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How reading literature stimulates your brain

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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.”

“Mansfield Park” might 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, might give new polish to the battered reputation of a liberal arts degree.

Phillips, a 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 March 4, Phillips talked 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, 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 their 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.

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.

(Next page: More about the study—and its implications for liberal arts education)

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