Photo of Natalie Phillips. Young woman with big smile, glasses, brown hair pulled back, and wearing a black dress.

Natalie Phillips

Assistant Professor
Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture
Co-Director, Digital Humanities & Literary Cognition Lab
Affiliated Faculty, Cognitive Science Program

Office: C602 Wells Hall
DHLC Lab: C740 Wells Hall

Natalie Phillips, Assistant Professor of English at Michigan State University, specializes in 18th-century literature, the history of mind, and cognitive approaches to fiction. Her first book, Distraction: Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature, (forthcoming, Johns Hopkins University Press, Spring 2016) 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. Her research on attention has appeared in collections by Oxford UP, MIT Press, and the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Additional 18th-century research interests include the history of science, race and gender studies, the history of the book, critical interdisciplinary theory, and cultures of reading.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. Phillips is co-founder of the Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition Lab in the Department of English at MSU. Current experiments include an fMRI study of literary attention in reading Jane Austen (Stanford, MSU) and a neuroscientific study of attention and aesthetic pleasure in poetry reading (NYU, MSU). Phillips is delighted to have been supported by a variety of research grants and foundations: most recently the ACLS Digital Innovations Fellowship (2015-17) and a Science Studies grant at MSU (2015-16). She was also invited to participate in Beauty and Beyond, a global collaboration grounded at NYU devoted to developing interdisciplinary experiments on the neuroaesthetics of art, music, and literature. Future studies include an eye-tracking study of fiction reading practices on digital media (Wallenberg Foundation), new experiments on poetry, music, and cognitive rhythm (TAP lab, MSU), and a project in-progress on empathy and trauma narratives (MSU, Duke). This work has grown into her second book project, tentatively entitled Literary Neuroscience and the Aesthetics of the Brain, which theorizes a more reciprocal relationship between literature and neuroscience in interdisciplinary experiments and historicizes literary renderings of the brain from the eighteenth century to the present.


“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’ research has been supported by the American Council for Learned Societies, the Mellon Foundation, the Wallenberg Foundation, the TEAGLE Foundation, the Stanford Center for Neurobiological Imaging, the Stanford Humanities Center, the MSU College of Arts and Letters, and the Royal Bibliographic Society. Some of her most recent grants include the following:

ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship.“The Neuroscience of Reading:

Integrating Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition.” 2015-2017.

S3: Science Studies @ State.“Digital Humanities and Literary Neuroscience.” 2015-16.

Beauty and Beyond: New Experiments in Neuroaesthetics. Global Institute for Advanced Studies (GIAS) at New York University. 2014-2016.

Culture, Brain, and Learning. International research initiative in humanities and cognitive science supported by the Wallenberg Foundation in Sweden. Supports collaborations with Stanford University, Lund University, and Umea University. 2012-2015.


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:

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