Harry Potter on the Brain - Pacific Standard

Harry Potter on the Brain

New research finds fictional descriptions of fantastic events tickle our brains in unique ways.
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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando. (Photo: Hattanas Kumchai/Shutterstock)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando. (Photo: Hattanas Kumchai/Shutterstock)

In the unlikely event J.K. Rowling changes her mind and writes another book in her phenomenally popular fantasy series about young wizards and witches, new research has provided the perfect title: Harry Potter and the Activated Amygdala.

According to a paper just published in the online journal PLoS One, her descriptions of the supernatural world of Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and Platform 9 3/4 stimulate our brains in a way that passages featuring more familiar, relatable settings and activities do not.

The research suggests fantasy stories—or at least those good enough to hold our interest—produce neural reactions that are above and beyond those created by other narratives—even ones that are just as exciting, involving, or humorous.

Fantasy stories—or at least those good enough to hold our interest—produce neural reactions that are above and beyond those created by other narratives—even ones that are just as exciting, involving, or humorous.

The study, conducted by a research team led by psychologist Chun-Ting Hsu of the Free University of Berlin, featured 23 people ranging in age from 19 to 31. While brain activity was monitored using fMRI technology, each read a series of passages excerpted from each of the seven Harry Potter books.

Twenty of these described magical happenings, such as “She waved her wand over her shoulder; a loaf of bread and a knife soared gracefully onto the table.” Another 20 described activities that could occur in real life, such as “Harry, Ron and Hermione descended Professor Trelawney’s ladder and the winding staircase in silence.”

The passages were matched for emotional content and narrative complexity. In spite of this, the participants’ brains responded to them quite differently. 

For one thing, reading the magical passages brought about increased activation in the Visual Word Form Area, which apparently resulted “from the effort to resolve the uncertainty of surprise due to the supra-natural events.”

More significantly, reading those passages also increased activation of the left amygdala, a part of the brain that is “traditionally associated with emotion processing,” the researchers note. This matches the higher levels of surprise and enjoyment the participants experienced when processing these otherworldly descriptions.

The results suggest that “reading about events so charmingly beyond our everyday life experiences lays the ground of gratifying emotional experiences associated with this literature,” the researchers conclude.

“The brain activation patterns observed here offer a tentative explanation of why we apparently enjoy this facet of fantasy literature so much,” they add. “Our mental simulation of such supra-natural events occupy our attention network, and surprise and entertain us, more strongly than comparable (descriptions of non-magical events).”

Which explains why there’s nothing quite as enthralling as a good Quidditch match.

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