Thursday, October 25, 2012

Persuasion

Quote for the day:
It was almost too wonderful for belief; and it was with the greatest effort that she could remain in the room, preserve an air of calmness, and answer the common questions of the moment. Jane Austen, Persuasion

I AM ROUGHLY two thirds of the way through memorizing chapter 18 of Persuasion by Jane Austen. You may recall that I have no good reason whatsoever for doing this; nevertheless I am: five and a half pages memorized with three to go.



With such unflagging pursuit of an utterly useless attainment, you can imagine the disbelief and humor with which Paul and I greeted an article he came across quite by accident in the Stanford University News written by Corrie Goldman entitled This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes

I've excerpted it here. Perhaps next they will study how memorizing Chapter 18 of Persuasion effects the brain.


They had subjects read Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, but you and
I know they would have gotten much better results reading Persuasion. 

Stanford Report
September 7, 2012

This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes

Researchers observe the brain patterns of literary PhD candidates while they're reading a Jane Austen novel. The fMRI images suggest that literary reading provides "a truly valuable exercise of people's brains."

BY CORRIE GOLDMAN 

The inside of an MRI machine might not seem like the best place to cozy up and concentrate on a good novel, but a team of researchers at Stanford are asking readers to do just that.

In an innovative interdisciplinary study, neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars are working together to explore the relationship between reading, attention and distraction – by reading Jane Austen.

Surprising preliminary results reveal a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for "executive function," areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task, such as reading, said Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project.

During a series of ongoing experiments, functional magnetic resonance images track blood flow in the brains of subjects as they read excerpts of a Jane Austen novel. Experiment participants are first asked to leisurely skim a passage as they might do in a bookstore, and then to read more closely, as they would while studying for an exam.

Phillips said the global increase in blood flow during close reading suggests that "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."

The experiment focuses on literary attention, or more specifically, the cognitive dynamics of the different kinds of focus we bring to reading. This experiment grew out of Phillips' ongoing research about Enlightenment writers who were concerned about issues of attention span, or what they called "wandering attention."

Phillips, who received her PhD in English literature at Stanford in 2010, is now an assistant professor of English at Michigan State University. She said one of the primary goals of the research is to investigate the value of studying literature. Beyond producing good writers and thinkers, she is interested in "how this training engages the brain."

The researchers found that blood flow in the brain increases during such leisurely reading, but in different areas of the brain than when the subjects read the novel more closely.

Pioneering in a number of respects, her research is "one of the first fMRI experiments to study how our brains respond to literature," Phillips said, as well as the first to consider "how cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it."

Critical reading of humanities-oriented texts is recognized for fostering analytical thought, but if such results hold across subjects, Phillips said it would suggest "it's not only what we read – but thinking rigorously about it that's of value, and that literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people's brains."
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