Harry Potter spells out emotion in bilinguals

                              Harry Potter      and The Prisoner of Azghaban     (Deutsch version) 

                              Harry Potter      and The Prisoner of Azghaban     (Deutsch version) 

The first story I read in a foreign language was Little Red Riding Hood. Towards the end, when the wolf inched closer and closer to eating the child, I wasn't frightened. In fact, I was slightly bored and closed the book disappointed. As a child learning a second language, I immediately sensed a difference in the weight and impact of the words. The scientific term for this sorcery is "attenuation of emotionality.” Studies show that emotional intensity is fundamentally different in non-native readers.  Why are emotions more powerful in a native language? 


The coupling of emotion and thoughts in an acquired language depends on several factors, including age, proficiency and exposure.


Whether first and second languages share the same neural pathways is inconclusive because only single words or sentences are used in bilingual studies. 

Enter Harry Potter. Apparition style. 

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Yes – Harry Potter.  The worldwide sensation that has delighted millions of readers with his wizardly adventures. Researchers in Germany gathered 24 participants fluent both in English and German and scanned their brain while they read emotionally charged Harry Potter passages in both languages.

The passages were matched in both languages based on number of letters, words and sentences. Even the number of characters present in the narrative and incidence of supra-natural events (i.e. magic) was paralleled.   After reading the passages in the scanner, the participants rated them in a different order on the four dimensions of valence (negative to positive); arousal (calming to arousing); fearfulness (not fear inducing to very fear inducing) and happiness (not happy to very happy). 

First key question: Does activity in the brain differ when reading in two languages?  Yes.

In this particular study, German and English were studied. Due to the complexity of the German language (word structure and more letters) the regions related to visual and orthographic processing were more active in German than English.

Second key question:  Does this activity differ based on the emotion that the text arouses, and is it different in the two languages?  Yes.  And yes.

When reading emotional-laden literature, most of the brain is used: there are areas that process emotion (amygdala), what the emotion means (hippocampus), understanding written dialogue (the tempo-parietal junction) and others, which process memory and empathy. 

Fig. 1.  Main Effects of Emotion. Regions showing significant BOLD response differences for emotion-laden versus neutral passages (Table 3) – created using xjView toolbox. Red color indicates significant positive differences (Emotion > Neutral). Green and blue indicate significant negative differences (Emotion < Neutral). A and F: right lateral view; B and G: left lateral view; C and H: inferior view; D and I: superior view; Left Panel: Fear versus Neutral; E: transverse section highlighting left amygdala.; Right Panel: Happy versus Neutral; J: transverse section highlighting right anterior temporal cortex.

Fig. 1. 

Main Effects of Emotion. Regions showing significant BOLD response differences for emotion-laden versus neutral passages (Table 3) – created using xjView toolbox. Red color indicates significant positive differences (Emotion > Neutral). Green and blue indicate significant negative differences (Emotion < Neutral). A and F: right lateral view; B and G: left lateral view; C and H: inferior view; D and I: superior view; Left Panel: Fear versus Neutral; E: transverse section highlighting left amygdala.; Right Panel: Happy versus Neutral; J: transverse section highlighting right anterior temporal cortex.

The heightened activation of numerous brain areas suggests that reading emotional literature compels the brain to find meaning in those emotions. Furthermore, German speakers felt happier when reading positive passages in German than in English. The data reflects clear efficiency differences: It takes more effort to mentally conjure up emotions in a different language. 


In other words, a foreign language feels foreign precisely because your brain has to employ other pathways to comprehend it.


Consequently, the profound feeling of words in a native language is due to the fact your brain is accustomed to the pathways created since childhood. It should be noted that sarcasm, metaphor and humor, which are culture-specific, were not taken into account and may further influence how a participant rates a passage. Even though there is an attenuation of emotion in a foreign language, it is still experienced.

Harry Potter can therefore, charm in any language.


ResearchBlogging.org Hsu, C., Jacobs, A., & Conrad, M. (2015). Can Harry Potter still put a spell on us in a second language? An fMRI study on reading emotion-laden literature in late bilinguals Cortex, 63, 282-295 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2014.09.002