Monday, April 28, 2014

Down The Hobbit Hole: I’ve Got A Niche (Part 2 of 2)

Down the Hobbit Hole is a monthly segment penned by Maura, a senior at Michigan State University, finishing her undergraduate degree in English. She's also a lover of cats, great literature and Bruce Springsteen. Life's an adventure and remember: "Not all those who wander are lost."


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We are taught from an early age that language and the arts are separate from the sciences, and certainly this idea is reinforced throughout the rest of our schooling days.

Science deals with formulas, with calculating, with experiments. In a lot of ways, it seems that science is more important. It has the potential to heal people, to discover new ideas.

So what does English literature have to do with neuroscience?

At one time I would’ve said that the two are completely different, that they do not intertwine in any way. Now, I believe that the two have everything to do with each other.

The field of literary neuroscience is relatively new and little research has been done. But the research that has been done is mind-blowing and makes for some very significant changes in how literature is being viewed.

At the head of some of this research is Professor Phillips.

Looking beyond the limits of others, she tested what would happen when Ph.D. students read Mansfield Park (by Jane Austen) in two ways: close reading and pleasure reading. The students did so in an fMRI machine while hooked up to eye-tracking devices—not the ideal place to cozy up with a book.

What she found, though, paved the way. The results went beyond “work” and “play,” and instead suggest that when we pay attention to literary texts (such as in close reading), the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions is required.

Long story short, reading isn’t as simple as people once thought it was; it requires a lot from your brain. In a similar study, they found that presenting participants with a text about motor skills (such as “Raymond kicked the ball”) actually activates specific areas of the brain that correlate to kicking.

What I’m really trying to say, though, is to explore because you never know where it might lead.

I know it’s cliché, but if someone told me my interested would include literary neuroscience, I wouldn’t believe them. However, I’m beginning to realize that this is where I fit in.

In an experiment titled “This is your brain on Jane Austen” I found my home.

- MS

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