What is 'Real'? How Our Brain Differentiates Between Reality and Fantasy

What is 'Real'? How Our Brain Differentiates Between Reality and Fantasy
What criteria does the brain use for distinguishing between real people such as George W. Bush and fictional characters such as Cinderella? Recent research suggests that personal relevance may be a key factor, although there are exceptions.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Most people can easily tell the difference between reality and fantasy. We know that characters in novels and movies are fictitious, and we also understand that historical figures - even if we’ve never met them personally - were real people. As obvious as this distinction may seem, however, scientists know very little about the specific brain mechanisms that are responsible for our ability to distinguish between real and fictional events.

Recently, research has identified two areas of the that are more strongly activated when people see real characters than when they see . These brain regions - in the anterior medial prefrontal and posterior cingulated cortices (amPFC and PCC) - are known to be involved during autobiographical memory retrieval and self-referential thinking. Based on this finding, scientists have hypothesized that our brains may distinguish between reality and fantasy because real things tend to have a higher degree of than fictional things do.

A new study tests this hypothesis that personal relevance is the critical factor in differentiating between reality and fantasy by using (fMRI) to compare the brain’s response when processing real and fictional characters. Anna Abraham of the Max Planck Institute for and Cognitive Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and the University of Giessen in Giessen, Germany, and D. Yves von Cramon of the Max Planck Institute for Human Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research in Cologne, Germany, have published their results in a recent issue of PLoS ONE.

“Perhaps the greatest significance of the study is that it has enabled us to get a step closer to understanding what ‘realness’ captures,” Abraham told PhysOrg.com. “The categorical distinction between reality and fiction that we employ in daily life appears to be too simplistic and non-representative of our phenomenological experience. The term ‘real’ in itself does not have much explanatory power, as it means only that something objectively exists.”

The researchers’ experiments helped them investigate what “realness” is, as the brain defines it. Two weeks prior to the experiments, 19 volunteers were asked to submit names of their close friends and family, and also read through a list of famous people and fictional characters to confirm that they were familiar with them. During the experiments, the participants viewed names of individuals who were either friends/family (high personal relevance), famous people (medium personal relevance) or fictional characters (low personal relevance). The participants also answered questions, such as whether it was possible for someone to talk with one of the people/characters (interactions between real people and fictional characters were considered impossible).

As the researchers had predicted, the results showed that when participants answered questions about their friends and family (high personal relevance), stronger activation occurred in the amPFC and PCC regions, as compared with questions about famous people (medium activation) and fictional characters (low activation). As the scientists explained, our conceptual knowledge of real people is more extensive than our knowledge of famous people, and much more extensive than our knowledge of fictional characters. But this finding also raises further questions.

“I experience my mother and George Bush as being ‘more real’ than Cinderella, but why do I experience George Bush as being ‘less real’ than my mother?” Abraham said. “After all, both people objectively exist. Is it because I’ve never interacted with him? Is it because I know less about him? Would he have been more relevant for me if he waged war on my home country? These are all open questions that can only be answered when we define what constitutes ‘realness.’ And we have shown in this study that one factor that affects how real I perceive someone to be is modulated by how personally relevant the person is for me.”

The researchers further explained that personal relevance is not unequivocally related to what is real, since some individuals may experience personal relevance in certain fictional realms, such as in chronic computer gaming or religion. For instance, for a chronic gamer, a World of Warcraft character could yield greater activation in the amPFC and PCC than a real person of low personal relevance would. Abraham added that, although the current research doesn’t provide insight on a connection between fictional violence and real violence, future related research may help understand if a connection exists.

“A great deal more work needs to be done before we attempt to assess such complex connections,” she said. “For a start, one needs to define what exactly is meant by fictional violence - is it limited to violence experienced while playing computer games or does it extend to watching violent movies and/or even to one's own fantasies about carrying out violent acts? Of utmost importance when exploring such ideas is to aim for specificity (avoiding undue generalizations).”

