What happens in a brain when you read Harry Potter? Images show a combination of data and graphics compiled as each word of a chapter of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was flashed for half a second onto a screen inside a brain-scanning MRI machine (AP photo / Reuters)
What happens in a brain when you read Harry Potter?
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Harry Potter can help us learn about how our brains work.

Reading about Harry's adventures of learning to fly his broomstick activates some of the same regions in the brain that we use to perceive real people's actions and intentions.

In a unique study, scientists peeked into the brains of people caught up in a good book. The researchers emerged with maps of what a healthy brain does as it reads.

The research team from Carnegie Mellon University was pleasantly surprised that the experiment worked.

Most scientists have tracked how the brain processes a single word or sentence. They look for clues to language development. They focus on one aspect of reading at a time. But reading a story requires multiple systems. Those systems must work at once.

Measuring all that activity is remarkable. So says Georgetown University neuroscientist Guinevere Eden. She helped pioneer brain-scanning studies of dyslexia. But she wasn't involved in this new work.

"It offers a much richer way of thinking about the reading brain," Eden said.

There's no turning pages inside a brain-scanning MRI machine. You have to lie still. So at Carnegie Mellon, eight adult volunteers watched for nearly 45 minutes. Each word of Chapter 9 of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was flashed for half a second onto a screen.

Why that chapter? It has plenty of action and emotion. Harry swoops around on his broom. But there's not too much going on for scientists to track, said lead researcher Leila Wehbe.

The research team analyzed the scans, second by second. This created a model of brain activity involved with different reading processes. The research was published by the journal PLoS One.

Wehbe had the idea to study reading a story rather than just words or phrases.

Scientists are calling this research a first step in learning how to see what the brain does when someone reads.

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