“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.” – Jane Austen from Pride and Prejudice

Literary neuroscientist  Natalie Phillips travelled to Stanford to see what effect reading Jane Austen had on the brain. The test subjects were of a special sort, PhD candidates in literature.

jane-austen-scanThe question she asked was – what differences can be seen in fMRI activation depending on if readers were asked to read lightly as if they were reading in a bookstore, or more deeply, as if they were studying for an exam.

Well, researchers were blown away by what they saw in terms of the dramatic increase in brain activation that comes with deep attention or reading:

“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.”

Reading novels deeply, it seems, creates an intensive attention workout for the brain – visualization and scene construction, theory of mind, emotions, and complex analysis.

Premium Subscribers: Read more BELOW. Subscribe HERE  if you haven’t already … you’ll also be supporting the dyslexic community! (we’ll share pictures of brain activation, articles, and further discussion of attention, distraction, and complexity of mind). Artist: Tamryn Louise

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At left you can see how much more active the brain becomes when it really reads a Jane Austen novel deeply (the passage was from Mansfield Park).

Phillips also believes its findings such as this that should make us rethink some of our current notions of diffuse attention and distractibility. Being able to truly enjoy a complex Jane Austen novel (and certain being Jane Austen, oneself) takes a complexity of mind and therefore a sort of attention super power that allows one to appreciate, connect, of all these different people and their perspectives – both in real time and then also going forward.

I found this research interesting because not uncommonly we have spoken to older dyslexic children or dyslexic adults who have told us of their having gotten hooked on a complex novel as a way they got into reading. We also have interviewed many dyslexic individuals who shared with us that their super power was being able to see from other people’s perspectives whether it being able to build successful teams in Fortune 500 companies or write novels or work in military intelligence. The trade-off benefit of having a diffuse attention can be a super ability to appreciate complexity and when the subject is people, a kind of super Theory of Mind.

bennettsRead Phillips’ interesting notions about the positive sides of attention, distraction, and its implications for theory of mind below. From Pride and Prejudice, she compares Elizabeth with her liveliness of mind and distractibility with the hyperfocus of Mary Bennett. She also has this provocative quote from Diderot:

“Distraction stems from an excellent quality of understanding. (It has its) “source in an ‘extreme facility’ of mind” – for distraction “allows ideas to trigger, or awaken one another.”


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