Headcanons: Empathy&Experience taking

The Psychology of Fandom: Why We Get Attached to Fictional Characters
by Abby Norman

One thing that helps us empathize with family and friends, no matter what our baseline capabilities to do so are, is trying to fill in the details of what we don’t know about their situation. Interestingly enough, this is also more or less what we do with fictional characters; in fact, it’s sometimes easier to empathize with them because we are often given, expositionally, far more detailed and intimate knowledge of a character than we would ever know about someone in our real lives. And, as in life, it’s our nature to fill in the blanks when we’re presented with a character that we haven’t gotten to know very well yet. Fanfiction is one way that we do this on a community level. Headcanons, a term in fandom that refers to what an individual believes to be true about a character, even though it’s not “canon”, are another way that we flesh out the details of these character’s lives as we attempt to understand and, ultimately, feel for them on some level.

On a neurobiological level, our experience of consuming fiction is actually very real. Measurably so. When we read about the scent of coffee, for instance, the olfactory center of our brain lights up. We can’t really smell it, but we’re familiar with the scent and we can conjure it up. Especially if the language is rich and helps us recreate the experience. Metaphors can be helpful in giving us a vibrant, multi-sensory experience when we’re reading, similes help a wider range of readers experience the same emotion, based on our own internal experiences.

Whether or not characters are ontologically “real”, our familiarity with them renders them very emotionally potent; a kind of emotional truth that we experience at a biochemical level quite the same as we would with strangers whom we get to know over the course of a season — or years, for the loyalist of fans.

While we may choose, however, to engage with fiction we do not appear to be in control of our emotional responses to it — quasi or not. And even still, how is it then that we can go full-well into a movie, or pick up a book we’ve read a million times, not only knowing the emotional climax is coming but knowing full well it’s not “real” — yet we still find ourselves tearing up? Oh, what a tangled web we weave.

Philosopher Tamar Gendler posits that we have two competing levels of consciousness — belief and alief.The former being what governs our intellectual knowledge that yes, fiction is not fact. Where the latter, what she calls “alief” is our brain’s ability to suspend our belief that fiction is not “real” — which is what makes watching movies enjoyable. We can get “lost” in them, but as soon as the credits roll and we return to our day to day life, we know it was just Meryl Streep with a superb haircut.

“Experience-taking” is different from putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, which is more “perspective-taking” —like when we were discussing empathy earlier. The act of taking on experience, traits or attributes is very powerful; since it happens on an unconscious level, over time positive change can develop for the individual: increased confidence, motivation and a greater level of comfort socially, for one.

Whole article – very worth taking the time to read it!!

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