Digital Humanities & Literary Cognition Lab
Assistant Professor of English at Michigan State University, Dr. Phillips specializes in 18th-century literature, the history of mind, and cognitive approaches to fiction. Her first book, Distraction: Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature, (forthcoming, Johns Hopkins University Press, Spring 2016) traces how changing Enlightenment ideas about the unfocused mind reshaped literary form, arguing that descriptions of distraction in narrative advanced—and often complicated—scientific theories of concentration.
Her research on attention has appeared in collections by Oxford UP, MIT Press, and the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Additional 18th-century research interests include the history of science, race and gender studies, the history of the book, critical interdisciplinary theory, and cultures of reading. She is also a leading figure in the emerging field of literary neuroscience, pioneering a series of interdisciplinary experiments that use neuroscientific tools, such as fMRI and eye tracking, to explore the cognitive dynamics of literary reading. Phillips is co-founder and director of the Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition Lab at MSU.Current experiments include an fMRI study of literary attention in reading Jane Austen (Stanford, MSU), a neuroscientific study of attention and aesthetic pleasure in poetry reading (NYU, MSU), and a scientific study of music cognition and narrative perception (U. Arkansas, Chinese University of Hong Kong, MSU).
Phillips is delighted to have been supported by a variety of research grants and foundations: most recently the National Science Foundation (2017-20), the ACLS Digital Innovations Fellowship (2015-17), and a Science Studies grant at MSU (2015-16). She was also invited to participate in Beauty and Beyond, a global collaboration grounded at NYU devoted to developing interdisciplinary experiments on the neuroaesthetics of art, music, and literature. Future studies include an eye-tracking study of fiction reading practices on digital media (Wallenberg Foundation), new experiments on poetry, music, and cognitive rhythm (TAP lab, MSU), and a project in-progress on empathy and trauma narratives (MSU, Duke). This work has grown into her second book project, tentatively entitled Literary Neuroscience and the Aesthetics of the Brain, which theorizes a more reciprocal relationship between literature and neuroscience in interdisciplinary experiments and historicizes literary renderings of the brain from the eighteenth century to the present.
Congratulations to Dr. Devin McAuley (PI, MSU Psychology; Faculty Lead of TAP Lab) and Dr. Natalie Phillips (Co-PI, MSU English; Director of DHLC), as well as to our collaborators at the University of Arkansas (Dr. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Dr. Patrick Wong) on being the recipients of a major NSF grant! This is one of the first NSF grants to be awarded to a faculty member in the College of Arts and Letters, and we look forward to continuing this innovative and exciting work in narrative studies, music cognition, and cognitive science. For more information about the grant and interdisciplinary project, please visit: NSF Grant–The Role of Narrative in Music Perception.
Congratulations to Sal Antonucci, Kristen Bilyea, Addy Wood, Derrick Dwamena, and Ben Horne on their first-place wins at UURAF 2017. The annual University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF) provides Michigan State undergraduate students with an opportunity to showcase their scholarship and creative activity. Held each spring in the MSU Union, UURAF brings together an intellectual community of highly motivated students to share their work with faculty, peers, and external audiences. UURAF provides a unique educational opportunity for aspiring researchers. MSU undergraduates gain experience in presenting their research, answer questions about their work from audience members and guests, and receive constructive feedback from judges. To learn more about what our DHLC award winners presented, we have provided each team's abstracts below:
Antonucci and Bilyea: "Aesthetic Pleasure in Poetry: A Revised Approach to An Old Inquiry"
Since the advent of poetry, readers have been curious about its mechanics. The earliest readers, beginning with Aristotle, have been focusing on finding what is responsible for the pleasure that is experienced when reading poetry. This project aims to revise the traditional approach taken to this literary inquiry. Instead of offering a theory centered on subjective readings of poems of one’s choosing, this project attempts to offer an explanation for the cause of poetic aesthetic pleasure that is based on both traditional literary analysis and a multitude of readers’ responses. To do so, 30 English undergraduates from Michigan State University were tasked with reading 16 sonnets two times. During the first reading, participants became acquainted with the language of the sonnets; in the second reading, participants were prompted to highlight in green specific words, phrases, lines, or passages that they found aesthetically pleasing. By compiling all participants’ highlights, we surprisingly found that up to 80% of readers agreed upon positive aesthetic 141 judgments. This set of data, with its varying degrees of agreement, shows what poetic moments are more or less aesthetically pleasing to our sample of readers. These responses are most valuable to our investigation as they allow us to objectively identify aesthetically pleasing elements within our sample of sonnets. Ultimately, in forming an explanation for aesthetic pleasure in poetry with this approach, we show a way to practice literary criticism without relying on our possibly subjective readings as has been the tradition.
