MRI reveals brain’s response to reading

STANFORD (US) — Researchers asked people to read Jane Austen in an MRI machine, and say the surprising results suggest reading closely could be “training” for our brains.

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, says 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 skim a passage leisurely as they might do in a bookstore, and then to read more closely, as they would while studying for an exam.

Phillips says 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 suggests 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 says 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 research is “one of the first fMRI experiments to study how our brains respond to literature,” Phillips says, as well as the first to consider “how cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it.”

Print overload

Critical reading of humanities-oriented texts are recognized for fostering analytical thought, but if such results hold across subjects, Phillips says 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.”

Though modern life’s cascade of beeps and buzzes certainly prompts a new kind of distraction, Phillips warns against “adopting a kind of historical nostalgia, or assuming those of the 18th century were less distracted than we are today.”

Many Enlightenment writers, Phillips notes, were concerned about how distracted readers were becoming “amidst the print-overload of 18th-century England.”

Rather than seeing the change from the 18th century to today as a historical progression toward increasing distraction, Phillips likes to think of attention in terms of “changing environmental, cultural, and cognitive contexts: what someone’s used to, what they’re trying to pay attention to, where, how, when, for how long, etc.”

Ironically, the project was born out of a moment of distraction. While sitting on a discussion panel (which happened to be one of the first on cognitive approaches to literature), Phillips found herself distracted from the talk by the audience’s varieties of inattention: “One man was chatting to his neighbor; another person was editing their talk; one guy was looking vaguely out the window; a final had fallen asleep.”

The talk inspired Phillips to consider connections between her traditional study of 18th-century literature and a neuroscientific approach to literary analysis.

Phillips was especially intrigued by the concept of cognitive flexibility, which she defines as “the ability to focus deeply on one’s disciplinary specialty, while also having the capacity to pay attention to many things at once,” such as connections between literature, history of mind, philosophy, neuroscience, and so on.

Samantha Holdsworth, a research scientist specializing in MRI techniques, recalls an early conversation about the project when two scientists were trying to communicate with three literary scholars: “We were all interested, but working at the edge of our capacity just to understand even 10 percent of what each other were saying.”

Heightened attention

After working through the challenges of disciplinary lingo, the team devised a truly interdisciplinary experiment. Participants read a full chapter from Mansfield Park, which is projected onto a mirror inside an MRI scanner. Together with a verbal cue, color-coding on the text signals participants to move between two styles of attention: reading for pleasure or reading with a heightened attention to literary form.

The use of the fMRI allows for a dynamic picture of blood flow in the brain, “basically, where neurons are firing, and when,” says Phillips. Eye-tracking compatible with fMRI shows how people’s eyes move as they read. As Phillips explains, the micro-jumps of the eyes “can be aligned with the temporal blood flow to different regions in the brain.”

When participants are done with a chapter, they leave the scanner and write a short literary essay on the sections they analyzed closely. The test subjects, all literary PhD candidates from the Bay Area, were chosen because Phillips felt they could easily alternate between close reading and pleasure reading.

After reviewing early scans, neuroscientist Bob Doherty, director of the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging (CNI), says he was impressed by “how the right patterns of ink on a page can create vivid mental imagery and instill powerful emotions.”

Doherty was also surprised to see 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.”

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 says, 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.”

With the field of literary neuroscience in its infancy, Phillips says this project is helping to demonstrate the potential that neuroscientific tools have to “give us a bigger, richer picture of how our minds engage with art—or, in our case, of the complex experience we know as literary reading.”

Source: Stanford University

chat5 Comments

You are free to share this article under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.


  1. mom reader

    My 8-year old son and I read the Lord of the Rings very slowly, with an emphasis on stopping as often as possible, and understanding everything. We also discussed the writer Tolkien’s life and how it influenced the book. My son is now a stellar reader – literally “off the charts” in state tests. He loves to discuss books and his teachers comment on how involved he is in class. It might be because he learned to stop, think and ask questions.

  2. kimbee

    mom reader – I too read LOTR at a very young age. I first listened to the BBC radio play when I was around 6 and then my dad read the book with me much as you are doing with your son. I had read all three books, on my own, by 9. I think it is really important to let kids try books that are likely too challenging for them, especially if it is a story they really want to understand (like I did, and I assume you son did with LOTR). I used to be a chemistry teacher and I found the same principle applies to most forms of education.

  3. Vinicius de Almeida

    I was used to understand READING as a big exercise to develop brains for best. I allways had the understanding that brain had to work in many areas because READING requirements, based upon needs to view; talk and/or imagine words and sentences; hear and expressing sounds; memories of a great quantity in landscapes, people, animals, vegetations, objects, cloths, details on faces, emotions, feelings, love, hate, pleasure, plain. All these together in a very small extent of time to read a paragraph. Because this, I´m writing about giving to READING, in the first three inicial years of Basic Education, a primordial place, utilizing texts in classes, to learn Mother Language, Math, Sciences (natural and social), Envinronmental Care. I´m very glad to read about this showed by READING images through MRI as real
    so far as I imagined it was. My WEB research in GOOGLE to meet this article and others on the subject was ” what has Neuroscience to say on reading to develop brains ?”

  4. Dan Bloom

    Bloom’s Hunch is your brain reading Jane Austen on paper surfaces in an MRI machine and this is your brain reading Austen off a screen — Stanford researchers have been taking notes and it turns out that reading on paper is superior it was found for three things, in terms of brain chemisty: info processing, retention and analysis.
    Researchers observe the brain patterns of literary PhD candidates while they’re reading a Jane Austen novel on paper surfaces and off screens, called screening now. The fMRI images suggest that literary reading provides “a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.”

  5. Dan Bloom

    MRI brain imaging lab studies differences in screen, paper reading

    by Dan Bloom

    [Editor’s note: This is fiction but read between the lines — it might true
    in future.}
    Dr Ellen Marker studies reading. But not off screens or in
    paper books.

    Her research is done in an American laboratory in Boston.

    The pioneering neuroscientist analyzes brains in their most enthusiastic
    reading state, hoping to understand the differences between reading
    off screens and reading on paper surfaces.

    Like me, Dr Marker feels that her studies will show reading on paper
    is superior to reading off screens in terms of
    retention, processing, analysis and critical thinking.

We respect your privacy.