What happens in the brain during a highly immersive reading experience? According to the fiction feeling hypothesis (Jacobs, 2014), narratives with highly emotional content cause a deeper sense of immersion by engaging the affective empathy network to a greater extent than neutral narratives. Emotional empathy — in this case, the ability to identify with a fictional character via grounded metarepresentations of ‘global emotional moments’ (Hsu et al., 2014) — relies on a number of brain regions, including ventromedial prefrontal cortex (PFC), dorsomedial PFC, anterior insula (especially in the right hemisphere), right temporal pole, left and right posterior temporal lobes, inferior frontal gyrus, and midcingulate cortex.
A group of researchers in Germany used text passages from the Harry Potter series to test the fiction feeling hypothesis, specifically that readers will experience a greater sense of empathy for and identification with the protagonists when the content is suspenseful and scary (Hsu et al., 2014). This would be accompanied by greater activations in specific brain regions during an fMRI scan.
The experimental stimuli were 80 passages from the Harry Potter novels. The authors selected 40 ‘fear-inducing’ and 40 ‘neutral’ passages, each about 4 lines long.1 These were screened and rated by a set of independent participants. Unfortunately, the authors did not provide any examples, so I'm going to have to improvise here.
Given that I've not read any of the Harry Potter books (or seen the movies), I'm not the best person to run a popular blog serial on NeuroReport's Harry Potter and the _______ books. Or to to launch an academic publishing franchise on fMRI studies of epic fantasy novels.2
But here's a sampler anyway, based on Ayn Rand’s Harry Potter and the Prisoners of Collectivism: 3
He felt the unnatural cold begin to steal over the street. Light was sucked from the environment right up to the stars, which vanished. The cold was biting deeper and deeper into Harry’s flesh [and lighting up his pain matrix in an eerie glow against the dark and lonely night].
Then, around the corner, gliding noiselessly, came Dementors, ten or more of them, visible because they were of a denser darkness than their surroundings, with their black cloaks and their scabbed and rotting hands. Could they sense fear [and an overactive amygdala] in the vicinity? ...
Suddenly he heard them: Marxists.
. . .
“Only together, collectively, can we achieve anything of lasting significance,” he heard one of them say. Harry moaned in pain [his anterior cingulate and insular cortices writhing from such cognitive dissonance and social exclusion].
“The fortunate owe it to society to contribute to those who cannot work,” another chanted. Harry closed his eyes and collapsed [his ventral posteriorlateral thalamic nuclei and somatosensory cortex no longer able to endure the intolerable battering].
My poorly written additions in maroon prefigure the focus of the study — empathy for pain. I'm not exactly sure why this was so (for either literary or scientific reasons). At any rate, Hsu et al. (2014) made the following predictions:
we expected (i) higher immersion ratings for fear-inducing passages, which often describe pain or personal distress, as compared with neutral passages, and (ii) significant correlations of immersion ratings with activity in the affective empathy network, particularly AI [anterior insula] and mCC [mid-cingulate cortex], associated with pain empathy for fear-inducing, but not for neutral, passages.
AI and mCC have been implicated in the affective component of personally felt pain, as well as in empathy for another person's pain (Jackson et al., 2006). So the expected result would be greater activations in AI and mCC for the Fearful vs. Neutral comparison. They didn't do this exact contrast, but they did look for differential correlations between “immersion ratings” and BOLD responses for Fear > fixation (a low-level control condition) and Neutral > fixation.
A separate group of individuals (not the ones who were scanned) rated the Fearful and Neutral passages for immersion by rating their subjective experience, ‘I forgot the world around me while reading’ on a scale from 1 (totally untrue) to 7 (totally true). Although the difference between Fear (mean = 3.75) and Neutral (mean = 3.18) was statistically significant, the level of immersion wasn't all that impressive, being below the midpoint even for the scary texts.
The major fMRI result was a cluster in the mid-cingulate cortex (corrected cluster-level P = 0.037) that showed a higher correlation between immersion ratings and BOLD for Fear than for Neutral.
Fig. 1B (modified from Hsu et al., (2014). The mid-cingulate gyrus showing a significant correlation difference between passage immersion ratings and BOLD response in the Fear versus Neutral conditions, cross-hair highlighting the peak voxel [8 14 39].
No such relation was observed in the anterior insula, which was explained by postulating that “motor affective empathy” was more prominent than “sensory affective empathy”:
Craig  considered mCC to be the limbic motor cortex and the site of emotional behavioural initiation, whereas AI is the sensory counterpart. With respect to our stimuli from Harry Potter series, in which behavioural aspects of emotion are particularly vividly described, the motor component of affective empathy (i.e. mCC) might predominate during emotional involvement, and facilitate immersive experience.
This is obviously a post-hoc explanation, one that's hard to judge in the absence of actual exemplars of the experimental stimuli. Although the results were a bit underwhelming, I was happy the authors did not venture out on a rickety and hyperbolic limb, as the NYT did (gasp!) in Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities? and Next Big Thing in English.
1 The Fearful and Neutral passages were matched for many factors that can affect reading:
...numbers of letters, words, sentences and subordinate sentence per passage, the number of persons or characters (as the narrative element), the type of intercharacter interaction and the incidence of supranatural events (i.e. magic) involved in text passages across the emotional categories.
2 Perhaps Neuroskeptic is more qualified for that...
3 Also from Mallory Ortberg at The Toast, we have Ayn Rand’s Harry Potter and The Order of Psycho-epistemology :
“You’re a prefect? Oh Ronnie! That’s everyone in the family!”
Ron looked nervously at Harry. Harry betrayed nothing. You can be a wizard, Ron remembered, and you can be a man; it is good to be both, if you can, but if you must choose, it is better to be a man and not a wizard than a wizard and not a man.
Professor of Literary Neuroimaging: “An unfocused and rambling article in the New York Times the other day was excited about the potential use of neuroimaging to revive the gloomy state of university literature departments. It also tried to convey the importance of evolutionary psychology in explaining fiction.”
Hsu CT, Conrad M, & Jacobs AM (2014). Fiction feelings in Harry Potter: haemodynamic response in the mid-cingulate cortex correlates with immersive reading experience. Neuroreport PMID: 25304498
Jackson PL, Rainville P, Decety J. (2006). To what extent do we share the pain of others? Insight from the neural bases of pain empathy. Pain 125:5-9.
Jacobs AM. (2014). Neurocognitive Model of Literary Reading.
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