Could modern cognitive theories explain character development in one of Austen’s most famous heroines — Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett? Phillips thinks Bennett’s distractability was key to Austen’s characterization of her lively mind — and that Austen herself was drawing on the contemporary theories of cognition in her time.
If neuroscience could inform literature, Phillips asked, could literature inform neuroscience?
She decided to conduct a study, looking at how reading affects the brain. She had volunteers lie still in a brain scanner and read Austen. Phillips sometimes instructed her volunteers to browse, as they might do at a bookstore. Other times, she asked them to delve deep, as a scholar might read a text while conducting a literary analysis.
Phillips said the experiment produced some surreal moments: “If you asked me on a top 10 list of things that I did not expect to find myself doing as an 18th-centuryist when I first started this study on the history of distraction, I would say laying on my back in an MRI scanner trying to figure out how to position paragraphs by Jane Austen so that you wouldn’t have to turn your head while reading with a mirror.”
Phillips and her collaborators scanned the brains of the volunteers using a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. The scanner paints a rough picture of brain activity. A computer program simultaneously tracked readers’ eye movements across the page, and researchers kept tabs on the volunteers’ breathing and heart rate. At the end of the experiment, Phillips asked each volunteer to write a short essay based on the passages he or she read.
Neuroscientists warned Phillips she wouldn’t see many brain differences between the casual reading and intense reading.
“Everyone told me to expect these really, really minute and subtle effects,” she said, “because everyone was going to be doing the same thing, right? Reading Jane Austen. And they were just going to be doing it in two different ways.”
Phillips said she mainly expected to see differences in parts of the brain that regulate attention because that was the main difference between casual and focused reading.
But in a neuroscientific plot twist, Phillips said preliminary results showed otherwise: “What’s been taking us by surprise in our early data analysis is 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.”
Phillips found that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.
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