At the Carnegie Mellon University’s Machine Learning Department, researchers have identified brain regions that encode words, grammar, character development by performing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on subjects – while they read Harry Potter.
“At first, we were skeptical of whether this would work at all,” explains Tom Mitchell, the Machine Learning department head, pointing out that analyzing multiple subprocesses of the brain at the same has never been attempted before in cognitive neuroscience. “But it turned out amazingly well and now we have these wonderful brain maps that describe where in the brain you’re thinking about a wide variety of things.”
Essentially, fMRI scans were carried out of eight people as they read a chapter from the “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. Exhaustive analysis of the scans (cubic millimeter by cubic millimeter for every four-word segment of that chapter), revealed “the first integrated computational model of reading, identifying which parts of the brain are responsible for such subprocesses as parsing sentences, determining the meaning of words and understanding relationships between characters,” according to Carnegie Mellon News.
Leila Wehbe, a Ph.D. student in the Machine Learning Department, believes that although the model needs refining, someday it might be useful against reading disorders or to track recovery of patients whose speech was impacted by a stroke.
The article further explains, “They devised a technique in which people see one word of a passage every half second — or four words for every two-second fMRI scan. For each word, they identified 195 detailed features — everything from the number of letters in the word to its part of speech. They then used a machine learning algorithm to analyze the activation of each cubic centimeter of the brain for each four-word segment.”
Piecing all this data together, the algorithm identified certain features with certain regions of the brain, Wehbe said.
“The test subjects read Chapter 9 of Sorcerer’s Stone, which is about Harry’s first flying lesson,” she noted. “It turns out that movement of the characters — such as when they are flying their brooms — is associated with activation in the same brain region that we use to perceive other people’s motion. Similarly, the characters in the story are associated with activation in the same brain region we use to process other people’s intentions.”
Although a long course remains to be charted to understand exactly how the brain creates these neural encodings, the researchers believe, it is the beginning of understanding what the brain is doing when a person reads.
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(Image credit: Hung Chieh Tsai)