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What Happens in Your Brain When You Lose Yourself in a Good Book?

drawing of a girl reading a book using her imagination

Catherine Song / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • A study of “Game of Thrones” fans found that people use the same part of the brain to think about their favorite characters as they do themselves.
  • The findings offer insight into the way our identities are formed and why some people get immersed in works of fiction.
  • Mental health experts say the research offers evidence for the powerful therapeutic effects of storytelling.

Ever wonder why some people seem to lose themselves in a really great book or movie? 

A recent study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience might have some answers. Researchers scanned the brains of fans of the HBO series “Game of Thrones” to see what happened when they thought about the traits of their friends, characters in the show, and themselves.

It found that people who get really immersed in stories had more activity in a part of the brain that tends to activate during self-reflection when they evaluated their favorite character. In other words, their brain might make it feel like a person is almost “becoming” a character in a story. The results help explain why fiction can be a particularly moving experience for some people.

Here’s what the research shows about how storytelling can impact our identity, along with the potential therapeutic effects of exploring fictional worlds.

The Study

For the study, researchers from The Ohio State University and the University of Oregon set out to learn whether identifying with a fictional character is connected with the brain activity that occurs when a person thinks about themselves.

To find out, they recruited fans of “Game of Thrones.” The TV show was selected for its wide cast of characters and passionate audience whose members tend to have “extreme reactions when those characters are inevitably killed off.”

Researchers asked participants to rank how close and similar they felt toward nine friends (excluding romantic partners and immediate family) and nine “Game of Thrones” characters on a scale from 0 to 100.

Then, they scanned the brains of each participant using an fMRI machine, which looks at small changes in blood flow to measure brain activity. The scans specifically focused on activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that’s activated when people think about themselves and close friends.

Leela R. Magavi, MD

Trait identification refers to the process of temporarily imagining oneself as transposed into the feelings and experiences of a specific character.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

During the scan, researchers showed participants a series of slides with the name of “Game of Thrones” characters, friends, and even themselves next to a personality trait, like moody, pessimistic, smart, or trustworthy. Participants responded “yes” or “no” as to whether the person in the slide matched the personality trait.

Immediately after, researchers used a 10-item questionnaire to measure participants' “trait identification,” or tendency for a person to imagine themselves experiencing the feelings and actions of fictional characters.

“Trait identification refers to the process of temporarily imagining oneself as transposed into the feelings and experiences of a specific character. This allows individuals to perceive the world differently and acquire and gain access to disparate emotional capacities they were formerly unable to experience,” explains Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California.

“It can allow them to modify or reframe their thinking or alter their behavior and response to life stressors," she says.

Findings on Storytelling and Identity

The results of the experiment revealed that activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex was highest when participants evaluated their own personality traits. Activity tended to be lower when participants thought about the “Game of Thrones” characters.

However, activity in that part of the brain tended to be more active when people who scored high in trait identification thought about the characters, compared with those who had lower trait identification.

It was especially active when participants who were high in trait identification considered the characters they liked the most and related to, which helps explain the impact of narrative storytelling on some people.

Put another way, the findings show that people can sometimes adopt new identities through fictional characters and stories.

“The study shows that your brain is actually doing this—it’s not just an emotional thing or something that’s personality based,” says Cecille Ahrens, LCSW, psychotherapist and owner/clinical director of Transcend Therapy in San Diego, California. “Trait identification perhaps creates this neural alignment that make it difficult for our brains to discern reality from fantasy. The lines get blurry where we literally ‘get lost’ in the character or ‘lose ourselves’ in the story.”

While the study offers some intriguing insights, its small sample size makes it difficult to generalize the results to a larger population, says Dr. Magavi. But she adds that the research is strengthened by its use of “Game of Thrones,” which has been an emotionally touching series for some of her patients. 

“The character development in this series is commendable, and many of my patients have relayed that they heavily identify with specific characters in the series,” she says. “When the character accomplished something or fared well, some of my patients would experience great degrees of happiness.”

Healing Power of Stories

Mental health experts say the research reflects the ways storytelling and identifying with characters have been therapeutic in their own practices.

“Individuals have conveyed that this trait identification allowed them to experience a greater level of self-confidence and self-compassion,” says Dr. Magavi. “For example, I evaluated a young man who identified with [“Game of Thrones” character] Samwell Tarly, as he similarly felt ostracized by society and his family. When Samwell Tarly found his calling and helped his friends, he was so touched that he found the courage to apply for a job, despite his debilitating social anxiety.”

For many people, taking on the traits of certain characters we relate to in stories offers a safe, consequence-free way to explore different parts of our own identities.

Cecille Ahrens, LCSW

There’s healing power in seeing your story or parts of yourself reflected in those characters.

— Cecille Ahrens, LCSW

“It helps people access emotions they wouldn’t normally allow themselves to feel, but it’s not threatening. You’re projecting it onto something or something else,” says Ahrens. “There’s healing power in seeing your story or parts of yourself reflected in those characters. My clients who love movies and really get into it see the characters align with themselves in a way where it gives them a positive response and a sense of hope.”

Immersing yourself in the universe of a character may also present some real-world benefits to your relationships, adds Dr. Magavi.

“Learning about characters and identifying with these characters may make it less scary for individuals to learn about who they are and why they are this way. It can decrease feelings of shame and guilt. Some individuals discuss these characters with friends and family members, and it similarly simplifies their ability to discuss their own journey with others,” she says.

While more research is needed on the brain mechanisms behind trait identification, the latest findings help clarify “the power of storytelling that has been with us for centuries,” says Ahrens.

“In therapy, we know that storytelling is very powerful and healing,” she says. “It connects all the dots for me.”

What This Means For You

The stories in books and movies might be works of fiction, but they can have profound effects on our realities. This study shows that, for some people, the traits of fictional characters can light up the same parts of our brains that process how we think about ourselves. In some ways, our identities can become intertwined with those of our favorite characters.

Mental health experts say that the findings shed light on the therapeutic power of storytelling. When we identify with a character, we can explore parts of our own identity in a safe space. That, in turn, can help us make positive changes in our lives.

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  1. Timothy W Broom, Robert S Chavez, Dylan D Wagner, Becoming the King in the North: identification with fictional characters is associated with greater self–other neural overlapSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2021;, nsab021, published February 18, 2021. doi:10.1093/scan/nsab021