How reading Jane Austen stimulates your brain

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. […]

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.[…]

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. […]

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.”


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