Interesting spot on NPR morning edition:
A Lively Mind: Your Brain On Jane Austen
by Helen Thompson and Shankar Vedantam
At a recent academic conference, Michigan State University professor Natalie Phillips stole a glance around the room. A speaker was talking but the audience was fidgety. Some people were conferring among themselves, or reading notes. One person had dozed off.
Phillips, who studies 18th- and 19th-century literature, says the distracted audience made something pop in her head. Distractability is a theme that runs through many novels of Jane Austen, whom Phillips admires. It occurred to Phillips that there was a paradox in her own life when it came to distractability.
"I love reading, and I am someone who can actually become so absorbed in a novel that I really think the house could possibly burn down around me and I wouldn't notice," she said. "And I'm simultaneously someone who loses their keys at least three times a day, and I often can't remember where in the world I parked my car."
For Phillips, Jane Austen became both a literary and a neuroscientific puzzle.
Could modern cognitive theories explain character development in one of Austen's most famous heroines — Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennett? Phillips thinks Bennett's distractability was key to Austen's characterization of her lively mind — and that Austen herself was drawing on the contemporary theories of cognition in her time.
If neuroscience could inform literature, Phillips asked, could literature inform neuroscience?
She decided to conduct a study, looking at how reading affects the brain. She had volunteers lie still in a brain scanner and read Austen. Phillips sometimes instructed her volunteers to browse, as they might do at a bookstore. Other times, she asked them to delve deep, as a scholar might read a text while conducting a literary analysis.
Worth listening to (link on page above)