An excerpt from the foundational text of neurophenomenology: Varela, Thompson, and Rosch’s The Embodied Mind

cognitive science, Eleanor Rosch, embodiment, Evan Thompson, Francisco Varela, history of neurophenomenology, introspection, neurophenomenology, The Embodied Mind

It is very,very gratifying to see interest in neurophenomenology increasing. Welcome! Exciting things are happening. If you feel like you could make a contribution to the field, do it! We are still in the early phase, though probably at the “end of the beginning”. In 1996 you could find about three references online (in mid 2013, Google shows 35,400 results). Around then I got a copy of neurophenomenologist/cognitive scientist Francisco Varela, philosopher Evan Thompson, and cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch’s The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. To this day I am struck by the lucidity of the writing, the patient willingness to explore the virtues of opposing viewpoints, and especially the depth of the challenge to mainstream cognitive neuroscience and psychology. The basic idea is that the science of cognition and the brain needs to somehow reckon with human experience, in all it’s phenomenological, fleshy, ecologically situated complexity. The science of human cognition requires an account of how life seems to us, how it feels, what it means. Not doing so amounts to a shortcut, though an understandable one, given the difficulties routinely encountered. The authors painstakingly present the case for why failing to include the role of the evolutionarily developed phenomenological body and the meaningful, experiential, existential dimensions will hamper scientific accounts of cognition and the brain. Varela, Thompson and Rosch present a radical challenge to the idea that the mind is best modeled based on data and measurements only from the outside, or purely objectively. Cognitive neuroscience describes cognition and consciousness as machinery emerging from the hardware of the brain, and Varela, Thompson and Rosch carefully explore the benefits of this view, but opt for a radical alternative. I am convinced it is the foundational and definitive work in neurophenomenology. Interestingly, Daniel Dennett, a staunch defender of cognitivist orthodoxy, had substantive criticism but went on to say: “the authors find many new ways of putting together old points that we knew were true but didn’t know what to do with, and that in itself is a major contribution to our understanding of cognitive science.” The term “neurophenomenology” does not appear in this book. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the term emerges around 1990 from the work of Charles Laughlin (though there seems to be one mention in a hard-to-find publication from 1988). I had considered directly contacting Varela around 1996 to convince him of the helpfulness of the term “neurophenomenology”, and I must admit to an utter dopamine blast of pleasure when around that time I found his 1996 paper “Neurophenomenology : A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem“. Kismet! It was an exciting time, and helped push me towards doing a PhD on one narrow aspect of clinical neurophenomenology: modeling how accurate patients are at reporting on their cardiac rhythm states, and how the brain both enables knowledge and mistaken beliefs about heartbeats . With new people showing an interest in and perhaps coming into this field, we might as well make sure to examine the core text: The Embodied Mind. There is a copy online and here is an excerpt, but I highly recommend getting a physical copy. Here is a section entitled The Retreat into Natural Selection, from Chapter 8: Enaction: Embodied Cognition (for what it’s worth, in my last class as a PhD student, I had my colleagues in David Buss‘ Evolutionary Psychology seminar read and discuss this chapter, and they hated it!) . embodied “In preparation for the next chapter, we now wish to take note of a prevalent view within cognitive science, one which constitutes a challenge to the view of cognition that we have presented so far. Consider, then, the following response to our discussion: “I am willing to grant that you have shown that cognition is not simply a matter of representation but depends on our embodied capacities for action. I am also willing to grant that both our perception and categorization of, say, color, are inseparable from our perceptually guided activity and that they are enacted by our history of structural coupling. Nevertheless, this history is not the result of just any pattern of coupling; it is largely the result of biological evolution and its mechanism of natural selection. Therefore our perception and cognition have survival value, and so they must provide us with some more or less optimal fit to the world. Thus, to use color once more as an example, it is this optimal fit between us and the world that explains why we see the colors we do.” We do not mean to attribute this view to any particular theory within cognitive science. On the contrary, this view can be found virtually anywhere within the field: in vision research, it is common both to the computational theory of Marr and Poggio and to the “direct theory” of J. J. Gibson and his followers.  It is prevalent in virtually every aspect of the philosophical project of “naturalized epistemology.”  It is even voiced by those who insist on an embodied and experientialist approach to cognition. For this reason, this view can be said to constitute the “received view” within cognitive science of the evolutionary basis for cognition. We cannot ignore, then, this retreat into natural selection. Let us begin, once again, with our now familiar case study of color. The cooperative neuronal operations underlying our perception of color have resulted from the long biological evolution of the primate group. As we have seen, these operations partly determine the basic color categories that are common to all humans. The prevalence of these categories might lead us to suppose that they are optimal in some evolutionary sense, even though they do not reflect some pregiven world. This conclusion, however, would be considerably unwarranted. We can safely conclude that since our biological lineage has continued, our color categories are viable or effective. Other species, however, have evolved different perceived worlds of color on the basis of different cooperative neuronal operations. Indeed, it is fair to say that the neuronal processes underlying human color perception are rather peculiar to the primate group. Most vertebrates (fishes, amphibians, and birds) have quite different and intricate color vision mechanisms. Insects have evolved radically different constitutions associated with their compound eyes. One of the most interesting ways to pursue this comparative investigation is through a comparison of the dimensionalities of color vision. Our color vision is trichromatic: as we have seen, our visual system comprises three types of photoreceptors cross-connected to three color channels. Therefore, three dimensions are needed to represent our color vision, that is, the kinds of color distinctions that we can make. Trichromacy is certainly not unique to humans; indeed, it would appear that virtually every animal class contains some species with trichromatic vision. More interesting, however, is that some animals are dichromats, others are tetrachromats, and some may even be pentachromats. (Dichromats include squirrels, rabbits, tree shrews, some fishes, possibly cats, and some New World monkeys; tetrachromats include fishes that live close to the surface of the water like goldfish, and diurnal birds like the pigeon and the duck; diurnal birds may even be pentachromats).  Whereas two dimensions are needed to represent dichromatic vision, four are needed for tetrachromatic vision (see figure 8.6), and five for pentachromatic vision. Particularly interesting are tetrachromatic (perhaps pentachromatic) birds, for their underlying neuronal operations appear to differ dramatically from ours.

