I am a closeted, wannabe English Major. To that end, Jane Austen is one of my literary heroes. She is witty, perceptive, and makes you think… really hard. Austen pushes her reader’s intellectual capabilities in many ways; specifically, she asks her reader to entertain and deconstruct multiple representations embodied in each character.
The link between Jane Austen and Neuroscience begins with an article in the New York Times that interviewed Lisa Zunshine, a Professor of English at the University of Kentucky. Zunshine is particularly considered with Theory of Mind: the ability to attribute mental states – such as beliefs, intents, etc. – to oneself and others as well as understand that others have mental states that are different from one’s own. When Theory of Mind is taken to the complex level of interpreting multiple perspectives and their relations to one another, the consequence is a brain hard at work analyzing differences. We tend to spend a lot of time thinking about complex physiological processes with behavioral and cognitive implications, but Zunshine and her colleagues are taking it to the next level. They are asking us to pay attention to the high functioning brain of an intellectual trying to comprehend an incredibly complex piece of literature. Talk about furthering the field.
Zunshine and colleagues that are comprised of cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and of course, literary scholars are a part of a project aimed to focus on how the brain works when reading complex literature. Their project takes place at Yale University, and it aims to improve reading ability among college-level reading skill. Leading the project is Professor Michael Holquist at Yale, professor emeritus of comparative literature. He states:
We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts.
The team constructs their study based around the use of an fMRI machine and the understanding that different texts with differing levels of complexity influence the brain in varying ways. Personally, I am amazed when I see studies like this. I believe that this is the direction Neuroscience should be headed in: understanding the brain in specific situations. Don’t get me wrong, findings that are applicable in general situations are excellent and, without them, we would be very lost. But as we discover more about large demographics, we are increasingly apt to consider more specific situations such as this one. I know Jane would be proud.