In addition to helping understand how the brain differentiates between reality and fantasy, this study could help researchers understand the brain’s , to which the amPFC and PCC belong. The default network is a group of brain regions that are generally more engaged during passive periods, such as when at rest or when performing undemanding tasks. During these periods, the brain tends to multitask, such as by reflecting on past events, planning future events, or thinking self-consciously.

This study shows that brain regions (the amPFC and PCC) in the default network are automatically engaged when an individual views a person’s name - even when the individual is not thinking specifically about their own personal relevance to the person. In other words, personal relevance is not relevant to this task, but it may be explained by the anticipatory nature of the brain. The default network may play a role in automatically evoking various associations with a stimulus in order to quickly react, if needed. This finding may help researchers further understand how the brain’s default network works.

“Our immediate plans are to verify our findings by exploring the modulation of personal relevance within fictional and real domains,” said Abraham. “An example of a within-fictional domain investigation, as stated in the paper, would be studying chronic gamers versus beginner gamers on group-relevant versus group-irrelevant information. An example of a within-reality domain investigation would be studying groups with different vocations/interests - for instance, political journalists would be expected to find information concerning politicians far more relevant than that of celebrities, whereas the situation would be expected to be vice versa for paparazzi journalists. There are several avenues to be explored. Once the findings have been verified across a variety of situations, we will be in a better position to dig deeper to uncover how our brains encode and store such categorical information in the first place, how malleable the reality-fiction distinction is, and so on.”

More information: Anna Abraham and D. Yves von Cramon. “Reality = Relevance? Insights from Spontaneous Modulations of the Brain’s Default Network when Telling Apart Reality from Fiction.” PLoS ONE, March 2009, Volume 4, Issue 3, e4741.

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User comments

Mar 23, 2009
"Personal relevance". That sounds about right. The article mentions that World of Warcraft "chronic" gamers have an issue with treating fictional characters as real, but how many millions have a close identify with a media-manipulated images of people such as Britney Spears -- that have almost nothing to do with reality of any kind. Rock stars are drug addicts and are irresponsible parents? Why doesn't that tarnish their image? Fans are willing to forgive anything -- which really means that they have no real contact with a real person. Just some near-perfect image they've created.

Mar 23, 2009
What about actors who play fictional characters in the movies? :)

Mar 23, 2009
Yep! It gets twisted. Who is more real, the actor or the fictional character?

Mar 23, 2009
Hardly surprising that a polititian doesn't rate highly on the reality scale. We all know they are lying to us.

Mar 23, 2009
Interesting that the former president was used to represent the real. Is Obama not real enough? There might be a good photo of the teleprompter of the United States out there.

Mar 23, 2009
Well, I thought it was an interesting subject. At what age can we distiguish fantasy from reality? My 4 yr old gson knows the difference. Is it learnt or is it instinctive? How does LSD etc. blur the boundaries?

Mar 23, 2009
I see no control for reality in the study, only personal relevance. Where are the tests of highly relevant fictions (religious or other) compared against irrelevant realities (historical or other)?

The researchers claim not to know how "malleable the reality-fiction distinction is" assuming human brains or other senses are somehow capable of sensing this distinction. It appears to be a very poorly constructed formulation of a research premise.

Mar 23, 2009
But it's a start!!

Mar 23, 2009
That it is. Besides that it states what is actually necessary to understand the distinction and people that can be studied to understand the distinction.

Mar 24, 2009
Imagine the conservative's attack ads in presidential campaigns in future!

Bad behavior isn't limited (or even biased) to one side of the political spectrum.

Mar 24, 2009
Yup, I agree that personal relevance says it all. How YOU define that relevance, however, is up to you.

For example, every person would rate differently the president, the boss, the spouse, the children, a historical figure, a teen idol. Hell, I developed a bond with certain special functions I'm working with. It's all about the level of importance and involvement you have with someone/something. It might be completely fictional, but if it's very important for you, then, it is real!

