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Telling Reality from Fiction

An interesting study has been carried out by Anna Abraham and D. Yves von Cramon of the Max Planck Institute for Human Brain and Cognitive Sciences in Germany. This study looks at how we differentiate real characters from fictional characters, and its not done the way you might think. Instead, reality and fiction are highly subjective traits, different for each individual, depending on how their reality is based.

Many of us regularly experience passive-cognitive fictional worlds through reading short stories, novellas or novels. Another form of passive-cognitive fictitious world involvement is through watching movies, which draw multiple senses in. Videogaming and virtual worlds both offer an interactive-cognitive involvement with a fictitious or not so fictitious world, in which the borders of reality can sometimes blur, especially when it comes to VR. That is what makes things interesting.

Still, even with books and films, which have been around a very long time, there has been very little study on the mechanisms that allow us to differentiate the fictitious world of a good book or an engrossing film, from the physical reality we experience. As we march headlong into full sensory immersion virtual reality, such studies become more paramount.

The Max Planck Institute study used neuroimaging, specifically, fMRI, to reveal differing areas of brain activity when exposed to subjects the individuals perceived as real, against ones they perceived as fictitious. Consequently, the study does lack somewhat in nitty-gritty depth. However, there was enough data to begin to form useful conclusions. Of specific interest was that with avid users of MMO software, it was found that characters from the gameworlds registered as real individuals, even when they might only be NPCs. Prolonged exposure in the familiar with these characters, over much longer periods of time than books or TV offer, and in an interactive context, seems to breed acceptance as real, but of course much more work needs to be done.

One item the study did show up again and again, was that 'real' entities may be conceptually coded as being more personally relevant to us than fictional characters. This collaborates the supposition above, to a certain extent - the more the person interacts - stress interacts - with the figure, the more real they are to that individual.

This could be stretched quite easily to avatars, where it is conceivable that the avatar of a person, if it is the form interacted with on a daily basis, becomes much more 'real' than a rarely seen physical form. Again, more work is needed, although incidental evidence strongly supports this.

How is this operationalized? Our proposal is that when we encounter information concerning an entity/character, the conceptual knowledge that we possess in relation to this person is spontaneously activated. Our conceptual knowledge in relation to real people is far more extensive and multifaceted compared to that of fictional entities. For instance, the kind of associations most people have for a fictional character such as Cinderella (evil stepfamily, glass slipper, fairy godmother, the handsome prince, midnight, etc.) are limited to the context of the story in which we learnt about her. In comparison, our associations about a real famous entity such as George Bush is far more wide-ranging (his appearance, his position in the social hierarchy, my personal feelings towards him, my knowledge regarding the feelings of others towards him, his politics, his team, his family, the degree of influence he has on my life, the last time I saw him on TV, etc.). Our associations for people we know personally are even broader and richer than that for famous people.

The above excerpt from the original paper, again makes the point that for passive-cognitive entities, information is limited to only what is presented to our brains in a very structured way. For interactive-cognitive entities, such as family, or even politicians and celebrities, where we don't interact directly, but they impinge upon our daily lives, they feel real. It would be interesting to see this kind of study including a passive-cognitive entity such as a soap-opera star, whom audiences follow for years. Logically, the character should start to be perceived as a real person, if these findings hold up.

The discovery as well, that the person does not even need to cross the uncanny valley to be real, as perceived by the brain, is of great interest. It leads to many possibilities, all of which would be ideal fodder for further research.

Indeed, there is evidence from developmental psychology that even children tend to evaluate the factual nature of fictional stories based on how the events therein fit with their own world knowledge. For instance, parents reported that their 4-year old children consider fictional characters that are associated with specific regular events in one's life, such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, to be more real than fictional characters that are not related to real-life events, such as dragons, fairies and monsters.


Reality = Relevance? Insights from Spontaneous Modulations of the Brain's Default Network when Telling Apart Reality from Fiction

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