How reading Jane Austen stimulates your brain
Natalie Phillips, a Pittsburgh native working as assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, is studying how reading Jane Austen's work affects the brain.
Portrait of Jane Austen
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"Mansfield Park" may be one of Jane Austen's least-known novels, but it recently attracted some new readers -- inside a brain-imaging scanner.
Humanities scholar Natalie Phillips has conducted a study at Stanford University that examined what effect reading Austen had on the brain, and the results, she hopes, may give new polish to the battered reputation of a liberal arts degree.
Ms. Phillips, a Fox Chapel native and Michigan State University professor, has received international media coverage for her study mapping the relationship between reading, attention and distraction. She places volunteers inside an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner, hooks them up to eye-tracking equipment and asks them to read -- on a mirror above them -- the second chapter of "Mansfield Park."
The impact on the brain was far more extensive than she had expected. On Monday, Ms. Phillips will talk about the study's findings at Carnegie Mellon University in a public event sponsored by CMU's Humanities Forum.
As a Mellon Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, Ms. Phillips was working on her 2010 doctorate in literature when she teamed up with scientists at the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging. They designed a study in which 25 graduate students were asked to read in two speeds: 1) for pleasure, browsing as if they were in a bookstore; and 2) critically and analytically, as if preparing a scholarly article.
They read "Mansfield Park" first outside the scanner, to "get used to the idea," she said, and then once inside, they read it from a mirror above them. A computer program tracked their eye movements, their heart rates and breathing even as the scanner mapped blood flow in the brain.
The results were dramatic: When the students engaged in critical reading, there was a notable expansion of activity in regions of the brain outside those responsible for "executive function," which are normally used for paying close attention to a task like reading. Significantly, there was activity in areas associated with physical activity and movement, parts of the brain we use to place ourselves spatially in the world, as though the readers were actually physically present in the story.
Concentrated, close reading "activated unbelievably widespread parts of the brain that are immensely cognitively complex, on a par with doing hard math problems or working through computer code," she said. Ms. Phillips' study has excited interest in some academic circles and she has received funding for future studies from Michigan State and Duke University.
For the Stanford project, though, she needed a work of fiction that worked as both a beach book and a doctoral thesis.
And Austen's novels, with their technique that literary scholars call "free indirect discourse," were the perfect vehicle. Austen's narrators seamlessly adopt the characters' thoughts while retaining objectivity, zooming in and out of a character's consciousness, speaking as the character one minute, or at least recording her thoughts -- and then as an objective observer.
"She's a brilliant and subtle writer, and you can get lost in the story -- but she's so layered and sophisticated," Ms. Phillips said.
More joint research?
But you can only read about Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett so many times. Ms. Phillips realized she needed an Austen novel that would seem new, fresh and engrossing while also offering layers of complexity, "and while we started off with 'Persuasion,' we changed over to 'Mansfield Park' because very few people have actually read that book."
Ms. Phillips is no neuroscientist, but she's a quick study, and can rattle off terms like "dorsal lateral prefontal cortex" with the same ease as "onomatopoeia," thanks to the assistance from her colleagues in neuroscience in Stanford.
At a time when the value of a liberal arts and humanities education at publicly funded colleges is under fire from cost-cutting governors and nervous university presidents, this research, she hopes, might lead toward validating literary study as a critical learning tool.
"I think one of the biggest questions we're asking these days is, what is the value of literary training? How do we teach it? Why do we teach it? What's the value of it? I never expected to see these complex cognitive patterns in the brain scan, which show us that we have really no idea of the complexity involved in literary analysis."
She's hoping this will lead to more joint research between neuroscientists and humanities scholars -- although Samantha Holdsworth, a research scientist at Stanford specializing in MRI techniques, and one of the study's main collaborators, recalled one early meeting between two scientists and three humanities scholars.
"We were all interested," she said, "but we were all working at the edge of our capacity to understand even 10 percent of what the others were saying."
There have been other brain imaging studies involving reading words or phrases, but nothing that involved sustained reading of fiction that compared different levels of attention, said Ms. Phillips. She has always loved to read for pleasure, but the act of attentive, close reading "unpacks how we study a literary work, telling us not just why we love it, but how we figure out a novel's inner workings -- its structures of characterization, irony, tone. It's like looking at a film with a film director's eye."
