Your Brain Just Might Love Jane Austen

For several years, Professor of 18th Century Literature and Culture at Michigan State University, Natalie Phillips, has been curious about the Age of Enlightenment (1650’s-1780’s) writers (think Voltaire, Sir Isaac Newton & Sir Francis Bacon) and their concern for the “wandering attention” of their fellowman. (Good to know this is not a modern day phenomenon!)

She became intrigued with the emerging science of cognitive flexibility as it relates to literature, history of the mind, philosophy and neuroscience. As she began to contemplate how our minds engage with art she began to focus on the process of reading a novel. What Phillips hypothesized was that not all reading is created equal. We bring a different style or focus to our reading activities. Sometimes we read for pleasure and sometimes we read critically — say for work or school. Further Phillips hypothesized, depending on our focus, our brains respond differently. But how differently and in what way were some basic questions.

Jane Austen

So in 2012 she began an experiment in coordination with Stanford University’s Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging to test her hypotheses and explore the different kinds of focus a person brings to the endeavor of reading. With graduate students in English as guinea pigs, she asked them to read from chapters of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park — not always an Austen fan favorite (but one of mine!) Each participant was rolled into an MRI Imaging machine equipped with a reading monitor above their heads.  They were first asked to read pages from Mansfield Park “for pleasure”;  then they were asked to read pages “more critically” and be prepared to write a short essay on the second reading. All the while the MRI hummed along imaging their brains.

Not surprisingly, the MRI imaging revealed that style of reading did impact different parts of the brain. But unexpectedly for the researchers, imaging revealed that close reading of a text activates parts of the brain generally associated with movement and touch — seeming to indicate that focused reading results in a person’s brain responding as if they were actually experiencing the events in the story.

A more recent study from a team led by neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns at Emory University, reinforced the Philips findings & showed additional effects of reading. Reading a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and causes changes in the left temporal cortex of the brain — a region whose neurons have the ability to trick the brain into thinking it is doing something it is not, what scientists call grounded, or embodied cognition.

The study also revealed that these brain changes can last for several days. In other words, stories get in our brains and stay there. It appears that for the brain, reading a novel actually results in the brain thinking it’s there –wherever the “there” in story might be — producing actual physical responses like increased heart beat!

If you doubt the science — just watch a child who is read a “scary” story — their eyes get big, their muscles tense, they start to squirm…. or even scream. They’re probably safely curled up next to Mom or Dad on some soft bed — but their brain thinks they’re in the story!

More research is needed in this new field of literary neuroscience but all indications are that reading a good book is nothing but a good thing!

If you want more on this topic, check out Christopher Bergland’s post in Psychology Today.  

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