What is the value of reading literature? This classic question has troubled literary scholars for centuries, but now it’s getting put to the test of science in hopes of some hard answers. In an innovative interdisciplinary research project at Stanford University, neurobiologists, radiologists, and humanities scholars are trying to understand the relationship between reading, attention, and distraction. Researchers recruited literature PhD candidates from schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley to undergo fMRI scans while reading a full chapter of the Jane Austen novel Mansfield Park at different levels of concentration. Led by Natalie Phillips, formerly a postdoc at Stanford and now a professor at Michigan State, the team’s research sheds new light on the importance of reading:
Surprising preliminary results reveal a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for “executive function,” areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task, such as reading, said Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project.
During a series of ongoing experiments, functional magnetic resonance 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.
Phillips 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. Phillips suggested that each style of reading may create distinct patterns in the brain that are “far more complex than just work and play.” 
The team’s research is one of the first fMRI experiments to study how the human brain responds to literature. Their biggest question so far is whether or not it matters what we read or simply how we read. As Phillips put it, “it’s not only what we read – but thinking rigorously about it that’s of value, and that literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.”
The research grew out of Phillips’s “ongoing research about Enlightenment writers who were concerned about issues of attention span, or what they called ‘wandering attention.’” Much like us, such writers “lamented that reading occurred in an environment of ‘total cacophony’” . As much as we bemoan our distracting environments, we’re not the only people in history to do so.
Phillips warned against “adopting a kind of historical nostalgia, or assuming those of the 18th century were less distracted than we are today.” Many Enlightenment writers, Phillips noted, were concerned about how distracted readers were becoming “amidst the print-overload of 18th-century England.”
Rather than seeing the change from the 18th century to today as a historical progression toward increasing distraction, Phillips likes to think of attention in terms of “changing environmental, cultural and cognitive contexts: what someone’s used to, what they’re trying to pay attention to, where, how, when, for how long, etc.”
In recent years, almost every major publication has run cover stories about how technology is ruining our lives, from The New York Times’ “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” to the Atlantic’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The author of the latter, Nicholas Carr, developed his article into a 2011 book entitled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that was an instant bestseller and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Though insightful, such narratives almost always devolve into romantic nostalgia for the distraction-free past and Golden Age of literature, philosophy, and deep conversation, which it turns out never really existed.
Phillips avoids this cultural amnesia in her research by both staying grounded in literary and intellectual history and looking for a solution to this ancient problem.
Phillips was especially intrigued by the concept of cognitive flexibility, which she defines as “the ability to focus deeply on one’s disciplinary specialty, while also having the capacity to pay attention to many things at once,” such as connections between literature, history of mind, philosophy, neuroscience and so on…
After reviewing early scans, neuroscientist Bob Dougherty, research director of CNI, said he was impressed by “how the right patterns of ink on a page can create vivid mental imagery and instill powerful emotions.” Doherty was also surprised to see how “a simple request to the participants to change their literary attention can have such a big impact on the pattern of activity during reading…”
Phillips said, 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.”
We often think of literature cultivating abstract skills like critical thinking, logic, ethical sensibility, and emotional attunement, but Phillips’s research suggests that it could also have tangible payoffs in overcoming one of our oldest and most documented educational hurdles: short attention spans. Teaching people to “switch” their brains into a focused mode that shuts out external distractions and allows them greater interaction with the task at hand could be the humanities’ new selling point. In a way, Phillips’s findings aren’t surprising; readers have always touted the intangible benefits of great literature. Now, however, reading is a bona fide cognitive therapy.