Barometer: tech

Digital piggy bank, £9.99, www.no1gadget

These little piggies uses an LCD display to teach children about the importance of saving. Watch those pennies mount up.

Philips AirFryer, from £99,

Don’t want to give up chips completely? For a healthy 2013, hot air can fry your food without oil, for up to 80 per cent less fat.

Nike+ FuelBand, £129,

Measure your movement with red, amber and green lights to indicate progress. Results can be posted on social media sites for all to see.

Livescribe Echo Smartpen, from £69.97,

Want to keep a diary in 2013? This pen also records audio – for those wanting multimedia memories.

Fretlight guitar, $379.99 (acoustic) and from $399.99 (electric),

The guitar that teaches you to play guitar. LEDs guide you through chords, scales, songs and riffs

Silicon notebook

Your brain on Jane Austen

When Natalie Phillips began her PhD in English literature at Stanford, she never imagined her path to becoming a Jane Austen scholar would land her in a campus MRI machine with a copy of Mansfield Park, writes April Dembosky in San Francisco.

Phillips is now an English professor at Michigan State University, where she focuses on themes of distraction in Austen’s work. After speaking about it at a conference, where members of the audience caved into their own distractions – talking to each other, reading something else, falling asleep – she decided to take her research to a scientific level.

She contacted the Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging at Stanford to set up an experiment. Using graduate students in literature as her guinea pigs, she asked them to read passages of Austen’s Mansfield Park in two different ways. First, leisurely, as though they were browsing the book in a bookshop. Second, paying close attention to the plot and form, as though they were analysing it for a class.

The neurobiologists found that the brain lit up when subjects read for pleasure. But the areas of the brain associated with complex thinking were activated when subjects were more focused, indicating that literature study may be an effective means of cognitive training in general.

For Phillips, the preliminary results were a validation of her chosen field. “Literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains,” she says. “It’s not only what we read, but thinking rigorously about it that’s of value.”

For Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University, the results indicate something perilous. Students increasingly read on screens, whether on computers, tablets or phones. And when devices are connected to the internet, inviting distractions of all sorts, Baron is concerned that students are more often using the brain pathways for browsing, rather than critical thinking. The fate of reading in a digital world is uncertain. Already, “Students say, ‘don’t give me a whole book to read’,” she says.

Jane Austen may have written about distraction back in the 18th century, but in today’s internet-crazed world the interruptions can hardly compare.

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