neurophenomenology and body alienation in cognitive science


It is worth exploring the historical, Cartesian “body alienation”, or default privileging of depersonalized, dismebodied, system-centric theories of mind, of much or most of the fields grouped under the label of cognitive science and neuroscience. Psychologists, linguists, philosophers, and neuroscientists have spent decades using computational and information-processing metaphors and models to explain behavior, problem-solving, memory, syntax, and other phenomena. The need to construct a theoretical bridge from brain-biology to mind-science led to the deployment of high-level abstractions such as “symbol,” “algorithm,” “information,” and “representation.” A standard view would be that recognizing features of the world, generating language, rational problem solving, recognizing patterns, and other cognitive operations are enabled by “computations over mental representations.” This may be a useful construct, and the notion of representation need not be solely of the symbolic and rule-based sort that apeared in the 1950-s and 1960’s, but the idea that cognitive scientists, linguists, and pychologists can be “implementation agnostic” and unconcerned with the biological details underlying the mind seems very dated.

Neurobiologists and experimental psychologists took note of the interdisciplinary cybernetics movement in the post-war period, and also adopted such (arguably under-defined) notions to make sense of otherwise low-level systems and phenomena (Werner, 2005). The multi-disciplinary cognitive science research program used core ideas of computation, representation, and information-processing to model a variety of mental systems and phenomena, but the behaviorist influence remained, typically constraining research to the more-readily modeled “objective” aspects of mind.

The theoretical and methodological difficulties associated with modeling emotions, conscious awareness, perception, and body knowledge disorders provided openings for a revised cognitive science and psychology that has come to be called neurophenomenology, or enactive cognitive neuroscience, which emphasizes:

-in contrast to representationalist theories, human cognition does not so much represent features of the outside world as it enables the mind to enact, co-constitute, or co-construct an experienced, perceived environment (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1991) (Merleau-Ponty, 1962) via evolutionarily-selected sensorimotor systems (Lewontin, 1983)

-unlike many traditional cognitive models which look at mental activity “objectively” or from a Cartesian outside standpoint, as a system, the notion of embodiment in cognitive science privileges the notion that mental life is grounded in the lived body, which is to say, cognition has aspects which we are personally aware of and of which we experience consciously and bodily, (or, better, that are phenomenologically lived and felt)

-a recognition that verbal reports from people may very well be a critical and necessary source of data and insight for understanding the conscious, embodied character of mental and neural activity.

-an insistence that data developed from traditional, externalistic, “system-centric” based ideas and models of “mind” or “mental activity” or “cognition” psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and other disciplines such as informatics, human-computer interaction need to be re-examined in the light of the above concepts.

A succinct description of how mind and brain are understood in the embodied cognition mode of thinking was offered by Varela (1999, pp. 71-89):

We tend to think that the mind is in the brain, in the head, but the fact is that the environment also includes the rest of the organism; includes the fact that the brain is intimately connected to all of the muscles, the skeletal system, the guts, and the immune system, the hormonal balances and so on and so on. It makes the whole thing into an extremely tight unity. In other words, the organism as a meshwork of entirely co-determining elements makes it so that our minds are, literally, inseparable, not only from the external environment, but also from what Claude Bernard already called the milieu intérieur, the fact that we have not only a brain but an entire body


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