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How the vocabulary of Harry Potter triggers emotion

Posted April 23, 2015

Reading certain words in Harry Potter triggers part of the brain concerned with feelings say researchers.

The Great Hall in Hogwarts Castle

The Great Hall in Hogwarts Castle

They used a magnetic resonance imaging scanner to map activity in the brains of people reading 120 passages from the Harry Potter series, as part of an investigation into how single words can induce emotion.

The research published in Brain and Language showed “significant correlations” between brain activity in regions associated with emotion processing  and words and passages rated as more emotional.

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

Texts used included this 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; he was yelling, too.

The researchers 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.”

Another passage, from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, read: “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 MRI scans revealed that reading passages like this correlated with brain activity in regions associated with emotion, with building a mental model of a situation and also with the understanding of a character’s state of mind.

These emotional passages stimulated the left amygdala of the brain, which processes emotional reactions. The more emotionally arousing words a text contained, the more it was judged to be emotionally affecting.

Thus, the emotional engagement readers show is mostly driven by the single emotional words contained in the text, rather than by each passage as a whole.

The researchers said: “Our data makes a strong case for the prevailing importance of basic features concerning the emotional impact of overall very complex samples of human communication, namely the mean and spread of affective features of single words encountered in texts.”

Source: Lancaster University

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