“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” – Stephen King
Whenever I hear the words ‘Harry Potter’ uttered anywhere, I literally jump up and search frantically for whoever spoke those “magic words”. The words have a special power on many people, and I bet many fans (e.g., people who have read all the HP books more than once) would have the same reaction, to the chagrin of many muggles (non-magic / non-readers folk). That being said, have you ever wondered why the world became so engrossed by this fictional tale? Well, we likely all have different personal reasons, but one of them is obviously that it appealed to us emotionally. However, good science needs good evidence and scientists have tried to analyze some other reasons for this global phenomenon.
The Power of Emotions!
Although researchers can be Potterheads too, they didn’t conduct entire studies solely related to Harry Potter. Lancaster University researchers tried to understand what determines the emotional sense of texts that we read. In their study, they read and selected 120 passages from the 7 books, such that each passage was emotionally unambiguous and consistent in emotional tone. Participants’ brain activity was recorded in an fMRI setting while they read these 120 passages.
In a following session, participants rated the valence, i.e., whether they felt the passage was positive, negative or emotionally neutral. Another dimension of interest was the arousal level of each passage, i.e., whether they felt calm or aroused after reading the passage. The scans revealed that reading highly emotional passages correlated with brain activity in the regions associated with emotional processing, such as the left amygdala and the insula. Also, the more emotionally arousing words a passage contained, the more arousing it was rated to be. Surprisingly enough, if a passage had uniform emotional valence, but contained slightly opposing effect words, then the arousal rating for the passage was moderate. For example, take a look at the sentence below.
‘And then a silence fell over the crowd, from the front first, so that a chill seemed to spread down the corridor‘.
The word ‘silence’ has a calming effect overall, but the word ‘chill’ is quite arousing. Hence, the sentence has a moderately arousing effect. However, text that was richer (i.e., a higher number) in arousing words was rated as highly arousing.
All of this means that single words in a sentence drive the emotions we feel while reading that sentence. Many studies on memory have shown that things with high emotional significance for us stay in our memories for longer. Dumbledore was right on target when he said, ‘Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic!’
Converting Words to a Movie
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University tried to understand the aspects of the written word that can evoke vivid imagery/stories. Based on previous data on reading and brain regions that are active, they developed a computer model to predict which brain regions would be active while we read texts. They tested this model in a brain imaging experiment.
That’s where Harry Potter comes into the picture. They picked Chapter 9 of Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone to be displayed on a screen in an fMRI chamber where each word was flashed for half a second. They obtained scans of the working brain every two seconds, which helped them monitor which parts of the text evoked responses in particular areas of the brain. The passages of interest were Harry’s flying lesson and their encounter with Fluffy, the three-headed dog.
Looking at the differences in brain patterns and fitting the data to their model, they could predict with 74% accuracy which passage people were reading. The data generally indicated that areas of the brain that light up during activities also activate when we read about them. For example, when reading about Harry flying on the broom, the brain area that usually shows activity while watching a person move lit up during the study.
The study basically tells us what an awesome activity reading truly is, and how it obviously multiplies the cool quotient of Harry Potter books! Apart from getting us more excited about our favorite fantasy fiction, the results provide hope for the development of better therapies for people with dyslexia. The model will help to assess which sub-process a person is struggling with. A brain scan could immediately show that the grammar area isn’t activating, or perhaps the problem is with articulation.
Thus, in the wise words of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, ‘Oddment Nitwit Blubber Tweak!‘