Fiction feelings in Harry Potter: haemodynamic response in the mid-cingulate cortex correlates with immersive reading experience

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Immersion in reading, described as a feeling of ‘getting lost in a book’, is a ubiquitous phenomenon widely appreciated by readers. However, it has been largely ignored in cognitive neuroscience. According to the fiction feeling hypothesis, narratives with emotional contents invite readers more to be empathic with the protagonists and thus engage the affective empathy network of the brain, the anterior insula and mid-cingulate cortex, than do stories with neutral contents. To test the hypothesis, we presented participants with text passages from the Harry Potter series in a functional MRI experiment and collected post-hoc immersion ratings, comparing the neural correlates of passage mean immersion ratings when reading fear-inducing versus neutral contents. Results for the conjunction contrast of baseline brain activity of reading irrespective of emotional content against baseline were in line with previous studies on text comprehension. In line with the fiction feeling hypothesis, immersion ratings were significantly higher for fear-inducing than for neutral passages, and activity in the mid-cingulate cortex correlated more strongly with immersion ratings of fear-inducing than of neutral passages. Descriptions of protagonists’ pain or personal distress featured in the fear-inducing passages apparently caused increasing involvement of the core structure of pain and affective empathy the more readers immersed in the text. The predominant locus of effects in the mid-cingulate cortex seems to reflect that the immersive experience was particularly facilitated by the motor component of affective empathy for our stimuli from the Harry Potter series featuring particularly vivid descriptions of the behavioural aspects of emotion.

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