In childhood this is considered quite normal, but as you get older it becomes less acceptable. And yet, quite a few people in the world tend to talk to imaginary friends. A recent study led by Dylan Wagner, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, sheds new light on why. We used ChatGPT to summarize the conclusions.
The study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, was based on scanning the brains of people who identified themselves as fans of the popular TV series Game of Thrones using fMRI technology, assessing their attitude toward themselves, their real friends and various characters from the series. The researchers tried to understand how loneliness affects participants' perception of their real friends versus the show's characters—and the findings were stunning: The study found that for those who reported high levels of loneliness, the lines between real and fictional relationships appeared to blur in a specific area of the brain — the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). This area of the brain is usually active when thinking about self and other people, making it a crucial focus for this study.
According to Wagner, "There were clear boundaries between where real and fictional characters were represented in the minds of the least lonely participant in our study—but those boundaries were almost nonexistent for the loneliest participant." In the brains of the less lonely participants, there was a significant difference in neural representation when thinking about real people versus fictional characters, while among lonely people these boundaries were blurred.
In fact, lonelier people seemed to adapt their favorite fictional characters in a very similar way to how they perceive real friends. The implication of this discovery is that for those struggling with loneliness, fictional companions serve as a source of connection and belonging, which they lack in real life.
Game of Thrones was an ideal choice for this study, due to its sheer number of stories and characters. The show offered viewers a plethora of characters to relate to, and provided an excellent platform for exploring the phenomenon.
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