TO ENDURE THE SOCIAL ISOLATION of shutdowns and quarantines triggered by the pandemic, many of us have turned to movies, TV shows and novels—but how is this shaping the way we think and feel? It’s a central question driving the research of Raymond Mar, a York psychology professor who studies the cognitive, social and emotional outcomes of consuming narrative fiction across different media.
Historically, Mar says, research into the psychological impacts of stories have focused on their ability to entertain us. Through extensive research—using approaches from personality, cognitive and social psychology combined with some neuroscience—Mar has discovered that when we become immersed in the lives of our favourite fictional characters, it influences how we understand and relate to other people.
“When we engage with stories, we are using the same cognitive processes to understand people in the real world,” says Mar, a recipient of the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award for outstanding research. “These imagined experiences have a wider impact than we have realized on a variety of thoughts, feelings, attitudes and actions. A story can be a coping mechanism—if we engage deeply, it can help us develop a perceived sense of closeness with a character,” Mar says. “For those who struggle to form and maintain relationships, fiction can serve as a useful tool.”