Natalie Phillips is Associate Professor of English, Affiliated faculty in Cognitive Science Program, and founder and co-director of the Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition Lab (DHLC) at Michigan State University. She specializes in 18th-century literature, the history of mind, cognitive approaches to fiction, and disability studies. Her first book, Distraction: Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature, traces how changing Enlightenment ideas about the unfocused mind reshaped literary form, arguing that descriptions of distraction in narrative advanced—and often complicated—scientific theories of concentration.
She is also a leading figure in the emerging field of literary neuroscience, pioneering a series of interdisciplinary experiments that use neuroscientific tools, such as fMRI and eye-tracking, to explore the cognitive dynamics of literary reading. Current experiments in progress at the DHLC include an fMRI study of literary attention and Jane Austen (MSU, Stanford), a neuroscientific study on the pleasures of poetry reading (MSU, NYU), a cross-cultural project on narrative perceptions of music (MSU, Princeton, Chinese University of Hong Kong), and most recently, Creativity in the Time of COVID-19: Art as a Tool for Combating Social Inequity and Injustice. Her second book project, tentatively entitled Literary Neuroscience and the Aesthetics of the Brain, grows out of this cross-disciplinary research, modeling a more reciprocal relationship between literature and neuroscience in interdisciplinary experiments and historicizing literary renderings of the brain from the eighteenth century to the present. She is also beginning another book project After leading Accessible Art initiatives with a focus on neurodiversity (2014-present), during COVID-19, she also has begun writing an autobiography about living with her disability, Teaching from the Floor: Adventures of a Neurological Disorder.
Phillips and the DHLC’s research has appeared in high-impact collections by Oxford UP, MIT Press, Routledge, Cambridge UP, etc. and been featured by NPR, BBC, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her multidisciplinary work also has been supported by a variety of national and international research grants and foundations, including ACLS/Mellon, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Teagle Foundation, and the Wallenberg Foundation of Sweden.
“Literary Neuroscience and the History of Attention: An fMRI Study of Reading Jane Austen.” The Oxford Handbook for Cognitive Approaches to Literature. Ed. Lisa Zunshine. Oxford University Press. (January 2015).
“Literature, Neuroscience, and Digital Humanities.” Humanities and the Digital. Ed. Theo Goldberg and Patrick Svensson. MIT Press. (January 2015).
“The Art of Attention: Rhythms of Focus in Eighteenth-Century Poetry and the Novel.” Eighteenth-Century Poetry and the Rise of the Novel Reconsidered. Ed. Courtney Weiss Smith and Kate Parker. Bucknell University Press. (December 2013.)
“Distraction as Liveliness of Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Characterization in Jane Austen.”Theory of Mind and Literature. Purdue University Press (November 2010).
“Attention.”Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Roland Greene. Princeton University Press (July 2012).
Phillips is honored to have received three teaching awards at MSU:
- Honors College Award for Distinguished Contributions to Honors Students (2014)
- Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentor of the Year—Humanities, Social Sciences, and Communication Arts (2014)
- CAL Alumni Award for Innovation and Leadership in Teaching and Learning (2015)
Phillips has taught the following courses at MSU:
ENG 140: Literature and Society
ENG 211H: Foundations of Literary Study I
ENG280: Foundations of Literary Study II
ENG364: Literature and Mind: Thinking and Feeling in Eighteenth-Century Fiction
ENG457: Fictions of Mind in Eighteenth-Century Literature
ENG492H: Cognitive Science and the Literary History of Mind
ENG819: Literature and Psychology (Graduate Pro-Seminar)
ENG820: The Cognitive Eighteenth Century