Cover art for the U.S. edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by Mary GrandPré.

It might have happened when you were just a little kid, as you were sitting with your parents reading Goosebumps or The Boxcar Children. Or it might have come a little later in your life, when you first encountered Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis, or maybe when you picked up The Lord of The Rings or The Golden Compass for the first time. Or maybe you are still waiting for this to happen…

For the most part, all of us have encountered a text that we love. One that resonates with us on a a deep level and stays with us throughout our lives, like a trusted, old friend. Indeed, people often describe “getting lost in a book.” It is a common, and ever so powerful, feeling. However, the science that underlies this phenomenon has been little studied.

Scientists recently set out to fix that.

A research team from the Free University of Berlin in Germany recently attempted to see exactly what’s going on in our brains when we get immersed in great literature (or at least, literature that, subjectively, we think is great). Specifically, the team analyzed what happens when people read the Harry Potter narratives. This text was used to make inferences about how literature, in general, operates in relation to the human brain.

The researchers were led by psychologist Chun-Ting Hsu, who came up with a “fiction feeling hypothesis.” This theory is simple enough. It asserts that narratives that have valuable emotional content prompt readers to feel empathy towards the protagonists, which will result in the text “resonating” more with readers. However, of course, this is not just some subjective hypothesis that can only be tested by asking individuals about their “feelings.”

Rather, feelings of empathy are activated by a special neural network that is located in the anterior insula and mid-cingulate cortex regions of the brain. Thus, we can scientifically measure subjective responses to texts.

“Descriptions of protagonists’ pain or personal distress featured in the fear-inducing passages apparently caused increasing involvement of the core structure of pain and affective empathy the more readers immersed in the text,” the authors conclude.

In order to reach these conclusions, the researchers used two groups of participants. Ultimately, they used several passages from the Harry Potter series and used an MRI scanner in order to carry out their tests. The first group read selected passages inside an MRI scanner, which allowed the researchers to capture images of their brain activity as they read. The second group was asked to rate each passage based on how “immersed” they felt.

The passages were four lines long, and ranged from suspenseful and fear-inducing, like when Harry sees a half-blood wizard called Quirinus Quirrell drinking unicorn blood in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, to emotionally neutral scenes.

Although the team states that the empathy network is activated by emotionally driven passages, the theory only partially holds. Hsu and his team did not find any evidence for heightened activity in the anterior insula. This calls into question how much our empathy network is activated by literature that we find compelling. However, it is theorized that this portion of the empathy network might not be activated because J.K. Rowling, author of the Potter texts, describes emotion vividly rather than labeling it. This kind of writing would recruit the middle cingulate gyrus (a motor region) more than the anterior insula (a sensory region). Thus, different kinds of passages will need to be tested in order to flesh out the conclusions a bit more.

Additionally, the fact that only 4 line passages were used means that more detailed studies will be needed in order to determine what makes texts, as a whole, compelling. But for now, this evidence is a good first step toward understanding literature through the lens of neuroscience.

The team published the results in the journal NeuroReport


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