This is your brain on Jane Austen.

“This is Your Brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford Researchers are Taking Notes” is an article from last year about PhD literature candidates being put in MRI machines, told to read a chapter of Mansfield Park, switching between pleasure reading and attention to literary forms (or close reading).

After reviewing early scans, neuroscientist Bob Dougherty, research director of CNI, said he was impressed by “how the right patterns of ink on a page can create vivid mental imagery and instill powerful emotions.” Dougherty was also surprised to see how “a simple request to the participants to change their literary attention can have such a big impact on the pattern of activity during reading.”

The researchers expected to see pleasure centers activating for the relaxed reading and hypothesized that close reading, as a form of heightened attention, would create more neural activity than pleasure reading. If the ongoing analysis continues to support the initial theory, Phillips said, teaching close reading (i.e., attention to literary form) “could serve – quite literally – as a kind of cognitive training, teaching us to modulate our concentration and use new brain regions as we move flexibly between modes of focus.”

I thought it was interesting, especially in light of how many times this semester I have seen or heard statements in my sophomore classes’ literary analyses saying something to the effect of, “I read this, but I have no idea what it said.”

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