The Brain: The Charlie Brown Effect
I am sitting in a darkened, closet-size lab at Tufts University, my scalp covered by a blue cloth cap studded with electrodes that detect electric signals from my brain. Data flow from the electrodes down rainbow-colored wires to an electroencephalography (eeg) machine, which records the activity so a scientist can study it later on.
Wearing this elaborate setup, I gaze at a television in front of me, focusing on a tiny cross at the center of the screen. The cross disappears, and a still image appears of Snoopy chasing a leaf. Then Charlie Brown takes Snoopy’s place, pitching a baseball. Lucy, Linus, and Woodstock visit as well. For the next half hour I stare at Peanuts comic strips, one frame at a time. The panels are without words, and while sometimes the action makes sense from frame to frame, at other times the Peanuts gang seems to be engaging in a series of unconnected shenanigans.
At the same time, a freshly minted Ph.D. named Neil Cohn is watching the readout from my brain, an exercise he has repeated with some 100 subjects to date. Many people would consider tracking Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes comic strips unworthy of scientific inquiry, but Cohn begs to differ. His evidence suggests that we use the same cognitive process to make sense of comics as we do to read a sentence. They seem to tap the deepest recesses of our minds, where we bring meaning to the world.