Uncovering the Science of Literature

Professor Phillips' innovative research suggests literary reading is valuable exercise for the brain

December 8, 2015

What is the value of teaching core skills in the humanities? What do we pay attention to and remember when we are reading a work of literature—be it a novel, a poem, or a short story? What influence does the attention someone brings to reading literature have on their individual brain activity?

These are among the heady questions that Dr. Natalie Phillips, Assistant Professor of English and affiliated faculty in the Cognitive Science program, is working to answer.

Phillips specializes in 18th-century literature, the history of mind, and cognitive approaches to narrative, and is co-lead of the Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition (DHLC) lab at MSU. The DHLC research and teaching space is designed to cultivate projects at the intersection of literature, cognitive science, and digital humanities. In 2015, Phillips was awarded a Digital Innovation Fellowship by the American Council of Learned Societies. One of only seven scholars to receive such an award, she was recognized for her research on literary cognition.

Phillips is a leading figure in the emerging field of literary neuroscience. Neuroscience is the field of study encompassing the various scientific disciplines dealing with the structure, development, function, chemistry, pharmacology, and pathology of the nervous system.

Dr. Phillips has been pioneering a series of interdisciplinary experiments using neuroscientific tools, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and MRI-compatible eye tracking, to explore the cognitive dynamics of literary reading. fMRI is a functional neuroimaging procedure using MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. This technique relies on the fact that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled.

Phillips says that her work is helping demonstrate the potential these tools have to "give us a bigger, richer picture of how our minds engage with art—or, in our case—of the complex experience we know as literary reading."

phillips_bio.jpeg“My research focuses on two things. One is the history of mind; particularly, the history of distraction.” Phillips says. “So, what people 200 years ago thought about things like mind wandering, attention spans, and multi-tasking; the equivalent of distracted driving—texting and driving; or in the 18th century, coach driving among ruts with pedestrians coming in and cutting by.”

Phillips’ second research area is an fMRI study using neuroscience tools such as brains scans to look at differences in the attention people pay when pleasure reading vs. close reading a work by Jane Austen. In essence, it’s the difference between reading the text casually or closely and analytically. To initiate pleasure reading, Phillips instructed her volunteers to browse, as they might do at a bookstore. Other times, she asked them to delve deep via close reading, as a scholar might read a text while conducting a literary analysis.

In brief, a subject comes into the lab and reads the first chapter of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, all the way through. Then, they read chapter two while inside a very loud MRI machine, switching between two states: close reading and pleasure reading. Once out, they write a short literary essay.

Says Phillips, “This fMRI study was one of the first to look at what it means in real time when we are reading a work of literature. It’s a study of attention in reading. That means we’re really touching on is: Of what value is teaching and learning in the humanities?"

Referred to in the media as “Your Brain on Jane,” the study, Phillips says, “is helping us understand the complex neural networks involved in reading aesthetics, engagement and attention. More broadly, as someone crossing between humanities and science, I believe that it suggests an inherent unique value in interdisciplinary experiment design.

phillips_poster.jpeg“What does it mean to be taught how to analyze a literary text? Are brain regions being activated in this state that aren’t activated when we read for pleasure? If we want to understand things that influence people with reading disabilities—with lesions or strokes that impact their reading capacities—this is the first key step in moving that way.”

As for the students working with her in the DHLC Lab, Phillips says her first undergraduate lab lead was a triple major in literature, neuroscience, and chemical and molecular biology, and the Lab’s current students come from literature, education, neuroscience, and computer science, and collaborators across all these fields.

“What that means at an everyday level,” Phillips says, “is that for this new work—and it really is new—you need every ounce of knowledge you can bring, and from so many different disciplinary perspectives, to move this kind of work ahead.”

Read more about Dr. Phillips scholarly work:


Photos courtesy of Greg Kohuth