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Colloquium Archive

Jordynn Jack

Name: Jordynn Jack, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Presentation Title: "Imitation, Invention, Improvisation: Neurorhetoric and the Creative Brain."

Date: March 6th, 2014


Amid the endless wave of neurohype, the “creative brain” has become one target of intervention. Neuroscience claims underwrite everything from online lists of “mind hacks” to books to apps of all kinds. Yet, to study creativity, neuroscientists must rely on two types of claims that have been deemed problematic by neuroscientists themselves: neurorealism (the belief that “creativity” really exists) and neuroessentialism (the belief that “creativity” can be clearly defined). These disciplinary requirements lead to studies that produce definitions of creativity that are both reductive and unspecific.

A humanities perspective—specifically a rhetorical perspective—can help to clarify what neuroscientists are actually studying when they are studying “creativity.” In this talk, I take up three examples of studies that purport to identify neural correlates of creativity in three different domains: dance, freestyle rapping, and creative writing. I’ll show how neuroscientists define creativity in such a way that it can be measured using technologies such as EEG and fMRI, usually by contrasting a “creative” condition (improvising a dance, rap, or written piece) with a non-creative condition (imitating a dance, rap, or written piece). I’ll argue that a rhetorical perspective offers a richer understanding of these concepts. Specifically, these studies privilege improvisation but overlook the role of imitatio as inventional training for dance, freestyle rap, and creative writing. From a rhetorical perspective, creativity emerges out of imitation, and can therefore not be reduced solely to the act of improvisation.