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Figure 8.6 Tetrachromatic vs. trichomatic mechanisms are illustrated here on the basis of the different retinal pigments present in various animals. From Neumeyer, Das Farbensehen des Goldfisches. When people hear of this evidence for tetrachromacy, they respond by asking, ”What are the other colors that these animals see?” This question is understandable but naive if it is taken to suggest that tetrachromats are simply better at seeing the colors we see. It must be remembered, though, that a four-dimensional color space is fundamentally different from a three-dimensional one: strictly speaking, the two color spaces are incommensurable, for there is no way to map the kinds of distinctions available in four dimensions into the kinds of distinctions available in three dimensions without remainder. We can, of course, obtain some analogical insights into what such higher dimensional color spaces might be like. We could imagine, for example, that our color space contains an additional temporal dimension. In this analogy, colors would flicker to different degrees in proportion to the fourth dimension. Thus to use the term pink, for example, as a designator in such a four-dimensional color space would be insufficient to pick out a single color: one would have to say rapid-pink, etc. If it turns out that the color space of diurnal birds is pentachromatic (which is indeed possible), then we are simply at a loss to envision what their color experience could be like. It should now be apparent, then, that the vastly different histories of structural coupling for birds, fishes, insects, and primates have enacted or brought forth different perceived worlds of color. Therefore, our perceived world of color should not be considered to be the optimal “solution” to some evolutionarily posed “problem.” Our perceived world of color is, rather, a result of one possible and viable phylogenic pathway among many others realized in the evolutionary history of living beings. Again, the response on the behalf of the “received view” of evolution in cognitive science will be, “Very well, let us grant that color as an attribute of our perceived world cannot be explained simply by invoking some optimal fit, since there is such a rich diversity of perceived worlds of color. Thus the diverse neuronal mechanisms underlying color perception are not different solutions to the same evolutionarily posed problem. But all that follows is that our analysis must be made more precise. These various perceived worlds of color reflect various forms of adaptation to diverse ecological niches. Each animal group optimally exploits different regularities of the world. It is still a matter of optimal fit with the world; it is just that each animal group has its own optimal fit.” This response is a still more refined form of the evolutionary argument. Although optimizations are considered to differ according to the species in question, the view remains that perceptual and cognitive tasks involve some form of optimal adaptation to the world. This view represents a sophisticated neorealism, which has the notion of optimization as its central explanatory tool. We cannot proceed further, then, without examining more closely this idea in the context of evolutionary explanations. We cannot attempt to summarize the state of the art of evolutionary biology today, but we do need to explore some of its classical foundations and their modern alternatives.

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History of the development of neurophenomenology pt.II-cognitivism, neurology, and psychology

cognitive science, Francisco Varela, medicine, neurophenomenology

(Part I is here, and part III is here)

In certain respects, development of the view that embodied experience is crucial to understanding the mind and brain reached a nadir in the period after World War II, at least within psychology. Behaviorism had redefined psychology as an “objective” science with no need to refer to consciousness or phenomenology.  There was continuation of phenomenological research from the German gestalt psychologists, but it was not until after World War II that clinically-oriented humanistic psychology explicitly articulated the need for more holistic, “person-centric” perspectives emphasizing existential concerns: the search for meaning, the experience of health and illness, emotions, and consciousness.

While many philosophers in Europe continued to develop phenomenology, Contintental philosophy was increasingly concerned with logical positivism, which emphasized that many traditional problems could be solved through formal logic, and those not approachable in this way were suspect.  Formal logic reached a apotheosis  of sorts with the advent of computers, a class of systems having internal memory storage and symbolic-logical operations, and with them came a number of seminal figures that transformed models of mind and brain. In particular,  Norbert Weiner‘s (1894-1964) meta-discipline of cybernetics, Claude Shannon‘s (1916-2001) information theory, Alan Turing‘s  (1912-1954) and John von Neumann‘s (1903-1957) canonical work on computation, Jean Piaget‘s (1896-1980) theories of the sequential process by which infants and small children learn language and perception in stages, all resulted in an explosion of new perspectives on cognition, language, memory, perception, problem-solving.  By the late 1950’s the overlapping field(s) of artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive science got the attention of researchers in psychology, linguistics, philosophy of mind, neuroscience, anthropology, therapy, and organizational management. Herbert Simon (1916-2001) modeled human problem solving in the face of uncertain information, and co-developed what became known as general systems theory, and along with Allen Newell (1927-1992) developed automated theorem-provers and chess-playing programs. Noam Chomsky‘s investigation of the symbolic logical rules underlying grammar and syntax generated an attack on environment-produced behaviorist theories of language, the flaws of which dramatically came to a head in the North Texas Symposium on Language in 1959.

