In my second year of university, when the pandemic was ongoing, classes were online, and I had become exhausted from the isolation, I came across a compilation of bizarre, out-of-context scenes from the show Community.

Over the next few months — aside from binge-watching the third season in a day — I took my time to watch the community college characters’ antics and grew alongside them. As embarrassing as it was when my family walked into my crying at the show’s finale, I know I’m not the first to feel this way.

Why do we get so attached to fictional characters? Why do we feel butterflies when Simran turns around to meet Raj’s eyes in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or cry over Kaori and Kousei in the anime Your Lie in April? Our empathy even extends beyond the realm of moving pictures and into the world of text. A simple sequence of words, like “For you, a thousand times over” in The Kite Runner or “I would’ve loved you if we had more time” in They Both Die at The End, can double us over in pain.

Our love for fiction is a fundamental part of the human experience since time immemorial. But why? 

A neuropsychological perspective

As storytelling grew within hunter-gatherer communities, cooperation and innovation flourished, and these developments eventually led to the development of large-scale human societies as we know them today. However, the possible evolutionary advantages of storytelling don’t explain why we enjoy fiction. The average adult generally spends at least six per cent of their days exploring fictional stories on their various screens. Why do we spend that much time with the imaginary? 

Psychologists believe that fiction — the imaginary worlds and the characters we fill them with — serves as a playbox to develop various skills. In other words, fiction is low-tech simulation. 

For starters, our basic cognitive skills can benefit from fiction. Researchers from Leiden University found that reading can also improve spelling and language skills. A 2015 study also found that television can have a positive impact on children’s expressive language and vocabulary development when paired with high-quality content and participatory cues. Adults, meanwhile, often use television to learn foreign languages.

Cognitive scientists find that engaging in stories can also enhance our counterfactual thinking and memory. Counterfactual thinking is the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred or are occurring, which improves our judgment by broadening our focus and strengthening our knowledge of how the world works. 

Beyond cognitive skills, perspective-taking skills are one way in which fiction helps us grow. In a 2014 study, using a chapter from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, researchers found that reading about the physical movements of characters was related to activity in an area of the brain called the angular gyrus — which is also active when we see or imagine physical movement in real life. This suggests that when reading, we’re also living vicariously through the characters. 

Empathy is a major component of perspective taking and is crucial to social cognition. Those who report reading more fiction tend to have better developed social cognition. Reading stories about people’s relationships exercises the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in social decision making and improves participants’ theory of mind — the capacity to understand and ascribe mental states to others.  

In fact, in a classic 1944 study, after watching a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square, participants described the animation as if the shapes had their own motivations; for example, “The triangles are trying to escape the circle.” The study shows the human tendencies to attribute mental states and relationships to and make stories of what we see — even if the objects we see are inanimate.    

Additionally, in a 2012 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, subjects were asked to read narratives with protagonists who were members of various minority groups, some of whom were revealed to be members of minority groups before the story was read and some of whom were revealed after. Those reading the stories with the delayed revelation of minority characters turned out to have more positive views about the characters’ group and were less likely to believe in the usual stereotypes. 

Fiction also offers a means of coping with stress and social rejection. A 2021 study found that a storytelling session with hospitalized children led to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain, and positive emotional shifts in the children. Other researchers also found that stories are an “attractive way of feeling an intimate closeness to others” — especially for those with avoidant and anxious attachment styles — with far less risk of social rejection, and thus providing a way to satisfy unmet needs. Thinking about a favourite television character has been shown to reduce the effects of social rejection. 

Fiction can also aid in developing one’s sense of identity. A 2009 study by Maja Djikic, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the Rotman School of Management, along with psychologists Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman, and Jordan Peterson found that after reading fiction, people reported different perceptions about their own personalities compared to their initial self reports. Djikic suggests that it may be because reading about other characters loosened the constraints of their self narrative and allowed more fluctuation in who they thought they could be.

More recently, a 2020 study using data from CharacTour, an online platform that matches users with characters who are a good fit for their personality, found that people have a preference for villains similar to themselves, even though we tend to shun comparisons to those viewed negatively in real life. The researchers reason that when a character is fictional, we can enjoy their “badness” without risking our own self-image. 

A 2021 study in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that people who reported that they often identified with fictional characters in Game of Thrones had higher levels of activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain in which activity increases when thinking of ourselves — than other participants when they were considering the characters. This trend was especially pronounced when they thought about characters they liked or related to. The study provides solid neurological evidence that when we identify with characters, we may be engaging in pleasurable roleplay.  

The future of fiction

Undoubtedly, fiction is important for our lives and development. As human societies progress, our forms of storytelling also become increasingly complex. Whereas paintings, dances, dramas, books, and movies invite us to observe from the outside looking in, the advent of technology has brought us interactive fiction, video games, and virtual reality to immerse ourselves in. Recent research shows that the immersive interaction these mediums provide is likely to further the evolutionary and cognitive advantages that engaging with fiction brings. 

As always, there’s a catch 22 with our increasing use of — and dependency on — technology. As artificial intelligence (AI) comes to spectacular heights, there’s also concern for storytellers of all mediums about the potential loss of originality and creativity. Since AI rehashes elements from human work — such as popular characters and plot-line tropes — future stories may simply become slight variations of each other. Research on the neuropsychological effects of engaging with AI fiction is yet to be pursued.

How we will grow alongside these new modulations of fiction is something only time will tell.