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

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

The research reported has implications for studying reading disorders or recovery from a stroke. The team from Carnegie Mellon University was pleasantly surprised that the experiment actually worked.

Most neuroscientists have tracked how the brain processes a single word or sentence. They look for clues to language development or dyslexia. They focus on one aspect of reading at a time. But reading a story requires multiple systems. They must work at once. This includes recognizing how letters form a word, knowing the definitions and grammar, keeping up with the characters' relationships and the plot twists.

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 the 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 inside the scanner.

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

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

Parsing the brain activity took extraordinary effort. For every word, the researchers identified features. Those include the number of letters, the part of speech. Was it associated with a character or action or emotion or conversation? Then they used computer programming to analyze brain patterns associated with those features. They looked at every four-word stretch.

They spotted some complex interactions.

For example, the brain region that processes the characters' point of view is the one we use to perceive intentions behind real people's actions, Wehbe said. A region that we use to visually interpret other people's emotions helps decipher characters' emotions.

The team's computer model can distinguish with 74 percent accuracy which of two text passages matches a pattern of neural activity. Scientists are calling it a first step as researchers tease apart what the brain does when someone reads.

Critical thinking challenge: Explain how volunteers read Harry Potter inside the MRI machine

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COMMENTS (83)
  • charlinab-bra
    12/03/2014 - 08:21 a.m.

    The volunteers are able to "read" Harry Potter in the MRI machine by getting the chapters scaned inside the machine where they can "read" it.

  • JB2001Doge
    12/03/2014 - 08:38 a.m.

    Yeah, Harry Potter are good books to read. Especially when Harry Potter got some good dialogue and storyline. This makes us be more creative and smarter with dialogue and speech.

  • Nicholas119
    12/03/2014 - 09:14 a.m.

    I think this will help people with brain problems. People will find at why people can not think. This will help so much people. Harry Potter is great.

  • sandysST
    12/03/2014 - 09:49 a.m.

    Harry Potter was always my favorite book I could always relate to it in many ways. Now I know that it is part of science. I always know that Harry Potter was special.

  • travisbST
    12/03/2014 - 09:56 a.m.

    I think that you just get addicted to the Harry Potter books. You just want to keep thinking about it. I don't think it does anything to your brain.

  • MaggieM-3
    12/03/2014 - 10:36 a.m.

    Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University studied what happens to the brain when it reads Harry Potter. They put people in a MRI machine and flash sentences from chapter nine in the Harry Potter Sorcerers Stone book. They choose chapter nine because it has a lot of action and emotion, but not an excess amount so it is difficult to track. The lead researcher is Leila Wehbe, and she thought that they should study what happens to the brain when it reads an entire story, not just phrases and sentences. In the research they found that the brain uses the same part to read as they do to perceive real actions. They can even choose which of two text passages was read based on the pattern of brain activity, with seventy-four percent accuracy.
    I think that this is so cool that science and technology is that far advanced. I think that this will eventually help with reading disorders and may even be able to rate a book, like this book is good because it shows a certain amount of brain activity.

  • abere-Cla
    12/03/2014 - 11:58 a.m.

    Thats interesting i am reading harry potter right now and i have finished the first book and almost done the second one if i had dyslexia me reading this can help me.

  • erica634
    12/03/2014 - 12:25 p.m.

    This article has science in it. It proves that when you read higher level books or books that is a challenge to you, Make you smarter. Also it confuses your brain alot. Like when the characters switch. It makes your brain healthy.

  • ThatGuyWyatt
    12/03/2014 - 12:56 p.m.

    This is cool. Wonder why Haley O Hara is so smart. I have never read Harry Potter but when I was a wee young lad my papa would read it to me.

  • Cs2001Tardis
    12/03/2014 - 01:09 p.m.

    Wow! I knew that we think when we read, but I didn't think that much. It is a cool fact that the part of the brain that processes character's point of view is the same part that we use to perceive people's actions.

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