Vanishing into Imagined Worlds: Understanding Immersion

Our lives are replete with stories. Even a simple query such as “What did you do last evening?” can instantly transport us from reality into a realm of varied emotions, events, and characters, even if they are just our own memories. This phenomenon is unsurprising, given humans’ natural propensity to absorb narratives, immersing themselves for hours in books, movies, or games. But how does this all happen exactly? 

Years of research on immersion have led to numerous related concepts (there is even a joke that scientists would rather use another scientist’s toothbrush than his idea). Of particular interest is the concept of “transportation into a narrative world,” which best captures the essence of immersion. Both terms imply that a person embarks on mental journeys to fictional realms – imagined, cinematic, or otherwise. This new reality then exerts a real influence on human life.

What Is Immersion?

Imagine reading an engrossing book – you are lost in the plot, deeply engaged with the content, and someone enters the room. Yet, this does not distract you; you might not even notice it. If you have ever been in such a situation, you have likely experienced strong immersion. This state limits your access to the real world, often accompanied by a decrease in critical thinking. This was demonstrated in a study by Green and Brock (2000), whose participants had to read a story and then identify parts that seemed inconsistent with reality. Those experiencing stronger immersion marked far fewer nonsensical details.

Absorbed audiences also experience intense emotions. Researchers confirmed this in an experiment where participants read stories eliciting negative emotions. Those who immersed themselves more deeply in the narrative world experienced a greater shift in emotional state. Interestingly, this effect occurred regardless of whether the participants viewed the story as fiction or fact. It seems irrelevant to them whether the story actually happened or was just a figment of the author’s imagination.

George Milton / Pexels

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Entering a narrative world also means it is hard to leave. After finishing a book, movie, or game, some people ponder how the story could have unfolded differently. This phenomenon, known as replotting, might sound familiar.

It is commonly known that cultural works influence how we perceive the world. Intriguingly, one study by Green and Brock (2000) also demonstrates a link between immersion and changing views. Participants were asked to read a text about a murder in a shopping center committed by a psychiatric patient using a knife. It was observed that experiencing stronger immersion correlated with a more significant shift in worldview. For example, beliefs about the frequency of knife homicides and the estimated likelihood of being stabbed in a shopping center increased.

How Do We Enter the World of a Story? Understanding Immersion

Immersion in reading does not require much to be triggered. The definition of a minimal story is “two sentences arranged in temporal sequence.” According to this view, just two sentences should be enough to transport the reader into a narrative world. Some researchers, like American psychologist Richard Gerrig, studying immersion, go even further, suggesting that a single word has the potential to take readers on a journey of imagination. An example they give is the word “Texas.” While not a sophisticated invitation into a narrative world nor guaranteeing a long stay, according to Gerrig, it has the same right to evoke immersion as the finest literary passages.

However, not every reader responds to this invitation into the world of imagination. The content may not engage them sufficiently. There are factors, though, that facilitate immersion.

What Aids in Achieving Immersion?

Some people naturally find it easier to immerse themselves in narrative worlds, influenced by personality traits like openness to experience, and emotional disposition such as empathy. If you easily empathize with others’ emotions, you will likely feel its effects while engaging with the fates of various protagonists.

On one hand, it is the reader who influences whether immersion occurs, but on the other hand, the presented content also plays a role. Studies on literature show that readers are most absorbed by texts that are smooth to read. The plot should be both clear and surprising, providing a good dose of suspense. The emotions of the characters also affect immersion. The easier it is for the reader to identify with them, the more the story engulfs them.

American psychologist Jerome Bruner believes that “true immersion” occurs in a reader only when they start participating in the creation of the narrative world. This happens, for example, when trying to decipher the unsaid in the text. Below is an example of a dialogue hiding information “between the lines”:

– Where is Jack?

– Well, I saw a yellow Volkswagen in front of Susan’s house.

This conversation might lead the reader to wonder why the response was not directly that Jack went to Susan’s. Is he visiting her illicitly? Or is there more to it? Regardless of the answer, the reader is confronted with the need to fill the gap resulting from the understatement. As a result, they become almost one of the characters, co-participating in the story creation process.

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How Absorbed Can a Story Make You?

Different degrees of immersion are observed, especially in reading literature. The first level is concentration, usually emerging when reading dull texts. The reader sort of forces themselves into immersion, but it does not happen. With a more interesting story, there is a chance for creative engagement, where the reader has entered the narrative world but remains capable of critically viewing the text.

During enchantment, however, this ability is lost. In this state, a person derives pure pleasure from the story and does not ponder the quality of its execution or the veracity of its claims. Language ceases to exist, and there begins being, right at the heart of the events.

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Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

Published by

Szymon Cogiel


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