Neurophenomenology incorporates insights from clinical neurology and psychology, experimental cognitive neuroscience, and the philosophy of cognition, consciousness, and embodiment. While the term dates from 1990, with Laughlin, McManus, and d’Aquili’s Brain, Symbol & Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciouness, the first definitive formulation was Varela, Thompson, and Rosch’s The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience from 1991.
Francisco Varela (1946-2001) presented the core ideas of the field to the “Towards a Science of Consciousness” conference in Tucson in April 1996, an address later published as “A science of consciousness as if experience mattered”:
“The Working Hypothesis of Neurophenomenology
Only a balanced and disciplined account of both the external and experiential side of an issue can make us move closer to bridging the biological mind-experiential mind gap:
Phenomenological accounts of the structure of experience and their counterparts in cognitive science relate to each through reciprocal constraints.
The key point here is that by emphasizing a codetermination of both accounts one can explore the bridges, challenges, insights, and contradications between them. Both domains of phenomena have equal status in demanding full attention and respect for their
specificity. It is quite easy to see how scientific accounts illuminate mental experience, but the reciprocal direction, from experience towards science, is what is typically ignored.
The study of experience is not a convenient stop on our way to a real explanation, but an active participant in its own right.”
In contrast to representationalist and Cartesian theories, the “classic” neurophenomenology of Varela emphasizes that cognition does not so much represent features of the outside world as it enables the embodied mind of a person to enact, co-constitute, or co-construct an experienced, perceived, lived environment. Inspiration for this view comes especially from the embodied phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Unlike many traditional cognitive models which look at mental activity “objectively” or from a Cartesian standpoint, as a system studied from the outside, neurophenomenology 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.)
There is 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. Complementing this pragmatic approach, neurologists, neuropsychologists, and other clinicians have developed a methodology for utilizing phenomenological data from verbal reports. Heilman and Valenstein’s (1993) standard text Clinical Neuropsychology states “at times, patients observations of their own mental state may not only be helpful but necessary.”
Neurophenomenology is still very much an emerging field, but it is based on many decades of rich clinical case studies of people with brain pathologies, laboratory science on how brain is embodied, theoretical analysis of psychology experiments, and centuries of philosophical investigations into the nature of cognition, consciousness, and embodiment.
Page authored by Owen McNally, Ph.D, psychology professor and researcher in the areas of medical informatics and cognitive neuroscience (firstname.lastname@example.org). His dissertation work at the University of Texas at Austin modeled how cognitive and neurophysiological processes enable internal-body perception (interoception) in symptom reports about palpitations.