The Psychology of a Book Hangover

I can feel one coming on. My thoughts fog. My mood darkens. I ducked reality for a few nights and now it’s caught up with me again. I can’t deny it—I’m nursing a book hangover.

A “book hangover” is the slangy shortcut for the feeling when a reader finishes a book—usually fiction—and they can’t stop thinking about the fictional world that has run out of pages. The story is over, but the reader misses the characters or the atmosphere of the novel. Personally, I know the hangover is bad when I have trouble even looking at another book. What passing delights can a new novel hold for me when I only want more of the story I just finished?

The book hangover phenomenon is well-documented in memes, videos, and even T-shirts. You know it when you feel it—but why do we feel this way? Why do our heads get stuck in books long after the story has ended? I set out to find some answers to the book hangover phenomenon in the psychology of reading. It turns out there is research behind why I spent an hour staring into space, wondering what the characters with whom I spent a few hundred pages would do with another chapter.

The Psychology of Reading

I reached out to Maja Djikic, PhD, an Associate Professor and the Director of Self-Development Laboratory at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, who has studied the effects of reading on theory of mind and empathy.  I asked Djikic if there was a psychological basis for the lingering emotions of the book hangover. She explained that sometimes the hangover feeling is simple sadness: “It could be that sadness readers feel after the end of the book signals a loss of something valued – in this case it may be a loss of  characters to whom we may have connected very strongly, or the loss of the whole world that is presented to us in the book.” Other times, the persistent hangover could mean “that the central issues raised by the book are still very active inside one’s psyche, and therefore the reader wishes for more time to reflect and unravel whatever complexities still plague them.”

Lost in a Book: “Emotional Transportation” Through Reading

According to Djikic, two concepts can intensify the hangover effect: emotional transportation and empathy. The first, emotional transportation, is familiar to all lucky readers who know what it is like to get lost in a book. Reality falls away and we experience the story through the eyes of characters. In reading psychology, this experience is called “emotional transportation.” Researchers in a Dutch study summarize the phenomenon: “Transportation is defined as ‘a convergent process, where all mental systems and capacities become focused on events occurring in the narrative’. People lose track of time and fail to observe events going on around them; a loss of self- awareness may take place. The narrative world is distant from the world in which the reader lives, and makes it possible that the events in the story are perceived as real within the story context, even when events would not be possible in reality.”

This explains part of the book hangover: we miss the fictional world because, for a while, we perceived it as real. Our brains allow us to transport to another world. Unfortunately for us, that world eventually runs out of pages.

Empathy: Why We Feel All the Feels

You’re not imagining it. Characters can feel like close friends because your brain processes feelings for them in much the same way as it does for real-life connections. Research shows that reading fiction activates empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The emotional transportation discussed earlier can increase empathy.

Researchers in the Dutch study discussed above found that readers who reported feeling emotionally transported while reading a fictional narrative also experienced increased empathy in their daily lives for the next week. The more you read fiction may also affect empathy. In another study, Djikic and her coauthors found that study participants who were frequent fiction readers had higher scores on some measures of empathy.

The Upside of a Hangover

Popular culture often views the book hangover as a bad thing. It feels uncomfortable and can keep readers from picking up their next book. Yet, it also seems to speak to the powerful emotional effects of reading. Can the book hangover actually signal personal growth?

Yes and no. Djikic noted that not all book hangovers have the same cause. Sometimes, a book hangover is just a passing case of the blues. “If the ‘hangover’ emotions fade after a few days, chances are that what was experienced was just a short burst of sadness and loss when parting from the book.” Djikic says. This type of hangover is likely more common. Often, readers can move on to the next book on their shelf. (If you’re looking for tips on how to get over a book hangover, start here.)

However, a book hangover that lingers could be a positive thing. The longer you struggle with it, the more likely it is that the book has an effect on how you view yourself and the world. Djikic notes, “When a ‘hangover’ evolves into a more continued emotion of discomfort – that usually comes from still pondering and struggling with some personally relevant issues that were brought up in the book – it could lead to a personal transformation. Fiction reading can be a powerful dysregulator of identity, allowing readers to ‘exit’ themselves, and be in a state that is more receptive to personal change or transformation.” (Read more about art and personal transformation here). Part of this receptive state stems from “perspective-taking,” which happens when a person experiences the world through the eyes of another. Fiction allows the reader to see the story through a character’s eyes, which facilitates perspective-taking.

If your feelings about the book are transformative, Djikic says, “the ‘hangover’ would last longer, would include not just an emotion of sadness, but also more ‘agitating’ emotions such as fear or anger or hope, and could potentially lead to seeing oneself and one’s whole world in a different way. In this case, the ‘hangover’ would last longer than a few days, and the mind would periodically return to the book even  weeks or months after the book was finished, and the person would use the experience of the book for his or her own inner change.”

Sometimes, a book hangover is just an inconvenience easily cured by finding another engrossing read. But research also suggests that hangovers are part of the way reading changes the reader. A novel can change the way we see the world. A lingering book hangover can extend our sense of empathy for others and cause us to confront our own ideas about ourselves. Sometimes, a hangover is a good thing.

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