Looking at Comics in the Brain with Lasers!

Nagai, Masayoshi, Nobutaka Endo, and Kumada Takatsune. 2007. “Measuring Brain Activities Related to Understanding Using near-Infrared Spectroscopy (Nirs).” In Human Interface and the Management of Information: Methods, Techniques and Tools in Information Design, 884-93. Heidelberg: Springer Berlin

I had originally reviewed this article several years ago back in 2008, but after recent research of my own I think it’s worth revisiting…

This study used near-infrared spectroscopy to measure blood flow in the brain while people read comics. This technique emits infrared light into the scalp to measure where blood flows in the brain, which can thus indicate the brain regions involved in various behaviors.

They compared normal comic strips with fully scrambled strips of random panels. They then compared the normal strips with tasks asking people to either pay close attention to the strips and report what they found funny or to just read them passively. They found that there was greater activation in “the left prefrontal lobe region is activated when people actively try to understand the comic stories and to memorize their contents for reporting in the future.”

As I reported last time, there are several problems with this study, such as the number of stimuli (only 6 strips) and their population (13 people). Comparatively, my last brain study used 160 stimuli per trial (720 strips total) and 24 participants.

However, the areas of activation that they did find is interesting. The prefrontal lobe in the left hemisphere (“Broca’s Area) is associated with the processing of grammar in language, and the authors specifically point out that the areas the found for comprehending comics may overlap with this region.

Previous research has also found that this area plays a role in the comprehension of comics. Indeed, research of my own has been more fine-grained than these previous approaches, and has been finding hints that this area is active as well.

So, while this study may have great limitations, it may have been providing some early precedents for some important understandings about the comprehension of comics and the brain.


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