rhetoric's default mode

Following on my previous post, a continuation of a discussion of “neurorhetoric.” Generally speaking, rhetoricians, like other humanists, approach science with a high degree of skepticism, especially a science that might potentially explain away our disciplinary territory. As Jordynn Jack  and others have pointed out, there is a strong interest in the prefix neuro- and that those in our field might benefit from looking bi-directionally at both the rhetoric of neuroscience (how neuroscience operates rhetorically as a field), as well as the neuroscience of rhetoric (what neuroscience can tell us about rhetorical practices). In her article with Gregory Applebaum (a neuroscientist), they point to the broader lessons from the rhetoric of science in approaching neuroscientific research, particularly to resist engaging in “neurorealism, neuroessentialism, or neuropolicy,” which are all variants of interpreting research as making certain kinds of truth claims. Similarly I tend to turn toward Latour here to think about the constructedness of science.

With that in  mind, I was following my nose from my last post’s discussion of an article in Science, to this article “Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education” by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou and Vanessa Singh. The “default mode” describes a relatively new theory of the brain/mind that identifies two general networks. One is “task positive,” which is a goal-oriented, outward-directed kind of thinking and the other is “task negative,” which is inward-directed. The latter is the default mode and is concerned with “self-awareness and reflection, recalling personal memories, imagining the future, feeling emotions about the psychological impact of social situations on other people, and constructing moral judgments.” As they continue

Studies examining individual differences in the brain’s DM connectivity, essentially measures of how coherently the areas of the network coordinate during rest and decouple during outward attention, find that people with stronger DM connectivity at rest score higher on measures of cognitive abilities like divergent thinking, reading comprehension, and memory (Li et al., 2009; Song et al., 2009; van den Heuvel, Stam, Kahn, & Hulshoff Pol, 2009; Wig et al., 2008). Taken together, these findings lead to a new neuroscientific conception of the brain’s functioning “at rest,” namely, that neural processing during lapses in outward attention may be related to self and social processing and to thought that transcends concrete, semantic representations and that the brain’s efficient monitoring and control of task-directed and non-task-directed states (or of outwardly and inwardly directed attention) may underlie important dimensions of psychological functioning. These findings also suggest the possibility that inadequate opportunity for children to play and for adolescents to quietly reflect and to daydream may have negative consequences—both for socialemotional well-being and for their ability to attend well to tasks.

As I’ll discuss in a moment, the article goes on to make some interesting claims and recommendations about social media, but let’s just deal with this. Let’s call it unsurprising to discover that the brain is doing different things when one is looking outward and focused on a specific task than when one is daydreaming, speculating, fantasizing, remembering or otherwise being introspective. How “real” those two networks are versus their being products of our perspective on our brains I cannot say. Certainly these are notions that reflect our mundane experience with thinking. I am certainly not going to argue against the wisdom of having down time, taking opportunities for reflection, or developing a meditative practice for children, teens, or adults. I also don’t need a multimillion dollar machine-that-goes-bing to know that.

Here is what might be interesting though as one investigates the ontological dimensions of a rhetoric not restricted to symbolic behavior. Without falling into neuroessentialism, it is not radical, I think, to imagine the rhetorical strategies, such as audience awareness, develop from the way we are able to think and conceive of others, a task attributed here to the “default mode.” It is only speculation, as far as I am concerned, but the capacity to conceive of a self is dependent on the capacity of conceive of a non-self. Following upon that the ability to imagine that others have similar capacities, that there are other “selves” out there develops when? Prior to symbolic behavior? In concert with symbolic behavior? Following symbolic behavior? Who knows? I do, however, think that such neurorhetorical work opens a space for the investigation of a naturalcultural, material, nonsymbolic rhetoric.

That said, it certainly does not resolve such matters. And the discussion of social media in this article is an excellent example of this. To be fair, they conclude that “In the end, the question will not be as much about what the technology does to people as it will be about how best to use the technology in a responsible, beneficial way that promotes rather than hinders social development.” Thanks for that insight. Indeed they do admonish us that “the preliminary findings described here should not be taken as de facto evidence that access to technology is necessarily bad for development or weakens morality.” Of course they only reason that such caveats must appear in the article is that much of what they discuss suggests exactly the opposite of these backpedaling sentences, that “if youths are habitually pulled into the outside world by distracting media snippets, or if their primary mode of socially interacting is via brief, digitally transmitted communications, they may be systematically undermining opportunities to reflect on the moral, social, emotional, and longer term implications of social situations and personal values.” How do they get to this implication? Basically by arguing that effective use of the default mode is necessary for moral behavior and that social media interferes with entering this default mode through its continual demand for attention.

I’ll just toss out a different hypothesis for you, one that doesn’t have to fall into the trap of technology makes us more or less moral, stupid, etc. Or retreat to some version of the “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” commonplace. Here’s my premise: we don’t know how to live in a digitally-mediated, networked world. It’s a struggle. We are trying, unsuccessfully, to import paradigms from an industrial, print culture about what life should be like (and to be fair those are the only paradigms we have to work with). Addressing this struggle is not simply about some rational process of using technology in a beneficial way. It’s a more recursive and mutative process where the notion of benefit shifts as well. It’s unlikely that we will evolve out of our need for “down time” in the near future or develop some scifi wetware implants to do the job for us. So we will need to understand the ontological basis for rhetorical action, in the brain and elsewhere. But we also need to recognize that what constitutes “moral” behavior is a moving target. What are our moral obligations to our Facebook friends or Twitter followers? How to they intersect with and alter our responsibilities to family or neighbors or other citizens? These are all concepts that we learned through rhetorical activity, concepts that shift with rhetorical activity. And though the authors of this article are careful to hedge their claims, it is also clear that they want to raise some concern about social media that rests upon a certain faith about how we should behave, a faith that they seek to confirm through science.

In the end, I am interested in their argument and largely inclined to share their value in the need for down time and reflection. I worry about the time my son spends staring at his iphone. Not because I think it’s making him a bad person; it just seems like a diminished life experience to me. I’m also interested in this idea of the default mode. However I inclined to be a little wary about these claims regarding social media. I am sure these technologies are shaping our cognitive experience, and I am sure that we struggle with these digital shifts, both individually and collectively. But I’d like to avoid falling into these rhetorical commonplaces about emerging media and morality or stupidity.

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