2009, 2010, 2015
Natalie M. Phillips
- Assistant Professor
- Michigan State University
Distraction: Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature, 1747-1818
This dissertation offers a literary history of distraction between 1747 and 1818. It argues that the emergence of competing theories of attention in the Enlightenment altered how writers portrayed the fictional mind and how they sought to capture readers’ focus. In this period, the definition of attention changed from a mental act (a moment in which the mind directs itself toward an object) to a mental process (a cognitive response where the mind moves in synchrony with a shifting environment). Distraction became a uniquely generative fictional trope. Acknowledging the early novel's relationship to distraction complicates our traditional story of its eighteenth-century genesis, revealing not simply an attempt to represent everyday readers but an ongoing struggle to get their attention.
Attention and Reading: A Cognitive Approach to Literary Focus
This dissertation offers a literary history of the inattentive mind in the eighteenth century. Three subsequent projects draw on this work to explore the larger relationship between attention and reading. The first, an essay on economies of attention for The History of Reading, investigates how ideas about attention span shaped the Enlightenment essay. The second, an interdisciplinary fMRI experiment, uses technologies from cognitive science to analyze neural differences between levels of literary focus. The third, “Attention and Reading: The Art of Focus in the Enlightenment,” explores how the idea of attention as art shaped major eighteenth-century genres like children’s literature, satire, domestic fiction, and lyric poetry.
The Neuroscience of Reading: Integrating Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition
This project brings together scholars in literature, cognitive science, and digital humanities to explore how work in the new field of literary neuroscience can revitalize and expand tools and methods in the digital humanities. This work draws on an ongoing analysis of an interdisciplinary functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment on Jane Austen from the Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition lab (DHLC) at MSU to integrate digital tools with neuroscientific data (fMRI, eye-tracking, etc.) to map the physiology of reading in real time. In expanding the networks and maps central to digital data analysis to include the human body, this project advances digital scholarship by connecting traditionally broad-scale algorithms to a micro-analysis of embodied reading.