Still, she had to eliminate professors as volunteers because so many of them told her they'd forgotten how to pleasure read. "I have the same problem, and I am working on it, but it is incredibly difficult to turn it off."
Kathleen Newman, interim director of The Humanities Center at CMU, invited Ms. Phillips to speak there because she was intrigued with the notion of connecting the study of humanities and the sciences more closely -- a practice that was common 200 years ago.
"Scientists wrote literature and thought about literature, and vice versa," Ms. Newman said, citing Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin and others as examples.
But knowledge is far more specialized these days, and neuroscience is where the money is -- perhaps to the detriment of those in the academy who specialize in Elizabethan poets. Still, some are trying to bridge the gap -- Duke University, which is funding one of Ms. Phillips' future brain imaging studies, has convened a "Neurohumanities Research Group" with the aim of establishing a dialogue between scientists and humanists.
"The value of Natalie's work is that she brings scholars into conversation who should be talking to each other -- and who are not," Ms. Newman said, noting she personally emailed every member of the CMU's neuroscience faculty to attend Monday's talk.
Skepticism about methodology
James English, a University of Pennsylvania English professor who directs the Penn Humanities Forum, notes that his field is already crowded with critics looking at Jane Austen through the lenses of gender, race, deconstruction, formalism, post-colonialism or other theories -- which is fine with him.
"I like a big tent for literary studies," said Mr. English. "I'm always interested in new research questions and the deployment of new methods."
But he expressed some skepticism about the study's key methodology -- that volunteers could easily switch back and forth between reading for pleasure and more focused, critical reading.
"Pleasure is a complicated term," he said. "Telling people, 'read now for pleasure, and now, read closely.' That's not a tidy opposition."
For Mr. English and his colleagues in Penn's English department, and for many of his students, "close attentive reading is actually more pleasurable than vague, inattentive reading," he said. "The act of reading or attending a film can be attentive, thoughtful and pleasurable all at once. Pleasure does not disappear as you watch more movies and acquire more of a director's eye. When Martin Scorsese goes to the movies and sees some new great work of cinematic art, he takes enormous pleasure in someone who is a less accomplished master of the medium."
He's also not sure that this study will validate the pursuit of literary study, "although it seems like it may be an interesting first result in research that would be of use to scholars of education."
Ms. Phillips is the first to note that her study is primitive, a very early step in learning how reading affects the brain. "We are only at the tip of the iceberg."
While there are several prestigious universities eager to help her proceed, skepticism remains from neuroscientists weary of media hype about brain imaging studies that look at everything from how price tags effect wine tasting to the science of sarcasm. One science blog, dubbed the "Neuro-Journalism Mill" (www.jsmf.org/neuromill/about.htm), focuses on media reports about neuroscience and purports to separate the "wheat" (good) from the "chaff" (not so good).
Michael Tarr, co-director of CMU's Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, declined to comment on the merits of Ms. Phillips' study, but noted that "investigation of neural mechanisms underlying cognitive tasks as complex as different styles of reading is a challenging problem. As cognitive neuroscience matures, I hope that we are able to help contribute to a better understanding of human behavior and its neural basis across a wide variety of domains, including the reading of Jane Austen."
On the other end of the spectrum -- in some old-school English departments -- there is distress, Ms. Phillips says, about "scientizing" the mysterious and deeply private act of reading. "A lot of my work has been about trying to keep from scaring people," she said, noting that she'd encountered "a very strong fear reaction from people in the humanities, people who think that using scientific empirical approaches to study literature is just ridiculous."
Ms. Phillips' appearance at CMU Monday is designed not to scare people, least of all the families of English majors, said Ms. Newman, the Humanities Center director.
"I want to promote work that shows storytelling is a key way of structuring human thought," said Ms. Newman. "Say your niece wants to be an English major. Perhaps, as a result of this research, she might be able to say, 'Aunt Mabel, I'm learning the principles of storytelling, which is one of the fundamental ways we organize knowledge and information.' "
Correction/Clarification: (Published March 3, 2013) In an earlier version of this story, the Michael Tarr's position was incorrect.
First Published March 3, 2013 12:00 am