Harry Potter did a lot to get kids reading, and children all over the world are still discovering the joy of reading thanks to the adventures of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world. It makes sense then that neuroscientists would use the books to study how our brain analyzes the written word.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Machine Learning Department recently conducted a study of eight adults who read chapter nine in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone while hooked up to brain imaging hardware. Due to the constraints of the hardware, the participants couldn’t actually read the book, but were rather fed the chapter one word at a time via a display that flashed each word for half a second. In other words, the participants were reading the words as quickly as they normally would in a book.
So, what did they find? Perhaps the most unsurprising find is that we view the characters in books as real people. For example, the part of the brain that helps us tell what emotions a person is feeling is used when trying to parse what emotions the character in the book is feeling.
The really interesting find is that the brain scans found that we read books in a way that we might not even realize. While most would assume that we just focus on the present when reading a book, most of our brain power is actually spent relating the current events with events that have already happened. In other words, most of our brain is dedicated to fitting current events into context when reading. It’s something that people probably don’t consciously think they’re doing when reading, but, like breathing, they’re now aware of it.
So, what do the researchers hope to discover with this study? There are a number of things, but perhaps the most exciting is helping us figure out why we have certain trouble with certain words or languages:
“If I’m having trouble learning a new language, I may have a hard time figuring out exactly what I don’t get,” department head Tom Mitchell said. “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.”