A professor studying Jane Austen is breaking new ground in our understanding of the differences between casual and close reading. The differences, neuroscientific experiments are showing, can be large and multidimensional:
Neuroscientists warned Phillips she wouldn't see many brain differences between the casual reading and intense reading.
"Everyone told me to expect these really, really minute and subtle effects," she said. "Because everyone was going to be doing the same thing. Right? Reading Jane Austen. And they were just going to be doing it in two different ways."
Phillips said she mainly expected to see differences in parts of the brain that regulate attention because that was the main difference between casual and focused reading.
But in a neuroscientific plot twist, Phillips said preliminary results showed otherwise: "What's been taking us by surprise in our early data analysis is how much the whole brain — global activations across a number of different regions — seems to be transforming and shifting between the pleasure and the close reading."
Phillips found that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.
Phillips' research fits into an interdisciplinary new field sometimes dubbed "literary neuroscience." Other researchers are examining poetry and rhythm in the brain, how metaphors excite sensory regions of the brain, and the neurological shifts between reading a complex text like Marcel Proust compared to reading the newspaper — all in hopes of giving a more complete picture of human cognition. More at NPR.