While the door to explaining psychological phenomena in terms of mental categories and concepts had been re-opened, these new models generally formulated explanations in terms of impersonal information-processing and rule-based symbolic-logical theories of non-conscious aspects of the mind. These new “cognitivists” had absorbed certain scruples from the behaviorists, and typically disdained concepts such as “consciousness” in their models of the mental processes. Cognitivism remained “system-centric”, not person or body-centered, and focused on reducing mental activity to computational,information-processing and representational processes. There was a general lack of interest in using various first-person, introspection-based methods such as those of William James, or Edmund Husserl, though cognitivism and behaviorism alike asked subjects for verbal reports within experiments.

However, clinical neurologists continued to advance an approach to psychological and cognitive phenomena that reflected a richer and broader understanding of the mind. The First and Second World Wars provided a huge pool of subjects with specific localized lesions and corresponding deficits in memory, speech, motion, etc.  The Russian neurologist Alexander  Luria (1902-1977)  spent about 30 years with a patient, the soldier Zazetsky, who sustained a bullet wound to his left occipito-parietal cortex.  Zazetsky’s struggle to use journal writing cope with being unable to remember new events is described in  The Man With a Shattered World (1972) as a fight “to live, not merely exist.” Zazetsky wrote: “I’m in a fog all the time…. All that flashes through my mind are images…hazy visions that suddenly appear and disappear.”

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Taking the long view of the development of a science of the mind, the praxis-driven demands of the clinic balanced somewhat the behaviorist  and cognitivist disavowal of consciousness as a research topic. Focusing on the struggle of a brain-injured patient to live meaningfully meant that at least a small part of the ever-more fragmented field of psychology overtly or implicitly emphasized embodied and conscious aspects of cognition.  It should be emphasized that a division of labor was in effect. Clinicians deal with people, while cognitive scientists deal with systems. As neurologists and psychologists published case studies,  the more theoretically minded extrapolated from these reports to highlight an understanding  of human mental functioning that did not exclude consciousness and the existential, personal, meaningful dimensions of experience that are grounded in the lived body.

Across the ocean, in France, while structuralism began to dominate intellectual life after World War II, developments in phenomenological research continued apace. Most imprtantly was the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) analyzed and critqued the phenomenology of the philosopher/mathematician Edward Husserl. Foregoing Husserl’s hugely ambitious project of project of providing the most rigorous epistemological foundation possible for science and philosophy through investigations into experience, Merleau-Ponty attempted to reintegrate the penetrating Husserlian observation analysis of conscious phenomena into the structure of how consciousness is grounded and lived out bodily.

Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty

This change of emphasis allowed a bridge towards grasping how the lived body is related to the objectively-described physical body of physiology, behaviorism, and brain science. Works such as The Structure of Behavior and The Phenomenology of Perception are tantalizing hints that had Merleau-Ponty lived a long life, neurophenomenology might have emerged decades before the 1990’s. Merleau-Ponty articulated a post-Cartesian view of the mind that subverted the subject-object split. He used the notion of co-constitutionality to grapple with the enigmatic coupling and engagement of embodied mind to the world.  Two quotes from The Phenomenology of Perception are appropos (pg. 407):

Inside and outside are inseparable” (pg. 407)

Insofar as I have hands, feet; a body, I sustain around me intentions which are not dependent on my decisions and which affect my surroundings in a way that I do not choose” (pg. 440)

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Those psychiatrists and psychologists who attempted to apply the insights of Husserl, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Merleau-Ponty especially developed what became known as phenomenological psychology. Heidegger gave lectures to physicians about ontology,while Ludwig Binswanger (1881-1966) and Medard Boss (1903-1990) attempted to apply his analysis of dasein (“being-there”) to clinical contexts. Phenomenological psychology showed a pronounced clinical influence from a key synthesizer of the neurological and phenomenological research traditions:  the neuropsychiatrist Erwin Straus (1891-1975, who was possibly the first neurophenomenologist.

Erwin Straus, MD: the first neurophenomenologist?

Erwin Straus, MD: the first neurophenomenologist?

He is quoted in Man, Time, and World: Two Contributions to Anthropological Psychology (1982) as stating:

The physiologist, who in the everyday world relates behavior and brain, actually makes three kinds of things into objects of his reflection: behavior, the brain as macroscopic formation, and the brain in its microscopic structure and biophysical processes. From the whole-the living organism-the inquiry descends to the parts: first of all to an organ-the brain-and finally to its histological elements. Statements concerning the elementary processes acquire their proper sense only in reference back to the original whole

Probably the best known exponent of a phenomenogical approach to clinical psychology and psychiatry was RD Laing (1927-1989), who in 1965 wrote a classic case-study analysis of the experience of schizoids in The Divided Self: an existential study in sanity and madness. In it he describes one patient:

“Julie’s self-being had become so fragmented that she could best be described as living a death-in-life existence in a state approaching chaotic nonentity.

In Julie’s case, the chaos and lack of being an identity were not complete. But in being with her one had for long periods that uncanny ‘praecox’ feeling described feeling’ described by the German clinicians, i.e. of being in the presence of another human being and yet feeling that there was no one there. Even when one felt that what was being said was an expression of someone, the fragment of a self behind the words or actions was not Julie. There might be someone addressing us, but in listening to a schizophrenic, it is very difficult to know ‘who’ is talking, and it is just as difficult to know ‘whom’ is addressing.”

