When Reading Romance Novels Your Brain May Think Fiction Is Reality

want to live in books

By A. Charlotte Rose

Have you ever had the experience of becoming so lost in a great romance story that you could swear you are actually in the experience with the hero and heroine? You literally feel that first stir of attraction, that first kiss, and that magnetic pull that joins two characters together as they fall more deeply in love. You can even feel like you are right there in the scenes of passionate love-making and you can feel their tension, misunderstandings, and conflicts as well—strongly!

Recent studies have explored the impact of fictional characters in the lives of fans, as well as how the brain perceives these characters and their experiences. The outcome:
When you read a book, as far as the brain is concerned, it is really happening. You are there in the story.

This explains why we get so carried away by a good romance book and experience so many emotions.

In one study, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

The Research News, at Ohio State, reported, “Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes,” said Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State.

Kaufman said while this phenomenon does not occur with every reader, and it can be temporary, it is enabled to occur when, “people are able, in a sense, to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading.”

This seems to fit with the experience of many romance book readers who report that the books are a total distraction; and that while engrossed in reading they don’t feel compelled to even want to have to deal with life – work, kids, etc.

In March 2012, The New York Times reported on two studies that found a marriage between neuroscience and fiction. The article, “Your Brain on Fiction,” summarized a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, that involved researchers in Spain, and also reported on a team of team of researchers from Emory University in the United States who shared their findings in the February 2012 Brain & Language. The article concluded:

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. “ It quoted Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), who suggested that a vivid simulation of reality “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

The New York Times surmised: “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.”

These three studies offer remarkable insight into the level of involvement with the books and characters that many fans seem to report—including why so many readers talk about their favorite fictional characters as if they are real people.

Well, aren’t they?

When you read, do you feel like you are in the story?

This was originally published in my Hot Romance column at The Three Tomatoes web site.

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