Monday, October 08, 2012

MRI of reading Jane Austen

Another totally annoying example of science by press release sans any reference to an original research article offers a glimpse at what looks like fascinating work, showing brain correlates of a kind of deep attention going with reading literature that is very different from the kind of deep attention that is focused on mastering a particular task.
In an innovative interdisciplinary study, neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars are working together to explore the relationship between reading, attention and distraction – by reading Jane Austen. Surprising preliminary results reveal a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for "executive function," areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task, such as reading, said Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project. During a series of ongoing experiments, functional magnetic resonance images track blood flow in the brains of subjects as they read excerpts of a Jane Austen novel. Experiment participants are first asked to leisurely skim a passage as they might do in a bookstore, and then to read more closely, as they would while studying for an exam. Phillips said the global increase in blood flow during close reading suggests that "paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions." Blood flow also increased during pleasure reading, but in different areas of the brain. Phillips suggested that each style of reading may create distinct patterns in the brain that are "far more complex than just work and play."
A commentary by Alan Jacobs on this work makes a further point, that we might do well to exercise various parts of our minds just as we do well to exercise various parts of our bodies. Otherwise we could end up like Charles Darwin, who felt that over time he had lost certain mental functions:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

1 comment:

  1. I am a total believer in exercising the mind the way you exercise the body--I do four hard crossword puzzles per week precisely so as to maintain maximum mental flexibility on an ongoing basis, and I find it works really well.

    If you browse in my blog, you'll see that I am writing a book about what i call the "shadow stories" of Jane Austen's novels:

    I would love to extend that Stanford experiment, by seeing if there are any deeper patterns of brain activity with the unique demands of sleuthing out elements of those subliminal shadow stories--my guess would be that there would be.

    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

    P.S.: As I will post shortly at that Jacobs commentary, there is an enormous irony in Jacobs quoting Darwin in an article about the brain science of reading Jane Austen---why? Because I discovered, in 2006, that Darwin's stepgrandmother (i.e., the widow of his grandpa Erasmus) was one of the handful of friends who gave written opinions about Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park! And more...