Excerpt from "Immerse Me: How To Get Lost In A Story (Story Not Required)," by John S. Johnson, Alexis Wichowski, TechCrunch, Nov. 26, 2015:
Another reason people want to get lost in stories is because doing so makes us feel good. In a 2012 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, a group of neuroscientists from Germany and Switzerland teamed up to examine whether readers’ enjoyment of stories was tied to valence — whether the content was pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.
Using fMRI scans, the researchers discovered that subjects were immersed even by unpleasant stories, including narratives about crimes, disasters, accidents or, as the report describes, “content comparable to the content of daily news stories” (in fact, there was evidence that subjects found such stories even more compelling than pleasant ones).
While one could infer something about Schadenfreude here, the researchers’ explanation was much less cynical: Readers like stories when they feel engaged by them. Whether the story is pleasant, neutral or unpleasant matter doesn’t really matter. Readers simply enjoy the feeling of being engaged by a story.