Thursday, September 20, 2012

Stanford Study: Reading Jane Austen to examine attention and distraction

Researcher Natalie Phillips positions an eye-tracking device on Matt Langione

During a series of ongoing experiments, fMRI images track blood flow in the brains of subjects as they read excerpts of a Jane Austen novel.

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

The researchers said 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 suggesting 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.

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…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.”

Pioneering Stanford study uses Jane Austen texts to examine attention and distraction during reading, suggesting different modes of reading may serve as valuable cognitive training for concentration.

Also see graphing Jane Austen.

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