What is “the neuro turn”?

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This blog was originally posted on February 12th, 2015

At the 2015 MLA meeting in Vancouver, John Schilb chaired a session on “Composition after the Neuro Turn,” which he identifies as the move the field has taken beyond the social and toward an encounter with contemporary work in neuroscience. As Schilb pointed out in his proposal for the session, composition engaged deeply with cognitive studies in the ’70s and early ’80s, before social constructionist theory took center stage.

Panelists included Shirley Brice Heath, Kurt Spellmeyer, Steven Shoemaker, along with me, and together the papers made a strong case for paying attention to the findings of neuroscience today. We had only 15 minutes to speak, so all remarks were cursory. But I used my time to review research on the role of emotion and feelings in learning, citing work by Antonio Damasio, Douglas Massey, Joseph LeDoux, and Candace Pert. These scholars take very different tacks in their studies, but as a layperson, I’ve gained a great deal from reading them. My big “takeaway” is the deeply intertwined relationship between memory and emotion and the crucial importance of both to learning in general. To oversimplify wildly, this work counters Aristotle’s claim that “Man is the rational animal.” Not so. Of course, that’s not to say that rationality doesn’t figure in human behavior. But it is only one part of how we come to decisions—and often a very small part indeed. As Massey puts it:

Because of our evolutionary history and cognitive structure, it is generally the case that unconscious emotional thoughts will precede and strongly influence our rational decisions. Thus, our much-valued rationality is really more tenuous than we humans would like to believe, and it probably plays a smaller role in human affairs than prevailing theories of rational choice would have it.  (Douglas Massey, “A Brief History of Human Society: The Origin and Role of Emotion in Social Life,” American Sociological Review 67 [2002]: 1-29)

So Joseph LeDoux speaks of the “emotional brain,” arguing that all of our perceptions and decisions are swayed in emotional states. Emotion, in his view, organizes all brain activity. Antonio Damasio rejects the mind/body dichotomy, citing research that demonstrates the degree to which the mind is fully embodied. And molecular biologist Candace Pert goes further still in showing that what she calls “molecules of emotion” are distributed throughout our bodies, not restricted to our brains.

I went on to connect this research in neuroscience to studies of student writers I have conducted. In short, I argued that emotion (which neuroscience tells us is largely unconscious) and feelings (which are conscious) are deeply implicated in the writing and writing processes of students (and the rest of us!), and that as teachers we would do well to recognize this fact of life. So while we work with students to learn new rhetorical moves and strategies, we need to be aware that unconscious emotions may be stirring feelings that impede their progress.

What to do? Certainly we can’t and shouldn’t try to be therapists! But what we can do is discuss these findings from neuroscience with students, asking them to track their feelings about writing as best they can and to articulate those feelings wherever possible. And we can help them develop strategies for countering negative feelings by building up—and repeating, repeating, repeating—positive ones.

I think most writing teachers probably take these steps anyway: we have always thought of our students not simply as minds (or brains) but asembodied minds, which we have the rare privilege to engage—and perhaps help shape.

[Image: Brain by dierk schaefer on Flickr]

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.