Theoretical Bases

Neurobiologists Calvert, Spence, and Stein (2004) note that, because the scholarship related to neuroscience is “spread across multiple disciplines, it has become increasingly fragmented in recent years” (p. xii). However, in a special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly, Rivers (2011) encourages a multidisciplinary approach to research into cognitive science, recognizing the roles that biology and social environment as well as technology play in cognition. Alluding to the convergence of tools, environment, and brain in distributed cognition, he states that, “those tools and that world are always part of the mind itself” (p. 415).

The field of social semiotics, further, recognizes that meaning is a social construct; that is, one’s interpretation of various images and objects evolves through interactions with others. The cognitive experience is rhetorical and social. As I detailed in a previous book, we learn about new concepts by interacting with phenomena associated with the new concepts; however, it also applies to persuasion. One may provide information to us in a way that will help us to understand a new concept or convince us to take a different position than one we originally hold; this is both a social phenomenon—interaction with another, and it is rhetorical—a message is provided to an audience (us) with a particular purpose. It takes interaction with the world around us to comprehend a situation and the meaning of the information provided. However, even Aristotle noted a biological attribute to rhetoric. Cognitive science, generally, recognizes these attributes of cognition—social and biological attributes related to facilitating an understanding of our world. However, the discussion of these cognitive neuroscience dynamics is complicated by disciplinary discourses and exclusions.

I called attention previously to the fact that each discipline approaches the topic from its own angle, recognizing that literature from that field is needed to support such scholarship (2015). For example, rarely will the author of a scholarly article cite work from outside their own discipline or the discipline of the particular journal. This extends to scholarly books, too. For example, in his highly regarded book Cognition in the Wild, Hutchins (1996) limits the discussion of cognition and social semiotics to cognitive psychology and distributed knowledge theory. Also, in How the Mind Works, another highly regarded work of cognitive neuroscience, Pinker (1997) integrates some discussion of neuroscience on cognitive processes; however, he focuses on historical development of cognitive processes and psychological evolution. Finally, Gruber (2012) highlights discourse differences in how scholars treat the neuro-scientific concept of mirror neurons, neurons that help an audience interpret and copy behavior they view. Such discourse exclusion limits the lens through which studies examine the phenomena. However, the phenomenon itself is very much a part of the principles of social discourse and persuasive rhetoric; one must use an audience’s expectations and values to make an argument or persuade, and using discourse from one’s own field helps to make a particularly scholarly case because the audience expects it and values it accordingly.

Rhetoric, in a broad sense, examines how the way information is presented affects an audience’s understanding of that information and response to it. Aristotle (translated 1991) and Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) recognized that rhetoric considers the disposition of certain kinds of audiences and one who wishes to convey an effective message must adjust to their particular audience. Aristotle acknowledges that rhetoric includes “three factors—the speaker, the subject and the listener—and it is to the last of these that its purpose it intended” (p. 80). The purpose of a message and its audience are intertwined. The message must consider the audience’s disposition in order to accomplish its purpose. This disposition can be theorized relative to social disposition or biological/physical disposition. Indeed, Aristotle notes that this likely involves an audience that may have “limited intellectual scope and limited capacity to follow an extended chain of reasoning” (p. 76). Such a statement includes physiological attributes in the rhetoric equation. If the audience’s cognitive capacities are not considered in developing the message, the meaning of the message will be lost.

Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca recall this emphasis on the audience, pointing out that “it is in terms of an audience that an argumentation develops” (p. 5). Indeed, they compare one who does not consider the audience to a rude visitor (p. 17). They assert that the most important rule of rhetoric is to adapt the message to the audience (p. 25). A message is not automatically understood just because it is articulated; it must be conveyed in a way that suits the audience’s background and understandings, their experiences and practices; their capacity for cognition.

Scholarship in rhetoric draws on studies from the social science and humanities disciplines of cognitive neuroscience—social semiotics, social psychology, and language theories. Rhetoric is certainly a social dynamic. However, rhetoric has been left out of much of the discussion of cognitive neuroscience and is not considered amongst those fields.

Jack (2012) provides some introductory material for connecting rhetoric with biological fields of neuroscience in her edited collection about “neurorhetorics.” Jack and Appelbaum (2010) identify two approaches to “neurorhetoric.” One involves studying the rhetoric of neuroscience, in which one considers how different discourses treat neuroscientific scholarship. Gruber (2012), for example, takes the first approach and describes the discourse differences related to how different fields treat a particular concept of neuroscience—the concept of “mirror neurons.” He observes that institutional dynamics at work within disciplinary scholarship limit the ability to arrive at a common language to describe the concept, further illustrating this problem. Jack and Applebaum (2010) also state that,

[a] second approach might be the neuroscience of rhetoric, drawing new insights into language, persuasion, and communication from neuroscience research. Findings such as this study of noncommunicative patients can prompt us to broaden our very definitions of rhetoric to include those with impaired communication (such as autism, aphasia, or ‘‘locked-in syndrome’’), asking how communication occurs through different means, or how brain differences might influence communication. (p. 10)

I attempt to close some of the discourse disconnections Gruber (2012) and Calvert, Spence, and Stein (2004) identify while using the second approach to synthesize scholarship in multimodal rhetoric and neurobiology, particularly with respect to multisensory neural processes, explicitly in the discussion of cognitive neuroscience.

Gruber formulates four “Pillars” by which interdisciplinary research involving rhetoric and neuroscience can occur by facilitating a means of “translation” between discourses. These pillars are very much a building tool applied in this book. The first pillar, he explains, is the “field- familiar spokesperson” (p. 237). This is a scholar who is knowledgeable about neuroscience and a second field—a sort of intermediary between discourses. I represent this person in the context of this book. The second pillar is that of the spokesperson’s support—a mechanism by which the spokesperson from Pillar 1 establishes ethos, or credibility, as well as logos for establishing the connection with the neuroscience community (p. 239). As I explained in the Author’s Preface of HTB, I consulted with a neurobiologist to ascertain that I understood concepts of neurobiology that I presented and applied them correctly. This neurobiologist acts as the second pillar in the context of this book.

The third pillar is that of nature; Gruber indicates that nature connects neuroscience with the particular field being applied to it or vice-versa. I have already alluded to Aristotle’s and Perleman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s references to the links between rhetoric and biology. These and the scholarship in neurobiology that I cite contribute to establishing this pillar for this book. The last pillar Gruber identifies is that of “objective writing practice.” He explains that this is a practice that makes writing transparent rather than an exercise in creativity; it is an effort to represent an objective reality rather than corrupt reality. Persuasion pertains to an audience’s perception of reality, which is based heavily on the audience’s prior experiences; consequently, I use that conception of objective reality within the model.

The model that I proposed and develop here further rests on these pillars and is open to further construction. As scholars in rhetoric and other disciplines interact with this model, they act as additional field- familiar spokespersons, lending their credibility to the model’s development and applications. When two or more researchers from different fields join to study a given phenomenon, a synergistic effect occurs within the dynamic of those pillars to strengthen the model and allow for further development.

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