Harry Potter swoops around on his broom, faces the bully Malfoy and later runs into a three-headed dog. For scientists studying the brain’s activity while reading, it’s the perfect excerpt from the young wizard’s many adventures to give their subjects.
Reading that section of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone activates some of the same regions in the brain that people use to perceive real people’s actions and intentions. Scientists then map what a healthy brain does as it reads.
The research, published last week in the journal PLoS One, has implications for studying reading disorders or recovery from a stroke. The team from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh was pleasantly surprised that the experiment actually worked.
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 together: 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.”
During an MRI scan, 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, but there’s not too much going on for scientists to track, said lead researcher Leila Wehbe, a Ph.D. student.