Jane Austen and Neuroscience; A Dream Come True

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.


2 thoughts on “Jane Austen and Neuroscience; A Dream Come True

  1. I’m so with you in my love for Jane Austen. She is such an incredible humorist. It’s funny how people have this perception that she’s all about love when really most of her work involves making fun of people and society. Anyway when it comes to neuroscience, she has this awesome quote about memory that I thought I would share,

    “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

    She’s so insightful…


  2. That’s a great quote! Where does that come from? I am reading “The Seven Sins of Memory” by David Sachter right now and it’s basically a book all about the “powers, failures, and inequalities” of memory.

    Sure enough, yesterday I was with my extended family for Thanksgiving, and my mom told some story about me “being bad” in high school. She was telling everyone about this horrible thing I did, and how she came up with this oh so horrible punishment. I remember everything she brought up but A. I don’t think the “bad” thing she mentioned was linked to the punishment she mentioned. B. I do think she threatened the punishment for a different event, but didn’t even come close to going through with it.

    But how can I argue? And how would we ever know who was right? (It did make me wish I had kept a journal in high school so I could go back and see if I had any entries complaining about my parents and their awful punishments to see if I am right or wrong)


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