According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, when we read about Harry Potter’s first broomstick flying lessons, it activates the same parts of our brains that we use to determine the intentions and actions of people in day to day interactions.
Researchers have looked at brain activity while reading before, but have focused on the parts of the brain used to read a single word at a time. For the first time, scientists were able to put eight subjects into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) chamber, and have them read Chapter 9 of J. K. Rowling’s well known Harry Potter series.
In case it’s been a while since you picked up your copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this is the chapter where Harry has trouble flying with the Slytherins, Draco steals Neville’s Remembrall, Harry rescues it, and ends up getting invited to join the Gryffindor House Quidditch Team. Harry, Hermione, and Ron also have their first encounter with Fluffy.
Researchers flashed the chapter of Harry Potter on a screen within the fMRI, at a speed of about two words a second, and had their subjects read. The test took about 45 minutes, and produced exciting results.
Tom Mitchell, senior author of the research and director of the Machine Learning Department at Carnegie Mellon told the Associated Press:
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. Not just where are the neurons firing, but what information is being coded by those different neurons.
Researchers hope that this information will be useful in providing therapies for patients who have suffered a stroke, or those with dyslexia or other reading-based learning difficulties.
While previous research has looked at how the brain decodes the word our eyes are focused on at one moment, this new study gives us information on how we process the entirety of a story. We use the same region to process a character’s point of view as we do to understand motivations of people we speak to day to day, and the region of the brain that process visual information about emotions also activates in response to the emotions of the characters we read about, according to Leila Wehbe, a Ph.D student who was lead researcher on the project.
Wehbe told the Daily Mail that while the model is inexact, she and the other researchers hope that it will be able to help people being to tease apart exactly what magic it is that happens when we read books, Harry Potter or otherwise.
Image from ABCNews