Last Updated 29 | 12 | 2013 at 07:00

Lifestyle

Reading Jane Austen exercises fundamental parts of brain

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Reading Jane Austen novels closely activates the areas of the brain more commonly associated with movement and touch, according to a previous study by U.S. researchers.

The findings surprised neuroscientists who expected to see changes in regions of the brain, which regulate attention as the main differences between casual and focused reading.

But the results of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans looked as they would if readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analysed it.

Test subjects were asked to read in two ways: sometimes they were asked to casually browse the text, as they might do in a bookshop; other times they were asked to delve deep, as a scholar might study a text.

Natalie Phillips, professor of 18th Century Literature and Culture at Michigan State University, who led the study, said: '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.'

As volunteers read, Professor Phillips and her team scanned their brains while simultaneously tracking their eye movements, breathing and heart rate.

Unexpectedly they found that close reading activated parts of the brain usually more involved in movement and touch - as though readers were physically placing themselves in the story.

The research fits into a new interdisciplinary field sometimes called literary neuroscience.

Other researchers are looking at how poetry and rhythm affect the brain as well as how metaphors excite sensory regions.

Their research hopes to reveal a more complete picture of the mysteries of human cognition and is an important crossing point between the arts and the sciences.

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