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. Continue reading