Iron Throne? Hit shows like “Game of Thrones” allow viewers to lose themselves in another world and even form attachments to the fictional characters who live there. A new study finds people who immerse themselves in their favorite shows can actually start to “become” a fictional character. Researchers from The Ohio State University say a person’s brain starts to think about their favorite characters in the same way they think about themselves.

“When they think about a favorite fictional character, it appears similar in one part of the brain as when they are thinking about themselves,” says Timothy Broom, lead study author and doctoral student in psychology in a university release.

Researchers examined this connection in 19 fans of “Game of Thrones” as the group thought about themselves, their friends, and nine characters from the series. The team selected Bronn, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, Petyr Baelish, Sandor Clegane, and Ygritte for this experiment.

For those who may not know (or didn’t watch), “Game of Thrones” lasted eight seasons and chronicled the lives, plots, and bloodshed between the ruling families on two continents in a fictional medieval period. Broom adds that the show is ideal for this kind of study because of its massive following and the wide range of unique characters people connect with.

The participants started by first revealing which character they liked the most and felt closest to. They also completed a questionnaire to measure “trait identification,” which study authors gauged by seeing if the volunteers agreed with statements like, “I really get involved in the feelings of the characters in a novel.”

“People who are high in trait identification not only get absorbed into a story, they also are really absorbed into a particular character,” Broom explains. “They report matching the thoughts of the character, they are thinking what the character is thinking, they are feeling what the character is feeling. They are inhabiting the role of that character.”

Brain activity changes when you ‘lose yourself’ in TV

While the group was thinking of the nine characters, nine of their real-life friends, and themselves, researchers conducted a series of fMRI scans on various parts of their brains.

The OSU team says they wanted to see what happens in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC). This brain region increases activity when someone thinks about themselves. To a lesser extent, the vMPFC also tends to become active when a person is thinking of a close friend.

During the experiment, researchers randomly showed participants the name of a friend, one of the “Game of Thrones” characters, or their own name. They also showed them a specific trait, such as lonely, sad, trustworthy, or smart. The volunteers simply had to answer “yes” or “no” when seeing these pairings; allowing the MRI to do the rest of the work.

The results reveal the vMPFC is most active when a person is thinking of themselves. There was less activity when thinking about a friend and even less when evaluating the fictional characters. However, the difference is much less apparent in those who score high in trait identification.

Researchers find the brains of these individuals are particularly active when they evaluated the character they noted liking the most.

“For some people, fiction is a chance to take on new identities, to see worlds though others’ eyes and return from those experiences changed,” says Dylan Wanger, study co-author and assistant professor of psychology at OSU.

“What previous studies have found is that when people experience stories as if they were one of the characters, a connection is made with that character, and the character becomes entwined with the self. In our study, we see evidence of that in their brains.”

The study appears in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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