Lancashire academics say Harry Potter puts spell on readers

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Certain words and sentences from Harry Potter stories cast a spell on the brain activating regions that process emotions, academics in Lancashire have found

Scientists at the University of Lancaster used a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to map the brains of volunteers reading excerpts from JK Rowling’s books about the young wizard.

They found “significant correlations” between brain activity in regions associated with emotion and words and passages judged to be emotionally charged.

Psychologist Dr Francesca Citron, from the University of Lancaster, said: “These results suggest that a text’s constituting words can predict its emotion potential.”

Examples of the texts used included this passage from Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire: “Wormtail screamed, screamed as though every nerve in his body was on fire, the screaming filled Harry’s ears as the scar on his forehead seared with pain ...”

Here is another from Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince: “’You disgusting little Squib, you filthy little blood traitor,’ roared Gaunt, losing control, and his hands closed around his daughter’s throat. Both Harry and Ogden yelled ‘No!’ at the same time...”

The scans showed that reading such passages stimulated the left amygdala region of the brain that is involved in processing emotional reactions. The more emotionally arousing words a text contained, the bigger the effect that was seen.

Writing in the journal Brain And Language, the scientists said: “When we read a text, specific words reverberate in our minds beyond the more complex message conveyed by the text; the art of choosing the right words with the appropriate affective impact is part of what defines the skill of good writers or speakers.”