Wood, Dwamena and Horne: "The Science of Sonnets: An FRMI Investigation into the Neuroscience of Reading"
The field of literary neuroscience is a rapidly expanding field providing valuable insights into the cognitive processes involved in reading. The cognitive processes involved in reading sonnets has historically been an understudied aspect of literary neuroscience. Our study aims to investigate the neural structures involved in reading poetry, specifically sonnets. Sonnets have been a part of western culture since the 13th century, but the research into the cognitive processes involved has been largely untapped. In our study, English undergraduates read 16 sonnets inside a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner. Participants read both Elizabethan and Petrarchan sonnets, 8 of each. Participants were asked to highlight during moments that were aesthetically pleasing in green and moments that were aesthetically displeasing in red. Eye tracking was used throughout to more effectively track the participant’s reading. We hypothesized that during moments of aesthetic pleasure, the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) will have heightened activation, while moments of aesthetic displeasure will show decrease activation in the IPS. This research will hopefully help develop a more complete understanding of the cognitive processes involved in various forms of reading that are embedded in western culture.
Visit The Chronicle of Higher Education this week to read Professor Natalie Phillips's redefinition of the age of distraction, "A Crisis of Short Attention Spans, 250 Years Ago." Debunking the narrative of modernity as an era of increasing distractions amid increasing technological developments, Phillips reminds readers that distraction is nothing new: "If we complain today of media, and social-media, oversaturation, writers then worried about industrial, vocal, and literary tumult," she argues. For more of Phillips's research and writing on the history of distraction, see also her recent book from Johns Hopkins University Press: Distraction: Problems of Attention in 18th Century Literature (2016).
Eight students from the DHLC will be presenting three new interdisciplinary projects at NCUR on April 6-8, 2017.
Courtney Bennett (English), Kendall Hughes (English, Secondary Education, Women and Gender Studies minor, TSOL minor), and Karah Smith (English, Psychology, DH minor) will be doing a poster presentation titled "Pop Culture's Influence on the Stories We Hear in Music." Smith will fill in for Emily Vaughan (English, Spanish, Secondary Education) who is unable to attend the conference, but who collaborated with Viktoria Teneqexhi (Neuroscience) to put together a presentation titled "The Stories We Tell About Music." Both projects branch from an ongoing interdisciplinary study that explores the concept of narrative listening, or rather, when and why people have a tendency to think of stories when listening to unfamiliar orchestral music (Phillips & McAuley, MSU; Margulis, U. Arkansas).
The final presentation titled: "Attentional Connectivity Networks and Their Implication in Reading and Memory," will be presented by Lana Grasser (Neuroscience, Dance Minor), Mohan Gupta (Neuroscience, Psychology, Cognitive Science minor), and Michel Kabbash (Human Biology, French minor). This study draws on a previous fMRI study where English Ph.D. candidates at Stanford were asked to read Ch. 2 of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park in a scanner and alternate between two levels of attention. This study was one of the first neuroscientific experiments to use fMRI & fMRI compatible eye-tracking to explore the cognitive domains involved in literary reading.
If you wish to donate to support the DHLC's cutting-edge research in history of mind, literature, neuroscience, music cognition, and/or neuroaesthetics of poetry, or if you wish to provide funding to support student researchers, please follow the below link. Any contribution is greatly appreciated and, if you choose, we would like to honor our donors by displaying their names on our website's Funding and Donations page (coming soon). Thank you for your support!