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Real Buddies, Or Fictional Pals? Study Shows It Might Not Matter As Much To The Lonely


Researchers from Ohio State University conducted a study to see how loneliness affects people’s perceptions of fictional characters compared with real-life individuals.  The study focused on individuals who were fans of the HBO show “Game of Thrones.” Loneliness was determined using a test, and then specialists utilized an fMRI scanner to scan the participants’ brains while they thought about their favorite characters, themselves, and their friends. The findings of the scan revealed that people who scored higher on loneliness perceived their favorite fictional characters in the same way that they would with genuine friends.

“There were clear boundaries between where real and fictional characters were represented in the brains of the least lonely participant in our study, but the boundaries between real and some fictional people were nearly nonexistent for the loneliest participant.”  – Co-Author Dylan Wagner

While in the fMRI scan, which indirectly monitors activity in different parts of the brain by measuring tiny shifts in the flow of blood, participants were shown a series of names that included themselves, 9 characters from the show, and  9 of their friends. Traits such as sad, trustworthy, and smart were displayed under the names, and participants were asked to agree or disagree with the trait in regards to the person or character.  While in the scan, researchers concentrated on the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which is active when people think about other people or themselves. 

“When we analyzed brain patterns in the MPFC, real people were represented very distinctly from fictional people in the non-lonely participants. But among the lonelier people, the boundary starts breaking down. You don’t see the stark lines between the two groups. The neural representation of fictional characters comes to resemble those of real-world friends” – Dylan Wagner.

Lonely people may resort to fictional characters to find a sense of belonging that they may not experience in their own lives. Characters from fiction start to resemble friends in real life in terms of neural representation, or mental image. However the participants’ favorite characters from “Game of Thrones” resembled their real friends in their brains more than other characters from the series.  This turned out to be true for all individuals in the study regardless of how lonely they tested.

“Your favorite characters are more real to you, regardless of loneliness” – Dylan Wagner


Journal Reference:

  1. Timothy W Broom, Dylan D Wagner. The boundary between real and fictional others in the medial prefrontal cortex is blurred in lonelier individuals. Cerebral Cortex, 2023; 33 (16): 9677 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhad237
  2. Ohio State University. “For the lonely, a blurred line between real and fictional people.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 September 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/09/230928151921.htm>.
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