Dr. Natalie Philips — Pioneering Literary Neuroscience

My name is Natalie Phillips. I’m an assistant professor in English. I’m also affiliated faculty in the cognitive science program and I’m the co-lead of a new humanities lab called Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition. So my research focuses on two things: One, the history of mind, particularly the history of distraction, so what people
two hundred years ago thought about things like mind wandering and attention spans. And the second is an fMRI study that uses functional magnetic resonance imaging to actually look at differences in the attention that we pay when reading a book by Jane Austen. What happens in the study is this: subject comes into the lab and actually start reading Jane Austen’s, Mansfield Park, the first chapter, all the way through on their own. Then they go in and they read all of chapter two inside a very loud MRI scanner switching between two different states: close reading and pleasure reading. When they got out they wrote a short literary essay. This study was one of the first to actually look at what it means in real time
when we are reading a work of literature. It’s a study of attention and reading that
means that were really touching on what is the value of teaching “learning” in the humanities. What does it mean to be taught how to analyze literary text? Are there brain
regions that are being activated in this state that aren’t just when we read for pleasure? If we want to understand things that influence people across the country with reading disabilities, with any kind of lesions or strokes that have impacted their reading capacities, then
this is at least the key first step in moving that way. Our first undergraduate lab lead
was a triple major in literature, neuroscience and I think chemical and molecular biology. But we have students coming in from literature, Education, Neuroscience, Computer Science we have collaborators across all of these fields. What that means at an everyday level is that for this new work—and it really is new—you need every ounce of knowledge that you can bring and from so many different disciplinary perspectives to move this kind of work ahead.

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