The Science Of 'Harry Potter': What Happens In The Brain When We Read?


The brain is still mostly a mystery. We barely understand how it operates, especially when reading, which makes the brain do some serious multitasking. So what exactly happens in the brain when reading something like a Harry Potter book?

It turns out that a lot occurs and often the reactions the brain has while reading are the same as what the brain has when receiving information from the real world.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University had participants read a chapter of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone while hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning machines.

The researchers studied those scans, every last cubic millimeter of them, for four-word segments of what volunteers read, helping identify which regions of the brain do things like understanding sentences, comprehending the meaning of words, and understanding characters, their relationships and their actions. They created a computer model that then guessed which parts of a book participants were reading based on the brain scans.

Their study was successful. Their model predicted fMRI activity for specific parts of that book with around 74 percent accuracy.

"At first, we were skeptical of whether this would work at all," says Tom Mitchell, head of Machine Learning at Carnegie Mellon. "But it turned out amazingly well and now we have these wonderful brain maps that describe where in the brain you're thinking about a wide variety of things."

This marks the first time that scientists have analyzed multiple subprocesses in the brain like this.

Participants read Chapter 9 of The Sorcerer's Stone, which is the scene where Harry first learns to fly on his broomstick. Researchers learned that as participants read about Harry's movements, such as flying, the brain region activated is the same as the region activated when we watch real movement. Researchers also discovered that understanding book characters activated a brain region associated with that we use for understanding people in the real world.

Of course, 74 percent isn't 100 percent, but studies like this could help in the future in diagnosing and treating dyslexia, as well as those with speech problems after a stroke or brain injury. Figuring out exactly where in the brain something is failing could pinpoint the problem for further treatment.

This kind of research could also help those studying foreign languages, identifying exactly where in the brain someone is having trouble with that kind of learning.

"If I'm having trouble learning a new language, I may have a hard time figuring out exactly what I don't get," says Mitchell "When I can't understand a sentence, I can't articulate what it is I don't understand. But a brain scan might show that the region of my brain responsible for grammar isn't activating properly, or perhaps instead I'm not understanding the individual words."

Previous studies about functions in the brain while reading only focused on specific words or phrases. This study, though, focused on a story, creating a more real environment for studying brain activity while reading.

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