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What Jane Austen can teach us about how the brain pays attention

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Did Jane Austen create the perfect tool for studying attention? Image credit: Evert Duykinck, public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t remember if I had any problems paying attention to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park when I first read it. I doubt it, though. I devoured all of my Austen in one big gulp, book after book, line after line, sometime around the eighth grade. My mom had given a huge, bright blue hardcover, with text as small as the book was weighty, that contained the Jane Austen oeuvre from start to finish. And from start to finish I went.

I’ve since revisited most of the novels—there’s only so much you retain, absorb, and process on a thirteen-year-old’s reading binge—but Mansfield Park hasn’t fared quite as well as some of the others. I’m not sure why. I’ve just never gone back. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I saw that this somewhat neglected (and often frowned upon) novel had been made the center of an intriguing new study of reading and attention.

“This is your brain on Jane Austen,” rang the headline. Oh, no, not another one, went my head. It seems like every day, we get another “your brain on…” announcement, and at this point, an allergic reaction seems in order. This one, however, proved to be different. It’s not about your brain on Jane Austen. Not really. It’s about a far more interesting question: can our brains pay close attention in different ways?

The neural correlates of attention are a hot research topic—and with good reason. After all, with the explosion of new media streams, new ways of digesting material, new ways of interacting with the world, it would make sense for us to be curious about how it all affects us at the most basic level of the brain. Usually, though, the research deals with the differences between paying attention, like really paying attention, and not paying attention all that much, be it because of increased cognitive load or other forms of multitasking or divided attention. It’s rare to see a qualitative attention comparison, where we really pay attention across the board—but do so in different ways. Indeed, so strange is the notion that close attention comes in multiple flavors that, when researcher Natalie Phillips decided to tackle that very issue, her future collaborators met the idea with a certain skepticism. Yes, they said, interesting—but you aren’t going to see much of a difference in the brain. Not by a long shot. Phillips was undeterred, and, as it ends up, with good reason.

In the study, Phillips and colleagues at Stanford’s Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging had a group of English graduate students from local universities read the first two chapters of Mansfield Park—provided they hadn’t read it in the last five years. To get familiar with (and, one would hope, engrossed in) the material, they read the first chapter in the (relative) comfort of the lab. Then, they switched from book to screen. Chapter Two unfolded within the fMRI scanner—that’s the “your Brain on Jane Austen” part of the headline—as participants were asked to switch between two reading modes: a normal, pleasure-reading mode and an attentive, critical-reading mode.

In the normal mode, the students had to mimic their pleasure reading. They were told to relax and read as they would have done had they happened to pick the book off the bookshelf. In the attentive mode, they were asked to perform a critical reading: they had to read with heightened attention to things like formal structure and literary themes and patterns. Later, they were told, they would have to write a literary essay on those sections they had read critically.

As the subjects read, switching between modes according to visual cues, the researchers recorded not just their neural activity but their eye movements and heart rate. Then, they left them to their essay writing.

Though the results are still being analyzed—the eye and heart rate data is still unknown, and the whole brain analyses incomplete—some interesting patterns have already emerged. Phillips, it turns out, seems to have been correct in her initial hunch: the patterns of neural activation when we’re reading for pleasure are not the same as those when we’re reading critically. It’s not just that the brain’s pleasure centers become activated in the more relaxed, immersed form of reading while the areas that have been implicated in attention and cognitive load are more active for the close reading. Instead, the transformation appears to be on a much broader level, with emotional, spatial, motor, and other areas all involved to various extents at various points. (It would be premature to go much beyond that broad characterization before the analysis is complete.)

All reading is not created equal. Image credit: Rebecca Wilson, Flickr, via Creative Commons.

Not all reading is created equal, even when we’re using all of our cognitive resources to process it. For, that’s the beauty of the setup. It’s not that subjects are distracted in one condition and not in the other. They are equally attentive in both, equally immersed in the reading, equally responsive to the text. And yet—their attention patterns are not the same. An instruction to change literary attention not only changes the type of information you extract from the reading; it also changes how your brain responds to it. The readers are modulating their attention consciously, and at a deep level.

Of course, we need to wait for full results—and replications—before getting too excited. But it’s fascinating to think that we’re capable of deep, uninterrupted attention of different kinds on such a basic level. That all reading is not created equal seems an obvious point, but it becomes less so when you place it in the broader context of attentional research. Next time we want to distinguish between cognitive engagement and a more distracted, cognitively loaded and superficial approach to a topic, we’d do well to specify how exactly we want people to attend to something. The results might not be as interchangeable as we think.

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Seegene 8:43 am 10/24/2012

    It seems to be the Cognitive and Neuroscience wants to take over all the human feelings.

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  2. 2. dubina 8:00 pm 10/24/2012

    Probably this was thought of, and possibly even tried, but what about mapping the differences between a person’s perceptions of novel and familiar material?

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  3. 3. arturbcc 2:53 pm 03/27/2013

    This is quite interesting. Are the results ready or still on going? I’m rather curious about it.

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  4. 4. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 8:37 am 03/29/2013

    Still ongoing. I’ll update when they are ready!

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