Complexities of reading

“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.”

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