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.
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.
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.