Natalie Phillips 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, (Johns Hopkins University Press, September 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).