Raveling the Brain: Toward a Transdisciplinary Neurorhetoric

Neuroscience has become a popular area of inquiry across the humanities. Work in “neurohumanities” seeks to draw on neuroscience insights in order to enrich the theories and methods of a traditional disciplinary approach. Recently, scholars have drawn on neuroscience findings to offer new approaches to literature, composition, and the arts, as in Jane F. Thrailkill’s literary study, Affecting Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism, William Connolly’s film study, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed, and in rhetorical studies such as  While researchers are understandably enthusiastic about the exciting findings coming out of neuroscience–especially science that relies on brain imaging tools–others have argued for caution, urging scholars to avoid falling for “neurohype” in their eagerness. While neuroscience has much to add to the humanities, I will argue in this book that the humanities—and especially rhetoric—have just as much to add to the neurosciences.

In this book, I will show how rhetorical theory can help to ravel out—to explicate, puzzle out, and trace—some of the ways that the brain is enmeshed in the body, in culture, and in discourse. Using rhetorical tools, such as stasis theory and theories of trope, allows me to explicate how neuroscientific claims work. My methodology involves raveling back, tracing a thread of discourse or practice back in time to understand its emergence and embeddedness in rhetorical and scientific traditions. The aim of this project is to model a middle ground by drawing on rhetorical theory to work dialogically, focusing not only how neuroscience can inform rhetorical theory but also on how rhetorical theory can inform neuroscience. Learn more about this project on my blog, Neurorhetoric.

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

Can crafting stories about the illness experience help patients with chronic conditions? This project sought to answer this question through an eight-week writing workshop for women with diabetes in North Carolina. Participants learned techniques of narrative writing and compose illness essays centered on the experience of living with a long-term health condition. The research team is now analyzing this archive to narrative analysis using concepts drawn from literary and rhetorical theory, narratology, and computational discourse analysis. Using biomedical and social scientific assessments (A1C blood test for average glucose levels, Diabetes Empowerment Scale) we will work across methods and disciplines to explore qualitative and statistical correlations between narrative elements and health outcomes. Our initial funding comes from a $25,000 FIRE grant [Fostering Inter-disciplinary Research Explorations] awarded by UNC’s Vice Chancellor for Research. 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.