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Interview Conducted by Bailey Fernandez, Graduate Writer


How did you begin this research project? What were its origins?

This project began at a dinner party, actually. A friend of mine does research in neuroscience, and we started chatting about his field and the role that persuasion seems to play in it. My friend pointed me to an article that had been published about the persuasiveness of neuroscience in the public sphere more broadly, and that article ended up sparking my interest for this project. In that article, called “fMRI in the Public Eye,” neuroscientists coined the terms neurorealism, neuroessentialism, and neuropolicy to describe what they felt were troubling types of claims in public discourse about neuroscience findings. I had a hunch, though, that these types of claims actually went deeper—that they have to do with the experimental apparatus, assumptions, and methods used in fields like social and cognitive neuroscience that rely on imaging devices such as fMRI. In Raveling the Brain, I explore how neuroscience research in those fields emerges, showing how they (by necessity, sometimes) tend to be reductive and essentialist, and I argue that humanistic concepts can help to address some of those limitations by placing concepts like sex/gender, politics, and persuasion in a richer context of humanistic thought.


How did you first become involved with, as you say, “neuro” disciplines? What made you see connections between them and the field of rhetoric? 

Well, in addition to my connection with concerns neuroscientists have raised about their discipline, I noticed that some researchers in the neurosciences were engaging with concepts that rhetoricians are also interested in: the effects of images, persuasion itself, affect, sex and gender, politics. Sometimes, they do that work without really engaging with humanistic concepts, and the results can be limiting, as in studies that study “right” and “left” brains as naturally occurring “types” without considering how political orientations are constituted through rhetoric. But sometimes they do engage with humanistic thought. I try to highlight in the book that some neuroscientists get this. For instance, one of UNC’s rising stars in neuroscience is Kristin Lindquist, who was actually an English major as an undergraduate. She understands that emotions cannot be studied apart from the language we use to describe them, and she’s got a whole research program focused on how terms like hangry constitute the emotions they describe. She’s an example of a researcher who draws on humanistic concepts productively to enrich neuroscience. In the book I try to point to other areas of social and cognitive neuroscience that could similarly benefit from this approach. And there are also moments where neuroscience could really enrich the work we are doing in the humanities, if we dig deep and really think through the research. For instance, while humanities researchers sometimes conceptualize affect as pre- or a-linguistic, scholars like Lindquist are actually turning in another direction that suggests the inseparability of language and affect.


In researching and writing the book, what most surprised you?

At times, I was surprised that humanities research is, in fact, cited by neuroscientists. For instance, I found a study of creative writing using fMRI that actually cited some early rhetoric and composition scholars who had studied the writing process back in the 1970s. However, for a discipline that tends to privilege new citations, I was surprised to find that researchers didn’t often go out of the way to cite the most recent research in the humanities. So, for instance, a study on the neuroscience of persuasion might cite Aristotle’s Rhetoric but none of the tremendous body of research being done by contemporary rhetoricians. (But, by the same token, humanities researchers tend to privilege popular science books that, by virtue of how quickly science moves, are often out of date, presenting “known knowledge” that authors often seek to popularize). So it goes both ways. In a time where interdisciplinarity is no longer a novel buzzword, it is surprising how infrequently we engage deeply with work in other disciplines. In the book, I focused on scientific articles and tried to analyze them closely as rhetorical texts.


What are you currently working on?

In Raveling the Brain, I ended up focusing on the first two “neuroclaims” I mentioned earlier—neurorealism and neuroessentialism—because I saw those as central to the question of how social and cognitive neuroscience research is conducted and why it is ripe for oversimplified explanations in popular texts. I didn’t have space to really engage with the third type of claim, neuropolicy. Although scholars in a range of disciplines are eager to apply neuroscience to policymaking, there hasn’t been an academic study of how neuropolicy arguments work. I plan to focus on education policy, which has been especially influenced by neuroscience-based arguments. I’m going to be looking at a few cases: the teaching of handwriting and laptop bans (both of which are justified in part based on neuroscience evidence), the teaching of “habits of mind” or grit, and developments in educational technology that offer “personalized learning” on apps that are meant to better address how brains work.


What goals do you have for this project?

My goal is to develop a framework to better understand those arguments. I am going to have to develop an approach that can identify how a neuroscience claim circulates across multiple genres and spheres, and how they are put forward by people of various expertise—not all of them are neuroscientists. Sometimes policymakers are drawing directly on scientific research, but more often, it seems, there are various consultants, think tanks, and researchers who are directly influencing public policy, sometimes for profit. We need to be aware of how these neuropolicy claims work and how they circulate in order to make better decisions about how and what we teach. For instance, the Council of Writing Program Administrators adopted a statement called “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” in 2012, and it relies heavily on the concept of “habits of mind.” That statement has shaped writing program policies and curricula across the country. But many who implement such policies may not be aware that the term is being heavily promoted by an emeritus education professor and a private educational consultant who are essentially running a mini-industry that includes books, certifications, courses, and so on. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to be gained by teaching with an awareness of metacognition, but we need to be aware of where these arguments are coming from and think carefully rather than adopting policies based on a knee-jerk positive response to claims about the brain. This is especially the case because sometimes such arguments can have negative effects. For instance, the idea of “habits of mind” (or the related term grit) can overlook socioeconomic, racial, and gendered inequalities and ultimately refashion “bootstraps” types of rhetoric.