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What Do Harry Potter, Reading, and Brain Scans Have In Common? An Experiment With Fascinating Results

Scientists recently looked into the brain activity of people caught up in reading a page-turner, J. K. Rowling’s popular “Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone.” The experiment helped measure brain activity during reading, and it is shedding light on the questions surrounding how our brains work, how they make sense of reality, and what they experience when we read.

The eight subjects that participated in the Carnegie Mellon University were reading the ninth chapter of the first Harry Potter book, one that revolves around a flying lesson.

What scientists discovered is that when the participants were reading about the movements and efforts of Harry Potter to ride his broom and fly, this activated the brain regions that people use when they try to detect and understand other people’s movements. In other words, reading and interpreting real-life events activate the same brain regions.

The flying lesson chapter the participants were asked to read was also one laden with emotions. In this chapter, Harry is confronted with the bully Malfoy and at one point meets a three-headed dog. The many events and emotions described in this chapter helped scientists extract some important conclusions from the study.

The scientists discovered that during the reading experiment, when people were reading about a person’s point of view or character, the brain region that lit up was the one associated with how people interpret other people’s actions. As the scientists explain, “Similarly, the characters in the story are associated with activation in the same brain region we use to process other people’s intentions.” Source

This reveals that what we read truly engages our brain and activates complex processes so that we can understand  what we’re reading, both in terms of language and in terms of narrative.

In other words, whether we’re reading about how a protagonist tries to decipher a person’s actions by trying to figure out what their intentions are, or whether we are trying to decipher these intentions in a person sitting next to us, the same brain regions come into play.

While previous studies focused on individual words and sentences to understand how the brain processes language, by looking at language and brain activity through the act of reading, we get a much richer overview of how the brain responds to this complex process. The reader is expected to decipher the meaning of words and put this meaning in context. The reader needs to use grammar and context clues, and at the same time keep up with how the characters develop and how the plot proceeds through the various events introduced in the narrative.

This research is a big step towards better understanding of how the brain operates and processes visual and linguistic stimuli, and how reading affects our brain. It’s not the first time that scientists have used reading as the vehicle for monitoring brain activity. Reading is a cognitively complex process that seems to hold the key to many of our brain’s mysteries — mysteries that, as yet, are still unsolved.


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