In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, neurologists like Oliver Sacks continued in the neuropsychological tradition of Luria, and documented the  existential struggles of patients with brain disorders. In 1970  he produced an eminently readable,  phenomenologically rich classic of neuropsychology: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  He wrote persuasively that while there are indeed computer-like aspects of the brain, the cognitive, computationalist or information-processing model nonetheless does not address the full spectrum of human psychological reality (pg. 20):

But our mental processes, which constitute our being and life, are not just abstract and mechanical, but personal, as well.”

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The European-flavored, humanistic field of phenomenological psychology (also called existential-phenomenological psychology)  offers an alternative for researchers dissatisfied with mechanistic cognitivitism, behaviorism and physiological psychology. However, as far as I can tell,  after the passing of Erwin Straus, phenomenological psychology has had little or no interest in cognitive neuroscience. The major exception to this I can find was in 1981, when phenomenological/biophysiological psychologist Donald Moss and cognitive neuroscientist Karl Pribram each wrote fascinating essays on comparing brain science and phenomenology  in the collection The Metaphors of Consciousness (Valle and von Eckartsberg, Eds). This is of historical interest as an early instance of an explicit dialoug between neuroscience and existential-phenomenology.

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Pribram’s essay “Behaviorism, Phenomenology, and Holism in Psychology” pointed to the need for a broader, phenomeologically and neurobiologically informed  approach to psychology (pg. 142:

“But there are limits to understanding achieved solely through the observation and experimental analysis of behavior. These limits are especially apparent when problems other than overt behavior are addressed, problems related to thought or to decisional processes, to appetive and other motivational mechanisms, to emotions and feelings, and even to images and perception”.

and (pg. 146):

“Existential-phenomenological psychology has not, up to now, been very clear in it’s methods. I suggest that multidimensional analyses (factor analysis, principle components analysis, stepwise discriminant analysis) might serve well as tools to investigate the structure of experience-in-the-world.”

Moss lucidly analyzed the similarities and divergences between neuroscience and existential-phenomenology  in a essay entitled “Phenomenology and Neuropsychology” (pg.159):

“Pribram points to the role of the brain processes in”constructing” the world as perceived. Yet existential-phenomenology has also emphasized the “constituting functions”of the ego (Husserl), the constituitive role of the lived body (Merleau-Ponty), and the role of the human body and upright posture in articulating the world of sensory experience (Straus). Thus, neither school of thought naively recognizes a reality per se unaffected by the presence and condition of the organism. ”

Such exchanges occurred on the margins of mind-science. By the 1960’s, the largely cold-war funded research program of Artificial Intelligence (A.I) and growing interest in cognitive or information-processing approaches to problems in psychology etc. had produced a “cognitive revolution”.  Some brave cognitivists even made use of introspective techniques (though not without drawing fire from behaviorists). Herbert Simon asked his subjects to verbally report on how they solved logic-puzzles, much to the chagrin of the remaining orthodox behaviorists. The renewal of mentalistic language and willingness to freely use data from introspection and verbal reports from subjects  about how they solved logic problems was a robust challenge to the behaviorists, but over time a rapprochement ensued.

But what really allowed the scientific study of consciousness and experience to re-emerge was the success of theoretical and laboratory neuroscience. EEG data had been produced for years with good temporal but limited spatial resolution, but in the 1970’s and 1980’s an alphabet soup of new imaging technologies (CAT, PET, MRI, and recently MEG) allowed neuroscientists to better “peek inside” the living brains of subjects in experiments. Progress in molecular biology, genomics, and biophysics in the postwar West allowed curious researchers to formulate models of emotions in chemical terms, such as the finding of endogenous opiates (or endorphins) and their receptors in the brain. The finding that nerve fibers connect with the organs of the immune system helped ground theories of the effect of emotions and beliefs on health, leading to the interdiscipline of psychoneuroimmunology. A growing industry to synthesize pharmaceutical products based on the molecular structure of receptor proteins has led to neuropharmacology and neuropsychopharmacology.

Some brain researchers looking for theoretical models of the mind found the information-processing/computationalist approach of the cognitivists limiting in understanding emotions and experience. Cognitive science itself had been rocked from its early (late 1950’s-early 1960’s) success to the gradual realization that many aspects of mind are not easily characterized as formal-logical, rule-based systems, as had been predicted by the phenomenologically-informed philosopher Hubert Dreyfus (1972) in What Computers Can’t Do, where he argued that rule-based, symbolic-logical, representationalist models of mind and language fail to deal with the radically embodied nature of cognition. This was hotly rejected by prominent AI researchers, but later influenced Terry Winograd, among others.

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Mostly the insights of clinical neurologists and phenomenological psychologists were ignored in postwar cognitive science, which had a great overlap with computer science and Artificial Intelligence (A.I). Indeed, cognitivists and AI engineers might profess agnosticism about the neurobiology of the mind, viewing  brain “hardware” as the domain of other specialists. In the late 1950’s and through the 1960’s, cognitive science and Artificial Intelligence seemed to have revolutionary new insights. AI as engineering of useful artifacts overlapped with AI as cognitive modeling. An early era of exciting optimism eventually gave way to slow progress on “general purpose” problem solving.  The limitations of their symbolic-logical, information-processing, and computationalist approach led others to develop the hybrid field of cognitive neuroscience. Sometimes there were interesting discrepancies between the two: onetime “pure” cognitivist Stephen Kosslyn performed neuroimaging experiments on subjects who were asked to rotate mental objects. According to John McCrone’s report of Kosslyn’s work in Going Inside: A Tour ‘Round a Single Moment of Consciousness, the resulting pattern of distributed activity across disparate brain regions was difficult to reconcile with the neat schematic Kosslyn had developed as an abstract cognitive model possessing a few modules for accomplishing aspects of the rotation operation. This lends credence to those who propose that cognitive science must be much more thoroughly integrated with the “gory details” of neuroscience, with the neural networks/connectionist camp serving as a conceptual bridge fro brain to symbols and representations. Over time, the lack of interest in biology and “implementation agnosticism” of some computationalist cognitive scientists has given way to modern cognitive neuroscience. A movement in the 1980’s to reform cognitive science and artificial intelligence along biologically-inspired and “subsymbolic” lines known as connectionism, artificial neural-networks, and parallel-distributed processing splits cogntivism to this day.

