Cognitive Neuroscience and Rhetoric

The field of neuroscience has experienced a boom in scholarship that integrates several disciplines. Generally, this scholarship ranges across the five general disciplines that are connected with cognitive neuroscience: cognitive psychology, philosophy, linguistics, biology, and chemistry. Physics is also somewhat involved. Most of these are recognized as “humanities”-related areas, while the others are specifically connected to “science”—biology, chemistry, and physics. As mentioned above, each discipline theorizes neuroscience and cognition by applying its own research methods and theories to analysis and discussion. However, the disconnection across disciplines is problematic, especially as institutions attempt to find ways to connect disciplines with inter-disciplinary programs and research projects. Cognition is associated closely with perception; how one perceives information affects their understanding of that information. The field of cognitive neuroscience devotes much attention to understanding how one processes information toward cognition.

Humanities scholars tend to examine how language and social interactions affect our understanding of the world. Reid (2007) notes that “cognitive scientists termed the 1990s ‘the Decade of the Brain’ for the startling advances made throughout their discipline” (p. 14). Indeed,

Hutchins (1996) and Pinker (1997) theorize cognition as a series of developmental processes that include historical dynamics as well as how people treat training and actual practice and social dynamics thereof. This has helped to generate subfields of distributed cognition and cognitive psychology as well as social semiotics. In each case, research in cognitive neuroscience has found that cognition is a multisensory process. Social interaction engages multiple senses—visual, aural, spatial orientation, and relationship, as well as gesture, touch, and smell. Likewise, language is generally recognized as being aural/oral or visual—print-linguistic text is a visual representation.

Science disciplines have been studying connections between perception, behavior, and neural dynamics. Available technology affects how this study occurs. Until recently most of this involved looking at electrical activity within the brain. Neurons send electrical messages across the brain, and the different parts process that information toward doing something with it. However, recent technology has made it possible to look into other physical attributes of the brain and how the brain processes information related to perception and cognition. In particular, two- photon microscopes and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology facilitates such research. Two-photon microscopes permit the imaging of areas of the brain that are excited during tasks, suggesting neural activity. Some MRI technology allows researchers to see how blood flows to certain parts of the brain while one performs a particular task—viewing a given film or doing certain work. This technology is called “functional MRI,” or “fMRI.” Biologists and chemists have begun examining the relationship between blood flow and neural processes. As humanities scholarship has done, many of these studies also link cognition to multisensory processes (for example, see collections edited by Calvert, Spence, and Stein, 2004; and Murray and Wallace, 2012).

Rhetoric encompasses a range of communication practices including informational messages, persuasive messages, and instructional messages. I focused on instructional messages in a previous book; my focus in the book is on the neuro-rhetoric of persuasion. Some studies have found that persuasion involves some different neural activities than cognition related to cognition does (Azar, 2010; Pillay, 2011; and Ramsay et al., 2013). There is more self-reflection and reflection about one’s perception of others and attitudes. Persuasion is a belief-oriented or attitude-oriented concept. The general focus of persuasion is to change one’s attitude or beliefs about a given topic or issue or to elicit a stronger conviction in belief or attitude about that topic or issue. While mirror neurons, for example, are involved in this process as well, that involvement has more to do with mirroring or sharing a perception (“shared emotion”) than with copying or imitating action. Pillay points out that “...our brains can mirror not only actions, but intentions as well” (p. 63). When a manager or supervisor seems to treat a situation as negative, subordinates seem to perceive it similarly, as their brain mirrors the supervisor’s perception of the situation.

 
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