Can facts explain our feelings for fictional characters?

By: Yagoda Oleksak


Joe March finds out her sister has died from scarlet fever in Little Women; Allie Hamilton and Noah finally reconnect in the pouring rain in The Notebook; Spider-Man disintegrates into dust in Avengers: Infinity War; Elsa finds out her son Bruno has died in the gas chambers in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas; and, Forrest is overjoyed to tears that his son did not inherit his disability in Forrest Gump.

These scenes are arguably what have made these movies such classics. While they are from different genres, have different plot lines, and come from different eras, some of the greatest cinematic masterpieces share the ability to capture the human experience. Even though we know what we are watching isn’t real, we can’t help but feel intense emotions for the characters.

This ability to care so deeply about people we don’t know and things we have not experienced may seem to be, at first glance, an unexplainable characteristic of human nature. Perhaps this is just some inherent empathy, something that isn’t learned but is rather an intrinsic trait— a classic ability to ‘put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.’

Something as simple as crying over the tragic fall of the protagonist in your favourite movie, at face value, doesn’t seem to be a significant phenomenon. And it surely doesn’t seem relevant to science; a field often thought to be solely based on objective, measurable facts with no room for the subjectivity of emotions. However, in the last few centuries, scientific perspectives have broadened into research investigating the facts behind feelings and why we are able to build such complex emotional attachments. 

An investigation done by the Department of Psychology at York University examined what social factors influence adult attachments to fictional characters. The first influence is based on the idea of character identification: “when identifying with a character, audiences experience the story vicariously through that character.” It seems that our ability to relate to the experiences of fictional characters allows us to become emotionally attached to them. However, this doesn’t explain why we may cry or are overjoyed or nervous for characters in situations we ourselves have never experienced. This is what Marina Ray and Raymond Mar, the researchers of the study, refer to as “parasocial relationships”. Although we have probably not had a sister die of scarlet fever or have never lost one of our closest friends while fighting Thanos, we are able to relate to, and feel for, the characters because of the development of a one-sided relationship. Directors and screenwriters intimately reveal the characters’ experiences, which make us feel personally connected to them: “they share similarities with real-world relationships, [and therefore] can feel psychologically real.” Our reasons for these emotions can be pinpointed even further at the biological level. 

A study conducted by Salani et al from the Journal of Neuroscience found that there is a part of the brain that is activated when we experience empathy; specifically, when we watch someone else experience something, we are able to recognize how they are likely feeling. It is a part of the cerebral cortex, the right supramarginal gyrus, which is believed to be the region where the mechanism of empathy is carried out, allowing us to have compassion for others. During behavioural experiments within the study, results showed that there was selective activation in this region of the brain when participants were required to make an empathetic judgment of scenarios involving other people and their experiences. Researchers of the study believe that this cognitive structure allows us to empathize with others and overcome any personal biases in order to emotionally understand a situation. This helps to explain why we feel what fictional characters feel; we watch their experiences and are neurologically able to recognize their feelings, and because we know what those emotions feel like, we may also feel them at that moment. 

So the next time you binge-watch a show or see a movie and get to a scene that evokes a laugh or a cry, you will know that these emotions are actually based in science. We often relate with one another about our feelings during certain movies. Did you cry during this scene too? Did you celebrate with this protagonist? Did you also hate the fate of a fictional character? It brings us together to debate these moments and recognize that we all, to some degree, become emotionally invested in these fictional worlds; it is a way for us to be entertained with our sense of humanity. 

Sometimes science is separated from humanizing moments like these because it is generalized to only being concerned with ‘cold hard facts.’ Sometimes we forget that science is concerned with more than just the natural environment.

This is not to say that putting emotions into a scientific context makes them any less magical, or real, to us. It’s about finding the reasons behind interesting phenomena and using our findings to better understand our brains and, in turn, humanity. Science can appeal to more than just doctors or researchers but to people like you and I, and perhaps that is the point. Science, to hold value in our society, needs to appeal to collective ideas and values. This is just one example of that idea. Emotions make our lives brighter and more meaningful; we can simulate this experience by watching shows or movies and relating to the characters on emotional levels. 

This particular phenomenon becomes useful to science as we question why this happens and find that knowing how humans experience empathy has broad applications. Understanding the mechanism may better equip psychologists to help their patients struggling with anxiety, personality disorders, and attachment influences. Beyond this, however, it can be applied to any interpersonal setting. If the process of empathy in the brain is identified, it is possible to reinforce and learn this skill; which is immensely important in a society where people constantly interact with each other. Science may be able to explain what humanizes us and why, and it might be the very thing that leads us to discover our humanity. 

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