Why we think fictional characters are real – Empathy

After Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: The Return premiered on the 21st of May, I wondered why we identify with fictional characters and think they are real – or want to believe they are real? There has to be a psychological or neurological basis for this. Needless to say, the subject has been analyzed to hell and gone and is seriously complicated. Here goes reason #5.

Reason 5 for Thinking that characters are real: Empathy

The third possible explanation for this is our human ability to empathize. The ability to identify emotionally, or to feel the emotions of, fictional characters, is because of our human ability to empathize. There are two main types of empathy, affective, to do with emotions, and cognitive, to do with thinking.

Affective or emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states. So, you read and visualize about someone being depressed – result, you feel sad. You see someone being rejected in a film and they cry – result, you cry too. The better the depiction, the more you feel. When you feel affective empathy, you can feel sympathy and compassion (makes you say “I’m sorry…”) for others in response to their suffering. Or you can actually feel personal distress if you personally feel the pain in response to someone else’s suffering.

In fact, it is possible to feel physical pain when just looking at someone else being in pain, as research by University College London’s Cognitive Neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and doctoral candidate Michael Banissy revealed.  “When we observe another person being touched, we all activate areas of our brain similar to those activated when we are physically touched.” In “mirror-touch synesthetes”, this mirror system [of experiencing touch] is overactive. In other words, the feeling does not stop at touch – it can become pain. (Charles Q. Choi, Study: People literally feel the pain of others, Live Science, June 17, 2007)

Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state, and there are various degrees of intensity:

  • Perspective taking: the tendency to spontaneously adopt others’ psychological perspectives.
  • Fantasy: the tendency to identify with fictional characters.
  • Tactical (or “strategic”) empathy: the deliberate use of perspective-taking to achieve certain desired ends.

“According to social psychologists, empathy allows us to experience another person’s feelings (or at least reconstruct what we think that other person is going through). Empathy can then lead to sympathy, or our ability to understand that another person is experiencing pain, which often makes us wish to alleviate that pain for them. So long as a director [or writer] gives proper perspective on a fictional character—allowing us to both imagine their pain and to perceive their experience from a distance, as done in Forrest Gump—we can momentarily let go of the fact that that character exists only in the realm of fiction. We cry when their dreams are dashed or they are killed, and we celebrate with them when things go their way. In other words, we connect with them on an emotional level, as we would with a friend.” (Rachel Nuwer, The Psychology of Character Bonding: Why We Feel a Real Connection to Actors, July 15 2013)

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

What we do know is that observing another person’s emotional state, activates parts of the neuronal network involved in processing that same state in oneself, whether it is disgust, touch, or pain. It has been suggested that mirroring-behaviour in motor neurons during empathy may help duplicate feelings and as a result trigger sympathetic feelings for another and, perhaps, emotions of kindness, forgiveness. This goes some way of explaining why, for instance, reading about someone in a drugged daze, like in The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, triggers feelings of…well, being slightly drugged. Her book is an example of particularly well-observed and well-described characters.

Next reason: Mixing up fact and fiction

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