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 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

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COMMENTS (20)
  • MadisonSch
    12/05/2014 - 01:50 p.m.

    It would be cool to see how your brain functions while you are reading a book. You never really know what your brain does while do activities, you don't really think about it.

  • ratiaira
    12/05/2014 - 01:55 p.m.

    i didn't know that books really could even affect your brain like that i have read some harry potter books but they were so big that i never could really finish one of the books

  • havenr-Koc
    12/05/2014 - 08:21 p.m.

    Our brains are such miraculous pieces of art. We can unlock and see all that makes us who we are under a brain scanner and see all the wonders that go on inside of our minds. It's so cool that we can see what happens when we read certain things and relate to them. Our generation is wonderful with the technology we achieve everyday.

  • vincet-Koc
    12/07/2014 - 11:54 p.m.

    It is interesting to see that reading a sole novel can make your mind think a different way and act different than any other book.

  • joshz-Koc
    12/08/2014 - 02:01 a.m.

    It is very interesting how the brain is actually doing a lot of work while it feels little to none. We don't think our brain is doing work when we are reading but we are actually feeling like we are inside the story when we zone out, and "get lost in the story". We feel like everything is right I front of us and that is all due to what they have found out in this research. The brain is understanding the characters point of view and their emotions by just scanning over a bunch of words, no pictures.

  • Logan.Tomasulo57
    12/09/2014 - 12:58 p.m.

    I find it interesting when you read Harry Potter, that it activates the same regions of the brain that you use to perceive real life to do good

  • NickOh-Wil
    12/09/2014 - 03:38 p.m.

    How they read it inside a MRI is they see is flashed 1/2 a second before their eyes. I have no idea how they are able to read that fast unless it flashed with out pause at a steady rate.

  • ValerieF-Bri
    12/10/2014 - 03:02 p.m.

    Volunteers read the chapter word by word as each word is flashed for half a second, as they cannot actually read the book because the MRI machine requires absolute stillness. The scientists found that the sections of readers' brains that were active when they performed an activity were also active when they read about Harry Potter performing an activity- same goes for experiencing emotions and having conversations.
    What I wonder about, however, is the people in the study who might read at a rate lower than 120 words per minute. The rate at which the words are being flashed could be difficult to follow, even though the average in adults is 300 words per minute- and this is in optimal reading conditions. Lying prone with loud noises all around your head makes for less than optimal conditions. Did they fully understand the material they were reading?

  • DavidXu-Bri
    12/10/2014 - 03:08 p.m.

    Critical thinking challenge: As volunteers read Harry Potter, it seems evident that verbal and syntactic processing skills are involved, but the MRI scans appear to show that a greater degree of brain area is used than was previously suspected. In particular, it seems that social modelling skills that are used in interaction with real people are also used to model the fictional characters in books. This may be the reason why certain people find some characters more "sympathetic" than others, and suggest that the most successful authors may be the ones that can model their characters minds the most relatably.

  • CharismaM
    12/28/2014 - 05:17 p.m.

    I think this is an interesting topic. I would like to learn what a person's brain does when they read because it's just intriguing to me.

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