Mar 25, 2009
Interesting article but just a start. I am concerned with the language usage of "chronic gamer" and the implied negative assumption in that use. No one would use "chronic hiker" or "chronic knitter" talking about another hobby. Even if one were looking strictly at those with genuine mental aberrations such as the person who collects an impossible number of cats as their study group, they would not use "chronic cat person" to describe everyone who owns more than one cat. I hope future research will not pander to negative media stereotypes.

Mar 25, 2009
Hell, I developed a bond with certain special functions I'm working with.

Talk about getting off on math.

Sorry man, too easy to let get by.

Well, if it helps, I'm a woman :)

Mar 25, 2009
Next, maybe they will study how reasonable people can filter gratuitous expressions of politics from non-political discussions. Or put another way, how reasonable people can separate reality from self-indulgent and righteous fantasy.

Mar 25, 2009
Intresting article, however let's not confuse perception with reality...

Perception does not make reality...

Mar 27, 2009
I voted for Cinderella.

Mar 30, 2009
Well, "chronic gamer" sounds pejorative, "addicted" might be also. What about "fanatic/fanatical"? If we pan our gaze across our society a little, what do we say about "believers"? You know, people who take Jesus, or Mohamed the Prophet, etc, as most Real of the real so to speak.

30 years ago I had a most profound conversion experience which rocked my world and gave me the intuitive assurance that I was experiencing myself and the world at a deeper and more authentic level. I chose to believe that I was thereby a Christian and strove to learn all I could of the Bible and things Holy and Spiritual. Compared to where I was at before then this was an improvement and allowed me to gain a solid personal psychological foundation.

It was only after deciding to try and explain my Christian life in terms that would be understandable to people really interested in science that I began to look at what researchers and clinicians over the last 150 years have been discovering about the workings of brain, mind, consciousness, emotion, and behaviour. Simply put, a lot has been discovered and far more is being investigated, "as we speak". Now I am not a Christian, but I am sympathetic toward those who choose to "believe", up to a point anyway.
Modern mystic says:
Perception does not make reality...

Maybe so, but perception is what we MAKE OF reality, and we know nothing else. The incredible paradox is that we only experience what our brains can construct ABOUT the world. Yes the great and potentially infinite IT is really there. But we don't know it unless our brains are modelling it.

So the $100K question is: what controls the apparent 'solidity', the "knowledge" that something/someone is "real", as opposed to just a story? Well it helps to understand that there must be areas in the brain which mediate this kind of belief. I don't think that psycho-babble helps, but these guys are making a start. The question is really important.

Mar 30, 2009
Personal relevance can be qued by adverse social referencing as well. It is a natural occurrence to involve one's self in social activities that inadvertently develop a subconscious synchronicity between an individual and the society at large. Instinct can take over in anticipation of events that have seemingly no relevance, while as a product they are related to social consequence that may only be highly relevant to the instigator.

These concepts lend additional weight to the notion of six degrees of separation as social hierarchy develops or evolves. I trust it is as natural for the collective conscience to engage indirect coincidence as it is to legislate.

Mar 30, 2009
I'd be careful using the word "collective conscience". There is no such thing among humans per se.

The best you can say is there are emergent patterns out of aggregate individual decisions/actions. It's important to make this distinction.

Does society influence individual consciousness? Certainly, but again this is not reflective of what many people might envision when hearing/using a term like "collective consciousness/conscience".

An interesting side note here is that while reality always reinforces our conscious minds towards the truth, society may push us into a more realistic world view, or completely off the pier into a sea of insanity. This is why one must always be careful of, and call into question precepts of any society one finds oneself in. It is also why societies which allow and encourage such are vastly more successful than ones who don't...there's a semi self correction mechanism in place if allowed to function.

Apr 01, 2009
seems the *reality* of the researches needs to be questioned...

Apr 11, 2009
Why are we so deeply affected by what happens to protagonists in a fiction book when we know no such person really exists?

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