At a recent academic conference, Michigan State University professor Natalie Phillips stole a glance around the room. A speaker was talking but the audience was fidgety. Some people were conferring among themselves, or reading notes. One person had dozed off.
Phillips, who studies 18th- and 19th-century literature, says the distracted audience made something pop in her head. Distractability is a theme that runs through many novels of Jane Austen, whom Phillips admires. It occurred to Phillips that there was a paradox in her own life when it came to distractability.
"I love reading, and I am someone who can actually become so absorbed in a novel that I really think the house could possibly burn down around me and I wouldn't notice," she said. "And I'm simultaneously someone who loses their keys at least three times a day, and I often can't remember where in the world I parked my car."
For Phillips, Jane Austen became both a literary and a neuroscientific puzzle.
Could modern cognitive theories explain character development in one of Austen's most famous heroines — Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennett? Phillips thinks Bennett's distractability was key to Austen's characterization of her lively mind — and that Austen herself was drawing on the contemporary theories of cognition in her time.
If neuroscience could inform literature, Phillips asked, could literature inform neuroscience?
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 said the experiment produced some surreal moments: "If you asked me on a top 10 list of things that I did not expect to find myself doing as an 18th-centuryist when I first started this study on the history of distraction, I would say lying on my back in an MRI scanner trying to figure out how to position paragraphs by Jane Austen so that you wouldn't have to turn your head while reading with a mirror."
Phillips and her collaborators scanned the brains of the volunteers using a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. The scanner paints a rough picture of brain activity. A computer program simultaneously tracked readers' eye movements across the page, and researchers kept tabs on the volunteers' breathing and heart rate. At the end of the experiment, Phillips asked each volunteer to write a short essay based on the passages he or she read.
Neuroscientists warned Phillips she wouldn't see many brain differences between the casual reading and intense reading.
"Everyone told me to expect these really, really minute and subtle effects," she said, "because everyone was going to be doing the same thing, right? Reading Jane Austen. And they were just going to be doing it in two different ways."
Phillips said she mainly expected to see differences in parts of the brain that regulate attention because that was the main difference between casual and focused reading.
But in a neuroscientific plot twist, Phillips said preliminary results showed otherwise: "What's been taking us by surprise in our early data analysis is how much the whole brain — global activations across a number of different regions — seems to be transforming and shifting between the pleasure and the close reading."
Phillips found that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.
Phillips' research fits into an interdisciplinary new field sometimes dubbed "literary neuroscience." Other researchers are examining poetry and rhythm in the brain, how metaphors excite sensory regions of the brain, and the neurological shifts between reading a complex text like Marcel Proust compared with reading a newspaper — all in hopes of giving a more complete picture of human cognition.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
You know, if I say the name Jane Austen you may think of a number of things. You might think of novels like "Pride and Prejudice" or "Mansfield Park." You might think of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," a novel that was inspired by Jane Austen. You may not think about neuroscience. But you will after you hear NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who joins us regularly to talk about social science research.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is the connection here?
VEDANTAM: Well, the story begins a few years ago. There's this literature professor who studies 19th century British novels, specifically Jane Austen. Her name is Natalie Phillips. She works at Michigan State University.
And she's been interesting in the theme that runs through many Austen novels, which is the theme of distractibility and getting distracted. And as she was thinking about this theme, it made her think about a paradox in her own life that has to do with the issue of distractibility. Here's how she put it to me.
NATALIE PHILLIPS: I love reading. And I am someone who can actually become so absorbed in a novel that I really think the house could possibly burn down around me and I wouldn't notice. And simultaneously, I'm someone who also loses my keys at least three times a day and I often can't remember where in the world I parked my car. And I often feel like I'm thinking so many things at once, that I lose track of what I was saying mid-sentence.
INSKEEP: OK. So distraction and distractibility, which sounds like the title of a little known Jane Austen novel, come to think of it.
VEDANTAM: The one that you should write, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK. So she's deeply reading, reading in a different way, a more intense way. And that makes the book feel more real than reality to her.
VEDANTAM: So this is the question, right. Why do these fictional events that took place more than 100 years ago feel more real than the real events that are happening in your own life? And what's the role of the attention that she is brining to the novel in changing her experience of what the novel has.
Now, Phillips is someone who's interested in interdisciplinary work. And so she teamed up with a bunch of neuroscientists at Stanford University to conduct this experiment where she had volunteers read a chapter of "Mansfield Park." But she had the volunteers read the novel in two different ways. She had them first read the novel in this very casual way that you might to at a bookstore while you're browsing - skipping paragraphs, skipping sections.
INSKEEP: Checking Twitter on your phone.
VEDANTAM: Checking Twitter, making sure you're updated. And then she had them read it in a very sustained and close manner, in a very focused way. And when she talked to a neuroscientist, a neuroscientist said, look, you're probably not going to see very much difference in the brain between these two types of reading.
PHILLIPS: Everyone told me to expect these really, really minute and subtle effects, because everyone was going to be doing the same thing. And they were just going to be doing it in two different ways.
INSKEEP: That's what people expected, but what?
VEDANTAM: So she started to find some really interesting things about the brain imaging. And, you know, I should say that we're fairly early in the study. The study hasn't been completed. But what she expected was if the difference between casual reading and closed reading is attention - in one case, you're paying attention, in one case, you're not - then the difference in the brain - areas of the brain that control attention should be heightened in one situation.
PHILLIPS: What we found was actually something else entirely. What's been taking us by surprise in our early data analysis is how much the whole brain - global activations across a number of different regions - seems to be transforming and shifting between the pleasure and the close reading.
INSKEEP: So wait a minute. She is saying that when you are really absorbed in a book for a sustained period of time in a sustained way it engages your entire brain, which is what allows you to think that you could keep reading even as the house burned down.
VEDANTAM: It looks like that. I mean, so if we step back for a second and think about brain imaging, a lot of brain imaging results are intuitively obvious. But in this situation, I think what's striking is that it wasn't just the part of the brain that focuses on attention that was different in the close reading.
What Phillips is finding is that there are heightened emotional responses. There's heightened activation in the motor cortex, parts of the brain that are involved in movement, in perceiving where you stand in space. And all of these come to life when the reading is done in this close manner with close attention.
INSKEEP: OK. So what are the implications for us in this world where there are constant distractions, from television to e-mail to everything else?
VEDANTAM: Well, I think what the study is showing, Steve, is that reading with you're your mind is not half as good as reading with your full focused mind. And the implications for kids is, you know, you should turn off those iPhones, turn off those iPads, turn off the television if you really want to get the experience of what a book is, you need to give yourself time to become completely immersed in it.
INSKEEP: NPR's Shankar Vedantam here with the results of some ongoing research. Shankar, thanks as always.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can also follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.