A pathbreaking  (and for some, puzzling*) book appeared in the second half of the 1980’s that seemd to point the way to a synthesis of neurobiology, cognitivism, computer science, and phenomenology: Understanding computers and cognition: a new foundation for design by AI and language-processing expert Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores:

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The book proposed a phenomenologically-grounded understanding of how people in real-world environments use systems that software designers build. It took  inspiration from Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela‘s  idea of autopoesis, a cybernetics-inspired, dynamical theory of organisms self-organizing  their own  structure by regenerating parts and by being coupled to their environment, until death.  The brains of creatures do not represent features (such  as colors) of objects external to them as cognitivists typically assume.  Rather, each ecologically-situated animal brings forth or co-constitutes a perceived world through evolutionarily-selected sensorimotor systems.  Autopoesis is a sort of post-Cartesian biology, and  Maturana and Varela described it in 1981 as:

“a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.”

While a cognitivist might recognize a consonance with cybernetics here, abandoning representationalism is very difficult for some. What other bridging concepts are there to relate brain and mind events? This is still an open issue.

As it turned out, a sophisticated alternative to cognitivism was on the way: Walter Freeman, Francisco Varela, and others have offered a post-representationalist approach to consciousness, cognition, and the brain based in dynamical systems theory. The undercurrents of dissatisfaction with  understanding the mind as information-processing, rule-based symbolic  logical procedures, and “computations over representations”  emerged in the 1990’s  as embodied cognitive science and neurophenomenology.

(Part I is here, and part III is here)

*-when asked about Understanding Computers and Cognition, a doctoral student in psychology I knew could only shake his head, raise his eyebrows,  and say “that’s a weird book”

History of the development of neurophenomenology pt.3: the modern era

Uncategorized

(Part I is here, and part II is here)

There  are a small number of researchers in neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophy, that have developed a body of work that is properly called neurophenomenology. The most recognizable and productive was the Chilean biologist and cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela (1946-2001), who is likely better known for co-developing the theory of autopoesis.  He was possibly the first neuroscience researcher since Erwin Straus to have found the very technical phenomenological methods developed by Husserl to be a valuable resource. Varela adopted as much of the Husserlian methdology as he saw fit, so as to make progress on the notoriously difficult problems  inherent to relating cognitive neuroscience data with first-person verbal reports. Varela’s  essay”The Specious Present: A Neurophenomenology of Time Consciousness” was in particular influenced by Husserlian methodology.

Collaborating with eminent categorization researcher Eleanor Rosch and the philosopher Evan Thompson, Varela in 1991 published The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. In my opinion this was the most important book on cognitive neuroscience of the 1990’s (Daniel Dennett would not agree, but has an interesting critique here where he refers to it as “a major contribution to our understanding of cognitive science”.) I believe The Embodied Mind effectively provides a foundation for neurophenomenology, and is the most important work in the field (though the term  did not appear in the volume).

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As far as I have been able to determine, the term neurophenomenology first appears in 1988 with anthropologist and “biogenetic structuralist” Charles Laughlin’s “The Prefrontosensorial Polarity Principle: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Intentionality“, in Biology Forum 81 (2): 243-260 (I cannot find the original article, but there are references to it). Likely many encountered the term in 1990’s  Brain, Symbol & Experience: Toward a neurophenomenology of human consciousness by Charles Laughlin, social psychologist John McManus, and psychiatrist Eugene d’Aquili.

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This is a fascinating book of great ambition: to  model language and cultural systems of meaning through a non-reductive cognitive neuroscience. The section on existential-physiological discrepancy is worth the price of admission alone!  Laughlin was kind enough to give me his perspective on this fertile period: evidently Varela likely encountered the term through this book.  I for one was thrilled in1996 when Varela published “Neurophenomenology: A methodological remedy to the hard problem” in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Francisco Varela: biologist and neurophenomenologist

Varela made a presentation to the “Towards a Science of Consciousness” conference in Tucson in April 1996. Here he delivered an address later published as “A science of consciousness as if experience mattered”. In it he defines the field:

“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.

<snip>

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.”

At the time of this presentation, “consciousness studies” was enjoying something of a rennaissance, and while only a small pool of researchers were explicitly refering to neurophenomenology as such, notions of “embodied cognitive science”, “situated cognition”, “hot” (as in emotional) cognition, and “affective neuroscience” were circulating among much broader group.  At one time for a neuroscientist or even psychologist to admit they were researching consciousness would supposedly invite at least skepticism, but in the 1994  the famously hard-nosed reductionist and DNA researcher Francis Crick (1916-2004) worked on and advocated a neuroscientific approach to consciousness:

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By advocating a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness, Crick helped to legitimize a field that had been controversial. and many computer scientists, neuroscientists, philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and even physicists became involved in a roiling, highly publicized series of debates and conferences on mind, brain, and consciousness.

