We’ve all experienced that feeling of complete immersion when reading a great piece of fiction. Often described as ‘getting lost in a book’, the feeling is so common and so powerful, and yet the science behind it has so far been very little studied. So a research team from the Free University of Berlin in Germany decided to investigate by watching what happens inside the brains of readers when they get immersed in some great Harry Potter narratives.
The team, led by psychologist Chun-Ting Hsu, decided to test the validity of what they refer to as the 'fiction feeling hypothesis’. This theory states that narratives with emotional content prompt readers to feel empathy towards the protagonists - a feeling that's activated by a special neural network located in the anterior insula and mid-cingulate cortex regions of the brain. And of course, by promoting feelings of empathy in the brain, emotionally charged narratives will almost always be more immersive than stories with more neutral or plot-heavy content.
To test this hypothesis, the team gathered two groups of participants and gave them several passages from the Harry Potter series, written by J. K. Rowling, to read. The first group was asked to read their passages inside an MRI scanner, which allowed the researchers to capture images of their brain activity as they went. The second group was asked to read the same passages without being scanned, but afterwards had to rate each one based on how immersed they felt.
According to Eric Jaffe at Fast Company, each passage was four lines long, and ranged from suspenseful and fear-inducing, like when Harry sees a half-blood wizard called Quirinus Quirrell drinking unicorn blood in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, to emotionally neutral, like when Harry watches Hedwig the Owl just sit there doing nothing before falling asleep (or is he faking???) in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
"As expected, the fearful passages received significantly higher ratings for immersion than the neutral ones - more likely to get readers lost in the book," says Jaffe.
This is, of course, no surprise, but what's interesting is what was going on in the participants' brains. The fear-inducing passages were actually triggering different neural pathways into action that the emotionless, neutral passages were not. As Jaffe explains:
"In the middle cingulate gyrus area of the brain, Hsu and company detected a much stronger link between immersion ratings and neural activity for the fearful passages than for the neutral ones. The middle cingulate gyrus is considered part of the brain's empathy network, and has been associated with pain empathy in particular."
The team published the results in the journal NeuroReport.
While the results provide evidence to suggest that a person’s brain behaves differently according to how emotional the text in front of them is, getting immersed in a four-lines-long passage is a fundamentally different experience from getting lost in a book for hours at a time. So Hsu's study certainly isn't a definitive look into the neuroscience of story-telling, it's pretty great that scientists are finally starting to pay attention to the processes in our brain that help us separate a good book from a fantastic one.