On occasion I have read a book, Lord of the Rings was one, and for several days I had difficulty keeping my thoughts on the real world rather than slipping into the fictional one. My reaction was awe at the ability of some writers to create another world so skillfully that is can become an alternative to the real one.
Recent research reported in ScienceDaily (here) by Gabriel and Young investigates Narrative Collective Assimilation. This is the authors’ hypothesis that by absorbing narratives, we can psychologically become a member of the group of characters described therein, a process that makes us feel connected to those characters and their social world.
Social connection is a strong, human need and anytime we feel connected to others, we feel good in general, and feel good about our lives. Our study results demonstrate that the assimilation of a narrative allows us to feel close to others in the comfort of our own space and at our own convenience. In our subjects, this led to a reported increase in life satisfaction and positive mood, which are two primary outcomes of belonging.
Gabriel and Young asked 140 UB undergraduate students to read for 30 minutes from one of two popular books, “Twilight” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Participants then completed a series of questionnaires that tested their conscious and unconscious responses to the narratives. on both conscious and unconscious measures, participants who read “Harry Potter” identified with the wizards and their world and those who read “Twilight” identified with the vampires and the realm they inhabited. Their subjects not only connected with the characters or groups they read about, however. They adopted the behaviors, attitudes and traits that they could realistically approximate, leaving aside the bloodsucking and broomstick flying.
This literary experience is probably a great learning tool. We can in live a dangerous life in safety. We can practice other ways of thinking and acting without committing to them experiment with our behaviour. We can bring to ‘life’ friends when we are feeling a bit lonely. Our daydreaming default network can have a ready made library of ‘other realities’ to use as required, the product of years of encountering narratives. Our consciousness can be a playground and classroom.