One reads there  had been something of a stigma placed upon brain scientists who dared to try to model consciousness or “subjectivity”; now leading neuroscientists like Gerald Edelman and Antonio Damasio write best-sellers about consciousness and emotions. Damasio in particular is arguably the leading expositor of the view that embodied  emotions are a critical part of cognition, a perspective that has been long maintained by the phenomenological psychologists. He has developed the somatic marker hypothesis, which states that decision-making is affected by emotions,due to visceral signals coming from the body.

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Damasio, perhaps the leading researcher in the world on consciousness, draws on the work of Varela, who died at a relatively young age in 2001. Without  this charismatic neuroscientist leading the effort, it is unclear what is next for neurophenomenology.  One possible, and serious, bifurcation point is present: the influential reductionist and cognitivist philosopher Daniel Dennett has made an important distinction between “upper case'” Husserlian Phenomenology andlower case” phenomenology, the far-less controversial latter endeavor being (in his formulation) amenable to cognitive neuroscience.

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Consciousness Explained is endlessly stimulating, eminently readable, funny, provocative, and most importantly provides a pragmatic account of how to move the cognitive science of consciousness forward methodologically via heterophenomenology This method may prove fruitful for neurophenomenology, but Consciousness Explained ultimately devotes it’s hundreds of fascinating pages to a defense of vanilla reductionistic computational/representational cognitivism.

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Dennett: author of the pathbreaking 1991 volume Consciousness Explained

Consciousness Explained proposes that verbal reports generated by the introspection of a subject can be treated as data through the adoption of a “heterophenomenological” method, where no assumptions about the reality-status of the introspection or description are made (a .pdf from The Journal of Phenomenology and Cognitive Science outlining  a rather plausible  defense of the heterophenomenological method is here) The upshot is that cognitive neuroscience and psychology (now, at least) have no need of  trained “autophenomenologists” such as  Edmund Husserl or William James. It is enough to simply get regular untrained subjects to verbally report on what they believe they are experiencing or percieving or remembering, and these reports are nothing more than data about subjects’ beliefs about their mental states. Heterophenomenology is thus a sort of behaviorist-friendly phenomenology.

Heterophenomenology attempts to get around the problem of subjectivity: the reports are simply treated as data about the subject’s beliefs or “intentional stance”, which can then be used to correlate with neuroimaging or otherwise inform model-building in the cognitive neurosciences. But Dennett maintains that there can be no “first-person” science, where descriptions of experience from the researcher are fundamental, which is what Husserl, William James, and Varela espoused (read Dennett’s  crisp missive on the subject of “The Fantasy of First-Person Science” at http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/chalmersdeb3dft.htm).

This distinction then opens up two broad possible paths for neurophenomenology: using a strictly “hetero” and third-personal methodology, or building on tradition of the “auto” and first-personal way (it should be made clear that this distinction is not only germane to neurophenomenology, but also to the broader field of consciousness studies and possibly cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and medicine).  However, both may be useful, depending on context and the particular research problem of interest.  The “hetero” method is more-or-less what psychologists and behavioral researchers have done for a century (the twist being how the data is to be regarded: not about reality so much as subjects’ beliefs about reality).

Varela was emphatic that phenomenology, done properly, is not introspection at all. Following Husserl, he asserted that what a disciplined, trained observer can observe and report about consciousness is vastly different than what a “civilian” can do.  The  neurophenomenological theory of Varela does not accept Dennett’s formulation that what he (Dennett) calls the “auto” tradition is not science. Rather, “mutual constraints” define how mind science uses the careful descriptions of trained observers or phenomenolgists relative to “objective” behavioral or cognitive neuroscience data.  If such training can yield reports with accurate characterizations of the structure of phenomenal awareness, or even the underlying underlying cognitive processes, autophenomenology will be valdiated.

Before his passing in 2001, Varela produced many writings on these methodological issues, as well as other topics on the neurophenomenology, which are now circulating in book form: The View from Within (with Jonathan Shear) and the multi-authored Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science.

Time will tell if Varela’s or Dennett’s visions of a science of consciousness prevail. While it is possible there will be a reaction against so much time and effort being devoted to these matters (as in the behaviorist disavowal of introspection used in German psychophysics research) 15 years after  the mid-1990’s “consciousness boom”, interest remains strong.

Some among the talented  researchers who worked with Varela are still active, among them Jean-Phillipe Lachaux, as well as Antoine Lutz , who describes his research thusly:

“I am interested in understanding the neural counterparts to subjective experience and, more generally, the mechanisms underlying mind-brain-body interactions. In the first part of my research, I am studying the role of large-scale neuronal integration (neural synchrony mechanisms) during various mental states (voluntary attention, emotion generation); The emphasis of my work is in the use of introspective, or first-person, data in order to understand the function of these large-scale dynamical processes”

Among philosophers doing neurophenomenological research, there is Shaun Gallagher, who wrote the excellent How the Body Shapes the Mind, and who is  the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive SciencesDavid Casacuberta has a neurophenomenology website at http://neurophenomenology.blogspot.com/.

It is worth noting that there are more academic papers and books about embodied cognition than ever. Neurophenomenology in the narrower sense is somewhat in a transitional phase after the death of Varela, and it remains to be seen whether the component sub-fields of clinical neurology, neuropsychology, experimental cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy will continue to produce an emergent field.  However, there have been a number of works which are to this author stimulating and likely fertile sources of new ideas. In particular, Antonio Damasio’s 2010 Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain seems as if it will usher in a new era of productive research on embodied cognition.

