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Lonely Brains Blur the Line Between Real and Fictional Friends

Lonely Brains Blur the Line Between Real and Fictional Friends, Games of Thrones

A recent study has shown that in lonely individuals, the distinction between real friends and favorite fictional characters becomes blurred in the part of the brain associated with thinking about others. The research involved scanning the brains of “Game of Thrones” fans as they contemplated different characters from the show as well as their real friends. The participants had previously undergone a loneliness test, revealing notable disparities between those who scored high and low on loneliness.

Stark Differences in Brain Activity

A recent study conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University has revealed an intriguing finding about the impact of loneliness on the way individuals perceive their relationships. The study, led by Dylan Wagner, associate professor of psychology, examined the brain activity of individuals who expressed high levels of loneliness and those who expressed low levels.

According to Wagner, the brains of the least lonely participants clearly distinguished between thoughts of real friends and thoughts of favorite fictional characters. However, for the loneliest participants, these boundaries were significantly blurred.

The study’s findings imply that individuals who experience loneliness may perceive their favorite fictional characters in a similar light to real friends. The blurring of boundaries in the brains of lonely individuals suggests a potential substitution of real relationships with fictional ones.

Study Details

Researchers used fMRI to scan the brains of participants while they evaluated themselves, friends, and Game of Thrones characters. They were particularly interested in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which shows increased activity when people think about themselves and others.

Participants saw a series of names, sometimes their own, sometimes a friend’s, and sometimes a Game of Thrones character’s. 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 measured activity in the MPFC.

In non-lonely participants, real people were represented very distinctly from fictional people in the MPFC. But in lonelier participants, the boundary between the two groups started to break down.

The findings suggest that lonely people may turn to fictional characters for a sense of belonging that is lacking in their real life. The neural representation of fictional characters comes to resemble those of real-world friends for lonely people.

How Our Brains Embrace Beloved Characters

Even the least lonely participants were affected by the characters they cared about most in Game of Thrones. 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. This was true for all people in the study, regardless of loneliness and who their favorite character was.

Lonely people’s brains represent fictional characters in a similar way to how they represent real friends. This suggests that lonely people may turn to fictional characters for a sense of belonging and connection that is lacking in their real lives.

Even people who are not lonely are affected by the characters they care about in fiction. Our brains represent our favorite fictional characters more like real friends than like other fictional characters. This suggests that fictional characters can play an important role in our lives, even if we are not lonely.

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