Dr. Dirk Remley on Neuroscience and Tech Comm

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to another episode of 10-Minute Tech Comm, I’m your host Dr. Ryan Weber out at University of Alabama at Huntsville, and I’m really excited about today’s interview. I’ve got with me Dirk Remley, he’s an Associate Professor of English at Kent State University and he has written a new book forthcoming from Baywood Press, called How the Brain Processes Multimodal Technical Instructions, and so I’m going to interview him today about the intersections between neuroscience and rhetoric and how that insight can help technical communicators produce better technical instructions.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Thanks for coming on the podcast today. I’m really excited about the book, I think it’s a great topic and something that’s-it’s about time that technical communication sort of really turned its attention in this direction. Can you talk a little bit just first about you know you’re looking at cognitive neuroscience and rhetorical theory, how do they complement each other?

[Dirk Remley] Well, as I do it in the book, I start with Aristotle’s observation about rhetoric and biology, basically he points to the fact that one’s ability to understand a message has to be considered when developing the message and delivering it. So, if someone has certain cognitive issues, disabilities, or understands information a certain way, the person who develops the message or creates the message has to consider that to help that person understand the message itself. Expanding then beyond that though, I think cognitive neuroscience theories really helped to explain why certain multimodal theories work well. One cognitive neuroscience theory that isn’t really dealt with much in the multimodal rhetoric is the Colavita visual dominance effect, and I know that Meijer alludes to it in many respects, but he doesn’t actual call it the Colavita visual dominance effect, you know in his multimodal wording theories.

[Weber] Can you say that one more time? I just want to make sure that we catch that. It’s the-how do you pronounce that?

[Remley] Colavita, c-o-1-a-v, as in victor-i-t-a visual dominance effect.

[Weber] Okay, great.

[Remley] Basically the Colavita visual dominance effect is just pointing out that visual stimuli are acquired faster than any other stimulus, however it takes the longest to process while audio or oral stimuli are the slowest to acquire but the fastest to process. So, there’s a bit of an acquisition in processing destruction there that effects how people can process information. So, it’s really interesting in that respect. There’s also a number of references in cognitive neuroscience to multimodal neurons and just to the fact that they recognize that there are multimodal neurons, neurons that can process multiple modes of information and stimuli’s, is fascinating to me and I integrated that into the model that I proposed within the book. There are also a number of journal studies that show how neurons behave during learning activities, this helps understand how stimuli affect neurons such as reward neurons and mirror neurons, both of which impact learning. Well it’s persuasion, mirror neurons act differently compared to how they behave relative to learning, so it’s an interesting phenomenon, I’m looking more into that dynamic as well.

[Weber] How-what is the difference? That’s interesting to me, I hadn’t known that.

[Remley] That’s what I want to pursue. They-mirror neurons basically help the learner in relative to our context to understand how to perform certain tasks because if you’re teaching me something, I’m going to watch you to do that activity and the mirror neurons are going to help me sort of mirror your behaviors, not just you know what you do, but how you’re actually doing that. Relative to persuasion sounds like in the literature that I’m looking at, mirror neurons act to help the audience relate to the speaker or the person presenting the information such that they feel like they’re part of that person or one with that person or like that person, so another kind of mirror effect I suppose.

[Weber] That’s interesting and so does the existence of mirror neurons for the learning aspect, does that make the case then for including observable people, like does that effect still occur when there aren’t people to mirror in the instructions?

[Remley] You can think of somebody doing an activity if you’re reading textual information for example, you can try to imagine how that we look if you’ve done anything similar to it, to that activity, you can use mirror neuros then to try to understand how to apply them. I’m thinking of the audio software; the interface though is setup very much like a-a recording equipment.

[Weber] Like a recording studio or something like that.

[Remley] Yeah.

[Weber] Yeah.

[Remley] You’ve got the pause, stop, play, you know record, pause, all those kinds of buttons, and fast forward, rewind. So, that sort of helps the user to assimilate with the newer technology.

[Weber] That’s interesting so, basically what you’re saying is in that case, the person even without watching someone, you kind of-you put-you sort of embody, the learning is embodied in that way.

[Remley] Sure, yeah, certainly.

[Weber] Okay, great, that’s really interesting. Thank you. So, do you have any other sort of case studies like that or examples that demonstrate how neuroscience can inform the work that technical communicators do in putting these multimodal instructions together?

[Remley] There’s some scholarship in cognitive neuroscience and neurobiology that examines the relationship between brain activity and how well subjects may learn by using certain instructional materials. In those studies they tend to use tools such as the functional MRI and MEG machines to make that possible. They are also still utilizing the EEG machines as they have in the past. But basically, subjects are given certain learning materials while exposed to a /MRI or an MEG machine and their neuro-processes are measured as they review the instructional material and then they’re asked to perform the related tasked. Relative to instructional design theory basically within the instructional technology field, and a number of people encourage developing multiple instructional products. So in like a web-based course for example, you might provide a video lecture of a given topic, then you might also have some textual instructional material, and they can also apply a video kind of learning tool as well. So, there are multiple modes offered to the learner and then the learner can basically look at each and ascertain which seems to help him or her learn the material better. Or there might be some redundancy built in that helps to reinforce certain concepts and help them learn even better.

[Weber] Okay, great and so all of that is the idea of providing sort of multiple avenues for learning isn’t borne out in that research, in the neuroscience research. Great, very interesting.

[Remley] I was going to mention that I know there’s the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University has done some research as well within the North Carolina research triangles, North Carolina State, North Caroline and Duke are doing research on neuro-rhetoric and that’s interesting that they’ve got that, that collaboration going on.

[Weber] This is-it’s an exciting time. I know a lot of people within rhetoric have gotten interested in neuroscience and it’s nice to know just any additional strategies for the technical communicator’s toolkit as they’re putting these things together. Are there any other strategies that you want to share with us? That you know if I’m producing multimodal instructional material, strategies that I can take from neuroscience that might be helpful in making my materials effective?

[Remley] Well you know I in the book I explain a particular model that combines rhetoric and neuroscience and you know includes existing theories neurobiology, multimodal rhetoric, and cognitive psychology. You know touching upon a few of those aspects basically you know having an understanding of how a neurostimulation can enhance a learner’s ability to learn material or how to engage those reward neurons for example. Also, the awareness that mirror neurons can help learner’s understand how to do a given task through modeling and video demonstrations. Web-as I’ve said before, web-based pedagogy scholarship considers many of the issues toward addressing learning, encourages to providing multiple texts, you know as we just mentioned to help students use the best way that they can to help them learn. And again to understand that the Colavita dominance effect, I do a lot with it in the book and it’s just you know designing instructional materials that consider that issue and it’s basically understanding a relationship between how quickly people acquire those different stimuli and process them. And again, Meyer talk about it a little bit in his work, in his model, but he doesn’t actually call it you know the Colavita visual dominance effect. Like I’ve found that fascinating.

[Weber] Alright well thank you so much Dirk, I really appreciate, this is exciting research. I’m looking forward to reading the book and good luck with the continued sort of looking into this project and seeing what you find. I’m excited to get future insights as well.

[Remley] Thank you for your interest Ryan and I look forward to talking more about these things.

[Weber] Alright great, take care.

[Remley] Take care, bye-bye. [Weber] Alright, bye.

[End of Interview]

[Weber] Thanks again for listening to 10-Minute Tech Comm today. Please visit uahtechcomm.com for some supplementary links about some of the material in this episode if you want to know more or get more information about Dr. Remley’s book and we will see you next episode.

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