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This work focuses on the role of visceral dynamics in the body being mapped onto the brainstem, thalamus, insular and cingulated cortices, and other regions to generate a sort of representation of the homeostatic state of the body.

Evan Thompson has recently authored a wonderful, well written tome entitled Mind in Life. It refines and even critiques some of the arguments and perspectives from the 1980’s/early 1990’s era that produced The Embodied Mind:

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This has garnered high praise from no less an authority than neurodynamicist Walter Freeman:

“There is no deeper prison of the modern mind than the Cartesian legacy that splits mind from life, and no more arduous climb to escape. Thompson provides a topo map–rich, multifaceted, superbly documented–by detailing the work of the many (but relatively few among contemporary scientists and philosophers) who recognize the impasse and strive to transcend it.”

Interest in neurophenomenology is on the rise. As of mid-2009, Google lists 24,000 results under the term “neurophenomenology” .  In early 2013, there are more than 34,000. As one who can remember that a browser search in 1996 produced about 3 results, a sense of excitement is likely appropriate. The knotty challenges involved in this sort of research are daunting, but more people than ever are looking at the problems. We are, perhaps, at the end of the beginning of the story of research into neurophenomenology.

History of the development of neurophenomenology-pt.1

introspection, medicine, neurophenomenology

(Part II is here, and Part III is here)

I will attempt in three essays to outline the sweep of ideas, researchers, and works that lead a few of us to speak of “neurophenomenology” as a more or less distinct field.  Part I traces 19th century psychology, neurology, and phenomenology roughly up to World War II. Part II examines the impact of cognitivism, the continued development of clinical neurology and basic neuroscience, the progression of phenomenological thought in psychology and medicine, and criticisms of cognitive science. Part III explores the early 1990’s origins of the emerging field of neurophenomenlogy within the broader context of interest in embodied cognition and consciousness studies. Any corrections, suggestions, or criticisms are welcome.

It may be too early to attempt a definitive characterization of the constitutive elements, at the least it is a combination of clinical studies by neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists, experimental work on the brain and mind, and philosophical analysis of consciousness and cognition. While the term “neurophenomenology” has a recent (early 1990’s) origin, the project of understanding the mysterious and profound relationship between brain events and awareness goes back at least as far as classical Greek philosophy. Physicians and philosophers have grappled with the enigma of existence and of consciousness for millenia. Psychology has roots in medicine, ethics, and the philosophy of mind and epistemology, but by the late 19th century,  the overlapping fields of biological psychology, psychiatry, behaviorism, and the psychophysiology and psychophysics of perception emerged. We can trace the series of research traditions that eventually developed  into “neurophenomenology” in the 1990’s through ideas and practices of  19th century researchers.  Understanding how these traditions drew from various sources, and subsequently interacted, requires we situate each field in then-current European disciplines. Elites were schooled in the Gymnasia, and acquired a broad and deep education before later specialization.  Physicians and/or laboratory experimentalists were expected to be familiar with classical and to an extent modern philosophy, and gentleman scholars would dabble in but also contribute to numerous fields: highly unlike the current hyper-specialization of academia. Psychology was very pluralistic at this stage: not yet fully divorced from philosophy, still possessing a sense that a field focusing on the richness and complexity of the human psyche must involve a study of consciousness.

There were numerous German psychophysics and psychological researchers looking for how consciousness and the brain were related, such as Herman von Helmholtz (1821-1894), Gustav Fechner (1801-1887), and Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920).  Much effort was expended on rigorously correlating physiological and psychological measurements, resulting in establishing thresholds of perception and the limits of just noticeable differences. A number of laboratories used experimental methods where subjects told researchers what they were perceiving through verbal reports based on introspection.

Bold innovators like the justly renowned philosopher, psychologist and physician William James (1842-1910) also looked for the physical basis of experience. He pioneered research into neurology, performed psychological experiments, and made creative, yet disciplined, investigations into experiential aspects of mind. James’ use of crisp, lucid language describing consciousness and awareness pushed the threshold of what science, psychology, and philosophy could say about consciousness. James helped establish American experimental psychology, but really hit his stride with his still-fresh writings.  He described how memory and the enigmatic quality of the moment-by-moment flow of experience, and even wrote about altered states of consciousness. His central concept of consciousness being like a stream is still influential, and there is now a renewed appreciation for his work on how emotions are coupled to the physiological state of the body.  All in all, he is probably the most important figure in the history of American psychology. Yet his interdisciplinary boldness, penetrating curiosity and at times virtuostic powers of description of complex mental phenomena were not easily replicated by those researchers and younger colleagues he influenced.

William James, master theorist of consciousness

William James, master theorist of consciousness

In the Principles of Psychology, James provided an admirably straightforward account of what introspection is:

“Introspective observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always. The word introspection need hardly be defined – it means, of course, looking into our own minds”

 

The Principles of Psychology

Fin-de-siecle psychophysics was in its golden years during his time, and while James’ wrote admiringly of the “philosophers of the chronometer” and other technically adroit experimental psychologists in his lab that measured perception and other phenomena, James himself continued his project of probing and describing the phenomenology of consciousness itself. While considered a father of introspectionist psychology and a forefather of both behaviorism and cognitive neuroscience, perhaps because of his hard-to-imitate brilliance, James did not leave a school of younger researchers to follow through on his research into consciousness.

