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?
Lexile

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 painstakingly tracked how the brain processes a single word or sentence, looking for clues to language development or dyslexia by focusing on one aspect of reading at a time. But reading a story requires multiple systems working at once: 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, said Georgetown University neuroscientist Guinevere Eden, who helped pioneer brain-scanning studies of dyslexia but wasn't involved in the new work.

"It offers a much richer way of thinking about the reading brain," Eden said, calling the project "very clever and very exciting."

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 as 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 as Harry swoops around on his broom, faces the bully Malfoy and later runs into a three-headed dog, but there's not too much going on for scientists to track, said lead researcher Leila Wehbe, a Ph.D. student. Wehbe had the idea to study reading a story rather than just words or phrases.

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

"For the first time in history, we can do things like have you read a story and watch where in your brain the neural activity is happening," said senior author Tom Mitchell, director of Carnegie Mellon's Machine Learning Department. "Not just where are the neurons firing, but what information is being coded by those different neurons."

But parsing the brain activity took extraordinary effort. For every word, the researchers identified features the number of letters, the part of speech, if it was associated with a character or action or emotion or conversation. Then they used computer programming to analyze brain patterns associated with those features in 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.

That suggests we're using pretty high-level brain functions, not just the semantic concepts but our previous experiences, as we get lost in the story, she said.

A related study using faster brain-scanning techniques shows that much of the neural activity is about the history of the story up to that point, rather than deciphering the current word, Mitchell added.

The team's computer model can distinguish with 74 percent accuracy which of two text passages matches a pattern of neural activity, he said, 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

Assigned 45 times


COMMENTS (20)
  • hshelly-Cla
    12/03/2014 - 11:55 a.m.

    Harry Potter is on my list of what I want to read. If the brain truly does get smarter for reading it, the I would read it all the time. So far read few chapters of all the books, mainly the scenes that were changed in the movies or not in the movies.

  • MikaylaStazewski-Ste
    12/03/2014 - 12:29 p.m.

    Reading the title I was somewhat amazed and actually a little confused. I thought "wow harry potter seriously makes you think differently?" but as I read the article I figured out that it's intense action that actually triggers the brain to think differently.

  • NashMcComsey-Ste
    12/03/2014 - 01:04 p.m.

    Although, to me, this seems like an odd topic to reaserach, i find myself equally curious as to the effects of other books, based off of this information. Perhaps this information can be used, in the future, to find what book a certian person would enjoy reading?

  • sbrown-Cla
    12/03/2014 - 01:12 p.m.

    when i read harry potter my head starts to spin like crazy my head go out of control but i find harry potter book boring

  • TaylorHartman-Ste
    12/03/2014 - 01:26 p.m.

    That is pretty interesting to know that a brain is learning a great deal of knowledge whenever they are reading. I enjoy reading because it allows my mind to think of life in a different way, and I definitely believe that Harry Potter books are something not ordinary.

  • 5AxelA
    12/03/2014 - 04:51 p.m.

    I think that this research can be useful. One reason is how we process information while multitasking. Another way is how the brain works when we read or write. I think these examples can be useful because we as a human race can learn more about the way our brains work. Also, the writing portion can be used to figure out why some children have trouble writing when others do not.
    -Own Opinion

  • KiraWvA-4
    12/03/2014 - 06:22 p.m.

    Volunteers read a chapter of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" in an MRI, while researchers watched their brain's activities. The study showed the relationship of four-word stretches with a variety of different factors: parts of speech, relation to the plot, the number of letters. They found that point of view was deciphered in the part of the brain that tries to figure out the reason for people's actions, and the region where real people's emotions are interpreted helped with the characters'. I like how they used a story instead of some paragraph or something, because it is better with plot lines and things like that.

  • NJesse-Cas
    12/03/2014 - 09:48 p.m.

    It is so cool that Harry Potter stimulates the brain. I've always liked Harry Potter and I love psychology. I never realized that they could be so easily related. Harry Potter is so creative, I had no idea that reading books was so healthy for the brain.

  • tw2001marvel
    12/04/2014 - 01:03 p.m.

    The way that volunteers "read" Harry Potter inside the MRI machine is by having the volunteers watch 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. They had to do this because you can't turn pages inside of a MRI and you have to lie down completely still.

  • NickB-2
    12/04/2014 - 10:46 p.m.

    This article is about how the brain works while it reads. a group of researchers measured brain activity during a MRI scan as a person read chapter 9 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. We use the same procesees to view a fictional characters point of view as we do people in real life. also we use the same parts of our brain where we interpret previous experiences to read the characters emotions based on their actions. I think this is very impressive and interesting.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT