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Early findings in an interdisciplinary study at Stanford University provide biological evidence that supports the value of literature. Neurobiological experts, radiologists, and literary scholars have joined forces to examine the relationship between reading, attention, and distraction, specifically the "cognitive dynamics of the different kinds of focus we bring to reading."

Participants in the study are asked to read a chapter from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park in two different manners: first, to leisurely skim a passage and then to read more closely, as if they were studying for an exam. The experiment takes place while participants are in an MRI machine so that researchers can monitor the blood flow in the brain during these activities. This shows "where neurons are firing, and when" and also tracks eye movement.

If you've ever had an MRI, this probably sounds a little bizarre, as the machine has very tight quarters and you cannot move while the test is in progress. In this experiment, the text  is projected onto a mirror inside of the MRI scanner. In addition to color coding within the text, participants receive a verbal cue to switch reading styles (reading for pleasure versus reading with heightened attention). After subjects finish the chapter, they exit the scanner and write a short literary essay on the section they were asked to analyze closely. (All participants are literary PhD candidates from the Bay Area, chosen because researchers thought they would be more adept at changing reading styles.)

The study was conceived by Natalie Phillips, a literary scholar and assistant professor of English at Michigan State University. She is interested in finding the value of studying literature and the way in which it engages the brain. Phillips says that this is  "one of the first fMRI experiments to study how our brains respond to literature" and the first to "consider how cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it." She reports that preliminary findings display "a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those associated for 'executive function.'" (I.e. the areas typically associated with paying close attention to a task like reading.) Phillips said that the universal increase in blood flow suggested that "paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions" and noted that each style of reading may create distinct patterns in the brain, as was evidenced by the increase in blood flow in different areas during pleasure reading.

Bob Doherty, Director of the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging, said he was excited by early scans, which show "how the right patterns of ink on a page can create vivid mental imagery and instill powerful emotions" and surprised how "a simple request to the participants to change their literary attention can have such a big impact on the pattern of activity during reading."

Medical Xpress reports:

The researchers expected to see pleasure centers activating for the relaxed reading and hypothesized that close reading, as a form of heightened attention, would create more neural activity than pleasure reading. If the ongoing analysis continues to support the initial theory, Phillips said, teaching close reading (i.e., attention to literary form) "could serve – quite literally – as a kind of cognitive training, teaching us to modulate our concentration and use new brain regions as we move flexibly between modes of focus."

Literary neuroscience? So.Cool.

The value of literature, now supported by MRI imaging