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)
  • doglover44
    12/03/2014 - 01:30 p.m.

    The way that the research team had the volunteers read was remarkable. It was a good idea to have the volunteers read words flashed in front of their face for half a second because then it would be easier to pinpoint what they feel after each word without ruining the experience of reading. I believe we could use the technology to spot reading dysfunctions earlier and fix the problem.

  • whumanic-Cla
    12/03/2014 - 01:34 p.m.

    Neuroscientists have been studying how the brain reacts when reading certain things. They recently studied what happens to your brain as you are reading Harry Potter. They did this by setting the person in an MRI and flashing a word every second of the ninth chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone.

  • shelbym-Orv
    12/03/2014 - 04:29 p.m.

    That's super cool! I love Harry Potter so much! Volunteers "read" Harry Potter inside the MRI machine by seeing images of the words on the pages flashed on the screen.

  • PJ-Arm
    12/03/2014 - 05:23 p.m.

    That is really interesting. I did not know you did that. The MRI machine is pretty cool. It is an amazing machine. Thank you for reading my comment. I am P.J. Austin.

  • Natalee-Arm
    12/03/2014 - 08:19 p.m.

    Volunteers "read" Harry Potter Inside the MRI machine by each word of Chapter 9 of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" being flashed for half a second onto a screen inside the scanner. I think this is a very interesting thing ,but it is super cool.

  • AmandaM-1
    12/03/2014 - 08:45 p.m.

    Neuroscientists have been observing the brain's activity while reading Harry Potter. The emotions and reactions associated with the reader's brain while processing the book's plot are related with the way they are used in regular social life. For example when Harry flies around on his broom, certain parts of the brain begin to work. The way that they test this theory is by putting a test subject through an MRI machine which monitors their brain activity while the words appear on a screen for a split second until it goes through the entire book. To me, Harry Potter movies are really interesting and exciting and this article makes me want to start reading the books.

  • Brenna-Arm
    12/03/2014 - 08:46 p.m.

    Wow! It's so cool that they have the technology to do complicated studies like that! It's pretty interesting to know how your brain works while reading Harry Potter.

  • SofiaA-4
    12/03/2014 - 09:47 p.m.

    Scientists want to know what exactly the brain does as it reads. A test that is done by having the subject read chapter nine of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and analyse the text helps scientist see how the brain works when a person reads. By analyzing the scans, scientists have found that regions in the brain that we use for real-life observations are also used when reading fictional stories. Scientists have used this test to check if people have reading or learning disorders as well. Scientists hope to learn more.

    Harry Potter is one of my favorite books so to make the connection with it helps catch the attention of the reader. I am astonished that reading is more than just staring at words on a page and making sense of them. Using parts of the brain that are used for reality to analyse fiction brings a whole new level of consideration of how fiction and reality are tied.

  • JohnD-Cal
    12/03/2014 - 10:16 p.m.

    The section is about how people think of harry potter when they are getting a MRI and the people looking at the results were stunned.

  • zoer-Mil
    12/04/2014 - 08:49 a.m.

    I love Harry Potter! I would LOVE to be in that study, helping people by doing something I enjoy! I'm also glad my brother gave me the entire series. Everyone should learn to love Harry and his adventures,for fun , and for brain growth.

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