Good Reads Can Alter Our Minds, Studies Show
February 21, 2017
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Getting lost in a book is not just a common idiom people say; it’s something people actually do.
This feeling comes from becoming attached to and forming a bond with a character. At the same time that readers get lost in the words of a book, they subconsciously adopt the persona of the character they are reading about. The concept of developing the traits and beliefs of a fictional character is a phenomenon known as “experience-taking.”
“[Experience-taking] absolutely changes the way I think about books and in general, I can say that it really makes me feel insightful about myself,” media assistant Tracy Bottiglieri said.
According to a May 2012 Medical Daily article, Ohio State University (OSU) conducted a series of six experiments on 500 participants wherein they discovered that this so-called experience-taking can lead to temporary real world changes in people’s personality.
Losing yourself in a character is experienced psychologically as well as emotionally. Readers often feel they are similar to the character after immersing themselves in the character’s storyline and fictional life. Adopting the fictional persona comes from the reader subconsciously retaining the traits of the character’s personality.
According to a May 2012 OSU research article, people unconsciously felt the emotions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs and internal responses of characters they read about, as if they were their own. In one experiment several days before the 2008 Nov. presidential election, 82 registered undergraduates eligible to vote were assigned to read one of four short stories about a student enduring obstacles on Election Day. When questioned later, 65 percent of the undergraduates reported they had the highest level of experience-taking and ended up voting on Election Day.
It’s not just the reader’s subconscious doing all the work on its own to conduct experience-taking. One of the contributing factors is whether a story is told in first person point of view or to third point of view.
According to the OSU article, the experiment’s results showed that participants who read short stories written in first person had the highest level of experience-taking compared to other participants who read stories written in third person.
“First person is more inclusive,” junior Hadas Sandalon said. “Even if you don’t like or relate to the main character, you’re being thrown directly into their narrative, giving you a pair of eyes in their story. If that character is really biased about something, it’ll affect the way I view that something. I like knowing what’s going on with all characters all the time [in third person]. It’s less personal, but gives you a less biased look at the situation and allows you to see more of how each character fits into the plot.”
Readers become attached to characters as they read and the result of that connection is also a connection to the books. The characters become a part of the readers, and it’s hard to let those parts go.
“I think that’s why now, with young adult books especially, there are sequels,” Bottiglieri said. “You become attached and you want to know more about them and so it needs a continuation.”
After being connected to a book for so long, there’s a sudden shock of reality that comes after being caught up in not only the book, but also in the character’s life and emotions.
“There are times where I’m sad when I’m approaching the end of a book because I know it’s going to be over and then I’m not going to know what happens to the characters and everything after I’m done reading,” Bottiglieri said.
There are a multitude of sides to adopting a character’s personality. Even though the OSU experiment supports the theory that people adopt the traits of a fictional character, some still believe that people are not adopting traits at all or there’s not enough evidence to support it.
“Most of the time when people identify with a character, it’s part of who they already are and that’s what comes out,” English teacher Kevin Brown said. “To a certain degree, it magnifies who you already are. I don’t think that people that read “The Great Gatsby” are automatically going to start feeling very wealthy or people that read “Into the Wild” are going to be inspired to go live in the woods if they never thought about breaking away from society before.”
Understanding and feeling emotions for a character, compared to actually having experienced the character’s emotions, plays a role in the level of enjoyment of a book and what is taken away from it.
According to Brown, sympathy versus empathy details the difference between having one’s own traits come out as one reads compared to actually adopting a character’s traits. Sometimes, readers feel something along the lines of sympathy or ‘I get this character’s feelings’ and other times, they feel something along the lines of empathy or more specifically, ‘I am that character.’
Finding similarities between oneself and a character can bring out their underlying personality and force people to confront who they are. Finding similarities can also contribute to their real-world understanding of conflicts.
“It really just amplifies the characteristics that you already have and that makes you feel comfortable being whatever it is that you feel that you are,” Brown said. “If I read a Chuck Palahniuk book, I get this weird disatisfaction with life and a striving to do something better and I think that’s partly contagious.”
Aside from bringing out underlying personalities, books can help people find someone they relate to, even if they are fictional.
“Everyone likes characters that are relatable to them,” Sandalon said. “When I can relate strongly to a character, I might find something that I aspire to be, or possibly discover something about myself while reading.”
Nowadays, fictional characters are seen as role models instead of imaginary people in books that people read for entertainment. Characters like Hermione Granger, for example, are looked up to by girls of all ages.
“I would be a different person if I didn’t read Harry Potter,” Sandalon said. “Hermione Granger in particular helped me discover what kind of person I wanted to be. I was inspired by Hermione’s character and she was a sort of fictional role model.”
People can adopt or relate to characters’ personalities in all genres of books, but fiction specifically creates a multitude of connections.
“Going off into a different world and taking a break from ours has become more therapeutic in addition to exciting,” Sandalon said. “Reading fiction gives me an escape and an outlet to put my feelings in. If the book I’m reading is especially good, it’ll keep me on the edge of my seat wanting more.”