Austen: This reading nook comes with an MRI scanner

Jane Austen
Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin

Now how do I sign up for a study like this one? Natalie Phillips, an assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, has been looking at what happens in the brain when people read Jane Austen novels.

The study is still in progress, but so far she has found some fascinating differences between two kinds of reading—pleasure and close analysis—in the way they affect brain activation and blood flow.

For the sake of science, I would gladly volunteer to lie down in an fMRI scanner and enjoy some uninterrupted reading time. I even think I could manage the distraction of being surrounded by a noisy magnet while I pore over the advice of Captain Wentworth in Austen’s Persuasion:

Your sister is an amiable creature … Clang.

But yours is the character of decision and firmness, I see... Thump.

If you value her conduct or happiness, infuse as much of your own spirit into her, as you can… Clunk.

The only thing missing is a nice cup of tea.

Phillips’ brain-on-Austen studies emerged from her work on a book about the history of distraction and attention in the 18th century. While she was a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford University, she became interested in the use of brain scans to study literary reading in the present day.

Collaborating with scientists at Stanford’s Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging, she learned how to use an fMRI scanner and an eye-tracker to link brain patterns with “what people are noticing in the text.”

Phillips chose Austen’s Persuasion and Mansfield Park for the experiment because “Austen is one of the few classic authors that can (fairly) reliably provide [texts for] both” pleasure reading and close reading. “Pleasure reading lets you become immersed in a novel,” she explains. “It’s when you can lose yourself in a book. Close reading is when you are looking at the structure of the novel, analyzing and deconstructing it as you go.”

Then they had to search for the right group of subjects. “Comically, professors were out. Many of us have forgotten how to read for pleasure.” On the other hand, “literary Ph.D.’s were perfect and we brought together a group of almost 30 from Stanford, Berkeley, and San Jose State for the experiment and pilot.”

What surprised Phillips and her colleagues was “how the whole brain actually transformed from pleasure to close reading, with literary analysis activating unexpected areas of the brain that we use to place ourselves spatially in the world, areas dedicated to physical activity, etc…”

Her work continues at Michigan State, where she now teaches and is co-founder of the Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition Lab. As Phillips notes, her study isn’t the only one to link neuroscience with the humanities. “Neuroscientific tools have the potential to give us a bigger, richer picture of how our minds engage with art—or, in our case, of the complex experience we know as literary reading.”

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