Jane Austen and the Neuroscience of Reading and Attention

One of the first forays in the new field of literary neuroscience, our fMRI study of reading Jane Austen—now known in the media as “Your Brain on Jane”—sought to explore not so much the value of reading Austen’s novels but the cognitive complexity of the various modes of attention we can bring to any book. The goal of the study was to investigate the cognitive value and complexity of two forms of literary attention: close reading, or formal literary analysis, and pleasure reading, or becoming “lost in a good book.” Eighteen Ph.D. students at Stanford University were asked to read the first two chapters of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park––the first chapter on their own and the second chapter inside the scanner where they were instructed to oscillate between pleasure reading (when the text was outlined in green) and literary close reading (when the text was outlined in red). To add nuance to our comparison of these two modes of attention, our study did something that, at the time, was fairly unprecedented. We combined two neuroscientific tools: fMRI and fMRI-compatible eye tracking. Simultaneously, we incorporated humanist methods within conventional post-scan surveys, asking subjects to write literary essays. Because of this choice, our subjects truly brought life and color to the study. 

The fMRI machine in use while a lab member watches over.
Four lab members stand in front of their research poster smiling.

While the essays were originally intended to be only a means of ensuring individuals had successfully completed the task (i.e., close reading), it turned out the subjects were quoting the text, managing to maintain a high level of literary sophistication despite not being able to access the narrative at all while writing. Selecting extremely concrete examples from Austen’s highly abstract language in Mansfield Park, they used these moments in the text to support a variety of analyses, anchoring their essays on tangible objects they remembered such as “sashes,” “gold paper,” “artificial flowers,” a “pug,” and a “gooseberry tart.” More information on the results of this study can be found in our various publications.