Your Brain on Jane Austen: An Interdisciplinary Experiment on Literary Attention and Reading-University Lecture Series - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, March 4, 2013

Your Brain on Jane Austen: An Interdisciplinary Experiment on Literary Attention and Reading

Humanities Center Lectures: Media and Social Change

Monday, March 4, 2013     |     4:30 pm, Porter Hall #100 (Gregg Hall)

Natalie Phillips, Assistant Professor of English at Michigan State University

My talk will describe a unique cross-disciplinary study that teamed scholars in the humanities, neuroscience, and radiology in an exploration of the relationship between reading, attention and distraction. Our experiment used neuroscientific tools to explore the cognitive dynamics involved in reading a literary work—here, a novel by Jane Austen—with different levels of attention. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, was used to analyze complex changes in brain activity as Phds in literature read a chapter of Mansfield Park with two styles of attention: close reading (or, literary analysis) and pleasure reading. The study’s surprising early results suggest that such re-focusing in reading is far from subtle. Scans demonstrate dramatic and unexpected increases in blood flow to regions of the brain far beyond those responsible for "executive functions.” This suggests that how we read may be as important as what we read. Linking this fMRI study of attention and my research on the literary history of distraction, I suggest that research crossing the supposedly “unbridgeable divide” between humanities and sciences is in fact crucial for advancing our understanding of mind and brain. For my peers actively researching in cognitive science, I propose that understanding the history of attention is crucial, revealing the Enlightenment roots of a series of key debates over focus that continue to shape modern neuroscientific studies.

Natalie Phillips, Assistant Professor of English at Michigan State University, specializes in 18th-century literature, the history of mind, and cognitive approaches to narrative. Her first book project, Distraction: Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature (in progress) traces how changing Enlightenment ideas about the unfocused mind reshaped literary form, arguing that descriptions of distraction in narrative advanced—and often complicated—scientific theories of concentration. She is also a leading figure in the emerging field of literary neuroscience, pioneering a series of interdisciplinary experiments that use neuroscientific tools, such as fMRI and eye tracking, to explore the cognitive dynamics of literary reading. She is co-founder of the Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition Lab in the Department of English at MSU and a collaborating scientist with Stanford University, Lund University, and Umea for a research initiative, “Culture, Brain, and Learning” (Wallenberg Foundation). Current experiments include an fMRI of literary attention and Jane Austen, with developing fMRI projects on empathy and trauma narratives (MSU, Duke), music and poetry (MSU), and metaphor (MSU, Stanford) as well as an eye-tracking study of digital media (MSU, Lund, Umea). This work has grown into her second book project, tentatively entitled Literary Neuroscience and the Aesthetics of the Brain, which theorizes a more reciprocal relationship between literature and neuroscience in interdisciplinary experiments and historicizes literary renderings of the brain from the eighteenth century to the present.

Phillips’ fMRI study of attention and Jane Austen has been featured recently in radio interviews from NPR to New Zealand Radio and covered by Scientific American,, and Huffington Post, with pieces forthcoming in Smithsonian Magazine and Poetry Magazine.  Her research has been supported by the American Council for Learned Societies, the Mellon Foundation, the Wallenberg Foundation, the TEAGLE Foundation, the Stanford Center for Neurobiological Imaging, the Stanford Humanities Center, and the MSU College of Arts and Letters. Her work on Jane Austen and the history of attention has appeared in Theory of Mind and Literature and the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics; essays in literary neuroscience and eighteenth-century history of  mind are forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook for Cognitive Approaches to Literature (Oxford, 2013); Eighteenth-Century Poetry and the Rise of the Novel (Bucknell, 2013); and Humanities and the Digital (MIT Press, 2013).