Harry Potter swoops around on his broom, faces the bully Malfoy and later runs into a three-headed dog. For scientists studying brain 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 reported Wednesday has implications for studying reading disorders or recovery from a stroke.
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.
senior author Tom Mitchell, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Machine Learning Department
For every word the researchers identified features — the number of letters, the part of speech, whether it was associated with a character or action or emotion or conversation. Then they used computer programming to analyse brain patterns associated with those features in every four-word stretch. Most neuroscientists painstakingly have 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 at once: recognizing how letters form a word, knowing the definitions and grammar, keeping up with the characters’ relationships and the plot twists.