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Neuroscience and Jane Austen: Immersion in a Good Book Has a Big Effect on Brains

Inside of a dog it's too dark to read

English professor Natalie Phillips has more than enough time during her day to observe folks who aren’t particularly engaged in what’s going on around them. As an English minor, I can speak from my own experience and observations in many English courses. As an English professor, Phillips is intimately familiar with the ability of a good book to make one immune from many distractions, ironically for the works of Jane Austen, which she says feature distractibility a major theme, particularly in Pride and Prejudice. She began to wonder if there might be some unexpected science behind the character arc of the novel’s heroine… and decided to team up with some neuroscience professors to find out, with interesting initial results!

Phillips wanted to know if cognitive science could explain the character development of Elizabeth Bennet. If Bennet’s distractibility was Austen’s key to depicting her as having a lively mind, could she have been drawing on contemporary theories of cognition? From NPR:

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…

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’ hypothesis was that the areas of the brain that regulate “paying attention” would be more engaged when readers were engaged in their Austen. What she actually found was much more. Though the full analysis of the data has not been completed, it appears that the whole brain seems to change when you’re absorbed in a book, rather than simply skimming it. Parts of the brain in charge of emotional response light up, as do, most unexpectedly, the brain’s motor controls and spacial reasoning areas, as if the reader were using them to spatially recreate the events of the story in their minds.

“Books: don’t judge them by their covers” might perhaps be an appropriate thing to say here. You can read and listen to the whole NPR piece on her research here.

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