A Lively Mind: Your Brain On Jane Austen : Shots - Health News Could modern cognitive theories explain character development in one of Jane Austen's most famous heroines: Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennett? Reading sessions inside an MRI scanner are shedding light on the question.
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A Lively Mind: Your Brain On Jane Austen

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A Lively Mind: Your Brain On Jane Austen

A Lively Mind: Your Brain On Jane Austen

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


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.

Hi, Shankar.


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.

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