Training the Brain: Neuropolicy, Education, and Rhetoric

In the last twenty years, brain-based arguments have profoundly affected how education policy is formed. If you can support a policy with scientific evidence about the brain, it seems, you increase its chances of adoption. These arguments—which I am calling neuropolicy arguments, (following WHO)—rely upon neuroscience or psychology research as a warrant for a policy claim.

I will argue in Training the Brain that these arguments do not stem simply from overzealous popularizers but, often, from researchers themselves. While scientists often publicly assert their independence from politics, in the case of education policy neuroscientists, psychologists and other researchers participate in several ways. They may do so by 1) “seeding” policy considerations in their articles, 2) by serving as spokespeople in popular articles, 3) by popularizing their own work in books or articles, 4) by founding for-profit educational companies and convincing school districts to adopt them, and/or 5) by lobbying directly to influence education policy. In fact, brain researchers of all stripes have significantly impacted education policy, with little discussion about when and why it is appropriate for them to do so. Because those of us who are affected by those policies (student, teachers, and parents) are seldom brain researchers themselves, we are often called upon to trust such research and accept it as definitive, even when the policies promoted raise ethical or practical issues.

Rhetoric and Neuroscience

In collaboration with scholars at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, I conduct research into the rhetorical shapings of neuroscience findings.Team members include Gregory Appelbaum in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University,  Jim Moody in the Department of Sociology at Duke, Scott Huettel in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke, and Duke undergraduate student Elizabeth Beam. Our research examines how rhetoric and neuroscience intersect in contemporary discourse.

Our research so far has resulted in the following publications:

“This is Your Brain on Rhetoric”: Research Directions for NeuroRhetorics.”(co-author, L. Gregory Appelbaum), Rhetoric Society Quarterly, special issue on NeuroRhetorics, 40.5 (2010): 411-437. Download full text.

“Mapping the Semantic Structure of Cognitive Neuroscience.” (co-authors Elizabeth Beam, Scott Huettel, James Moody, and L. Gregory Appelbaum). Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (preprint ahead of publication, March, 2014). Download full text.

Current research projects examine the rhetorical effects of scientific abstracts in neuroscience publications. In “Mapping the Intrinsic Structure of Cognitive Neuroscience,” we are pursuing a quantitative (coding) assessment of the rhetorical language used in recent peer-reviewed neuroscience journals. In this work we make use of social networking analyses to investigate the relationship between theoretical, anatomical, and descriptive categories and ultimately how these may vary depending on the article in which they appear (manuscript currently under review).

Writing Diabetes/Dancing Diabetes

Can crafting stories about the illness experience help patients with chronic conditions? How can dance-based movement encourage people with diabetes to develop self-efficacy? This series of projects sought to answer these questions through workshop-based interventions that draw on humanities concepts. The research team is now analyzing study results using concepts drawn from literary and rhetorical theory, narratology, and phenomenology.  Our initial comes from a $25,000 FIRE grant [Fostering Inter-disciplinary Research Explorations] awarded by UNC’s Vice Chancellor for Research and an Undergraduate Strike Team grant. See more at the HHIVE Lab website.

The Genre Project

With my colleagues in the Writing Program, Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, I am investigating the genres students read and write across the disciplines, both at UNC and beyond. The first phase of the project involves determining what genres are most commonly taught in undergraduate science, social science, and humanities classes. Results will be posted here as they are generated. Later phases will extend this research to other institutions, and then  study examples of student writing across the curriculum to identify strategies students use to compose new genres. Ultimately, we hope these findings can improve first year writing instruction at UNC and around the country. For more information, including publications and reports, see

A bubble chart showing the genres most commonly taught at UNC-Chapel Hill in undergraduate science courses. The chart shows that research reports, empirical reports, and short discussion questions are among the most common genres.

Caption: Genres common in undergraduate science syllabi at UNC.