This Is Your Brain on Jane Austen: The Neuroscience of Reading Great Literature


I freely admit it—like a great many peo­ple these days, I have a social media addic­tion. My drug of choice, Twit­ter, can seem like a par­tic­u­lar­ly schizoid means of acquir­ing and shar­ing infor­ma­tion (or knee-jerk opin­ion, rumor, innu­en­do, non­sense, etc.) and a par­tic­u­lar­ly accel­er­at­ed form of dis­tractibil­i­ty that nev­er, ever sleeps. Giv­en the pro­found degree of over-stim­u­la­tion such out­lets pro­vide, we might be jus­ti­fied in think­ing we owe our short atten­tion spans to 21st cen­tu­ry tech­no­log­i­cal advances. Not nec­es­sar­i­ly, says Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Natal­ie Phillips—who stud­ies 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture from the per­spec­tive of a 21st cen­tu­ry cog­ni­tive the­o­rist, and who cau­tions against “adopt­ing a kind of his­tor­i­cal nos­tal­gia, or assum­ing those of the 18th cen­tu­ry were less dis­tract­ed than we are today.”

Ear­ly mod­ern writ­ers were just as aware of—and as con­cerned about—the prob­lem of inat­ten­tion as con­tem­po­rary crit­ics, Phillips argues, “amidst the print-over­load of 18th-cen­tu­ry Eng­land.” We might refer, for exam­ple, to Alexan­der Pope’s epic satire “The Dun­ci­ad,” a hilar­i­ous­ly apoc­a­lyp­tic jere­mi­ad against the pro­lif­er­a­tion of care­less read­ing and writ­ing in the new media envi­ron­ment of his day. (A world “drown­ing in print, where every­thing was ephemer­al, of the moment.”)

Phillips focus­es on the work of Jane Austen, whom, she believes, “was draw­ing on the con­tem­po­rary the­o­ries of cog­ni­tion in her time” to con­struct dis­tractible char­ac­ters like Pride and Prej­u­dice’s Eliz­a­beth Ben­nett. Tak­ing her cues from Austen and oth­er Enlight­en­ment-era writ­ers, as well as her own inat­ten­tive nature, Phillips uses con­tem­po­rary neu­ro­science to inform her research, includ­ing the use of brain imag­ing tech­nol­o­gy and com­put­er pro­grams that track eye move­ments.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with Stan­ford’s Cen­ter for Cog­ni­tive and Bio­log­i­cal Imag­ing (CNI), Phillips devised an exper­i­ment in 2012 in which she asked lit­er­ary PhD candidates—chosen, writes Stan­ford News, “because Phillips felt they could eas­i­ly alter­nate between close read­ing and plea­sure reading”—to read a full chap­ter from Austen’s Mans­field Park, pro­ject­ed onto a mir­ror inside an MRI scan­ner. At times, the sub­jects were instruct­ed to read the text casu­al­ly, at oth­ers, to read close­ly and ana­lyt­i­cal­ly. After­wards, they were asked to write an essay on the pas­sages they read with atten­tion. As you’ll hear Phillips describe in the short NPR piece above, the neu­ro­sci­en­tists she worked with told her to expect only the sub­tlest of dif­fer­ences between the two types of read­ing. The data showed oth­er­wise. Phillips describes her sur­prise at see­ing “how much the whole brain, glob­al acti­va­tions across a num­ber of dif­fer­ent regions, seems to be trans­form­ing and shift­ing between the plea­sure and the close read­ing.” As CNI neu­ro­sci­en­tist Bob Dougher­ty describes it, “a sim­ple request to the par­tic­i­pants to change their lit­er­ary atten­tion can have such a big impact on the pat­tern of activ­i­ty dur­ing read­ing,” with close read­ing stim­u­lat­ing many more areas of the brain than the casu­al vari­ety. What are we to make of these still incon­clu­sive results? As with many such projects in the emerg­ing inter­dis­ci­pli­nary field of “lit­er­ary neu­ro­science,” Phillips’ goal is in part to demon­strate the con­tin­ued rel­e­vance of the human­i­ties in the age of STEM. Thus, she the­o­rizes, the prac­tice and teach­ing of close read­ing “could serve—quite literally—as a kind of cog­ni­tive train­ing, teach­ing us to mod­u­late our con­cen­tra­tion and use new brain regions as we move flex­i­bly between modes of focus.”

The study also pro­vides us with a fas­ci­nat­ing picture—quite literally—of the ways in which the imag­i­na­tive expe­ri­ence of read­ing takes place in our bod­ies as well as our minds. Close, sus­tained, and atten­tive read­ing, Phillips found, acti­vates parts of the brain respon­si­ble for move­ment and touch, “as though,” writes NPR, “read­ers were phys­i­cal­ly plac­ing them­selves with­in the sto­ry as they ana­lyzed it.” Phillips’ study offers a sci­en­tif­ic look at a mys­te­ri­ous expe­ri­ence seri­ous read­ers know well—“how the right pat­terns of ink on a page,” says Dougher­ty, “can cre­ate vivid men­tal imagery and instill pow­er­ful emo­tions.” As with the so-called “hard prob­lem of con­scious­ness,” we may not under­stand exact­ly how this hap­pens any­time soon, but we can observe that the expe­ri­ence of close read­ing is a reward­ing one for our entire brain, not just the parts that love Jane Austen. While not every­one needs con­vinc­ing that “lit­er­ary study pro­vides a tru­ly valu­able exer­cise of peo­ple’s brains,” Phillips’ research may prove exact­ly that.

via Stan­ford News

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jane Austen, Game The­o­rist: UCLA Poli Sci Prof Finds Shrewd Strat­e­gy in “Clue­less­ness”

This is Your Brain on Jazz Impro­vi­sa­tion: The Neu­ro­science of Cre­ativ­i­ty

What Hap­pens When Your Brain is on Alfred Hitch­cock: The Neu­ro­science of Film

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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