In America, Europe, and Russia, generations of research into the organic basis of pathologies was reaching new heights of explanatory power. The German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926) was formulating sophisticated theories of the physiological basis of mental illness in the early 20th century, in retrospect a crucial step in the early development of the now accomplished field we know as clinical neuropsychology. After each war, neurologists noted the correlations between location of trauma to the brains of the injured with deficits in speech, memory, movement, perception, affect,  emotion,and “body knowledge”. The Russian tradition culminated later in the influential work of Alexander Luria (1902-1977).

The force of new findings in clinical studies, physiology,  and experimental laboratory research eventually produced a scientific psychology that established itself as independent from moral philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language. The success of  19th century psychophysics and neurophysiology, with breakthroughs such as Hermann von  Helmholtz‘s (1821-1894) measurement of the speed of the nerve impulse, provided ample justification for the fissure. Psychophysics experiments painstakingly produced data on the “just-noticeable difference” in light or stimulus intensity, etc. but there were real difficulties in establishing a consensus between the different laboratories on methodologies for dealing with subject’s reports on their perceptions.

While towering figures like Ernst Weber (1795-1878), Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), and Edward Titchener (1867-1927) were establishing a canon of principles and techniques for psychology, it proved extremely difficult to come up with one standard way to operationalize measurements that involved verbal reports about  subjective judgments and conscious experience. For all the brainpower deployed in various laboratories, by the 1930’s the tide was turning against scientific research into consciousness due to the influence of behaviorism, which reacted against the lack of an agreed-upon methodology in the German psychophysics-based psychology, especially involving introspection. The behaviorists marshaled an impressive array of experimental measurements techniques to establish causal relationships between stimulus and response, and then to infer lawlike generalizations. They stringently opposed the use of any mental concepts as inherently subjective and thus unscientific, and eschewed using first-person reports as much as possible. Within fields like the psychology of visual perception it was necessary to get verbal reports from subjects, but the behaviorists strove mightily to build a scientific psychology on purely physical principles. But if the behaviorists’ reacted against psychophysics for being insufficiently liberated from concerns with cognitive processes, others argued precisely the opposite. The philosopher Franz Brentano (1838-1917) wrote Psychology From An Empirical Standpoint in 1874, where he popularized the notion that the contents of experience constituted an important field of inquiry in their own right. Brentano’s influential theories of intentionality stressed the need to investigate the contents of awareness and their constitutive operations. Researchers working on cognition who were dissatisfied with the limitations of psychophysics ,and unpersuaded by the soon-to-be dominant anti-mentalist strictures of the behaviorists (such as physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and psychologist/advertising specialist John Watson (1878-1958))  rallied around this line of inquiry. Brentano made an impact among philosophers and psychologists and certain influential clinicians, and in some sense there is a diverse “School of Brentano“.

Arguably the most  influential among the students and followers of Brentano was the mathematician and philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Husserl was fascinated (obsessed?) with the foundations of logic, mathematics, epistemology, and cognition.  Convinced by direct criticism from the celebrated logician Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) that psychological principles were epistemologically inadequate to foundationalize mathematical and logical truths, Husserl would eventually synthesize Brentano’s research into the primacy of intentional awareness within cognition with a quest for the undoubtable (or “apodictic”) core principles of mathematics, logic, and philosophy.  After producing light-reading classics such as Philosophie der Arithmetik, he developed a research program  into the first principles of cognition, logic, and epistemology called phenomenology.  While Husserl attracted many philosophers and certain psychologists to his cause with the 1900-1901 publication of the highly influential Logical Investigations, his continual probing of the constituent ideas underlying mathematical and logical truth was to an extent a solitary quest.

logialinvestigations

His acolytes and disciples found the Logical Investigations of great importance, yet they did not take up Husserl’s overarching project of a securing a logical foundation for all science, math, and philosophy. In the case of Martin Heidegger, phenomenology was redefined as the means for a still more fundamental investigation into ontology.

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Edmund Husserl: logician, philosopher, and phenomenologist

Before WWII Husserlian phenomenology was perhaps the most important development in European philosophy, and influenced a number of other fields, such as psychology and medicine.Because his phenomenology took conscious experience as a source of data (following Brentano) many researchers interested in consciousness and cognition were excited by Husserl’s radically rigorous approach and penetrating exploration of how mental processes constitute, shape,  and structure the phenomena of which we are aware. His notion that cognition actively constructs the contents of awareness (compare to Jacob von Uexkull‘s (1864-1944) notion of the umwelt) would be familiar to modern cognitive neuroscientists but to early 20th century psychologists and philosophers was revolutionary. Husserl  influenced the philosophers Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), the logician/mathematician Kurt Godel (1906-1978), the philosopher-theologian Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005), as well as (in more recent years) the prescient critic of Artificial Intelligence philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, and the cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela (1946-2001).

In America and Britain, these developments in Continental thought were generally of no interests to the behaviorists, who aside from biologically/medically-based critiques of the sort offered by neurologist Karl Lashley (1890-1958), enjoyed near-hegemony in scientific psychology. But eventually, the rise of computers led to the “cognitive revolution” : the  development of symbolic or information-processing theories of the mind that did not respect orthodox behaviorist’s strictures against the use of mental concepts.  In time, this  willingness to use mental concepts again would open the door to the study of consciousness in psychology and neuroscience . After WWII, the introduction  of computers led to cybernetic,  information-processing, symbolic-logical, and representational models of language, memory, behavior, reasoning, and even awareness.

(Part II is here, and part III is here)