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.

Edmund_Husserl_1900

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)

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more on the status of introspection in psychology and in neuroscience

cognitive science, introspection

An index of the status of introspection within psychology comes from Medin, Markman, and Ross (2004) in the textbook Cognitive Psychology, which notes (pg.20) that:

Although introspection is not an infallible window to the mind, psychological research is leading to principles that suggest when verbal reports are likely to accurately reflect thinking

These perspectives all can be said to implicitly or explicitly challenge what I shall call the “received view” or the “overly skeptical view”, which is an interpretation of the Nisbett and Wilson work that goes beyond what those authors’ famous paper actually said. While it is the case that the “Telling More than we can Know” Nisbett and Wilson paper argued persuasively that introspection-based reports of subjects asked to retrospect on the causes of their behavior are generally not accurate, these authors made a point of not dismissing the value of introspection and verbal reporting on the contents of cognition one is aware of , such as sensation or perception and “private facts”. But the “received view” of their research all too often neglects or ignores the more nuanced and balanced view about introspection of the authors, as well as that of other cognitive scientists who carefully investigated the issues involved, such as Anders Ericsson and Herbert Simon (1993).   This is an important concept: see Eric Schwitzgebel’s excellent take on the “Nisbett-Wilson myth“.

What is the most important concept to take away from the controversies about introspection? Probably it is that insofar as researchers want to be able to take advantage of all possible tools and data sources to make sense of the complex, enigmatic processes characterizing body knowledge, they should follow the example set by many physicians and some experimentalists, and be willing to get data by asking subjects or patients for their observations on body state. But here I will go one step further, and assert that the accuracy, or lack of accuracy, of verbal report data relative to other data, can serve as that which must be explained by a comprehensive and robust model of personal or self-reportable knowledge of the body. Doing so would require experiments where verbally reported data might be compared to, and possibly integrated with, data from external sources, such as from brain measurement: “neurophenomenology” in operationalized form.

One such effort came from a trio of researchers interested in assessing whether introspective data on pain had measurable neural correlates (Coghill, McHaffie, Yen, 2003, pg. 8538):

Using psychophysical ratings to define pain sensitivity and functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess brain activity, we found that highly sensitive individuals exhibited more frequent and more robust pain-induced activation of the primary somatosensory cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex than did insensitive individuals. By identifying objective neural correlates of subjective differences, these findings validate the utility of introspection and subjective reporting as a means of communicating a first-person experience

This forward-looking research in effect turns behaviorism on its head: instead of verbal reports being rejected or at best tolerated within the overall context of strict objectivity, the very phenomenon the model seeks to explain is “subjective”!

Verbal report data: psychologists may be skeptical, but clinicians are more practical

clinical neurophenomenology, cognitive science, introspection, medicine, symptom reports

Cognitive neuroscience and psychology needs to account for  verbal report data from people about their body states. In perceptual psychology and psychophysics experiments, in cognitive studies of human problem-solving, in clinical trials of drug efficacy and safety, in phenomenological-psychological investigations into the thematics of body experience, researchers routinely ask subjects or patients to answer questions. This is so common that its significance is perhaps under-appreciated. Science, at least in a narrow sense,  is conventionally understood to be based on objectively observable facts, not subjective opinions. But certain phenomena can not only be observed from the outside, as part of a system, but can also be reported on by people from the inside, as perceived or experiential events.

This regular use of the human self-reporting capacity is more remarkable in the light of intellectual history.  “Orthodox” cognitive science developed in the era of behaviorist dominance, and inherited certain skepticism about the trustworthiness of verbal reports, which are viewed as being sources of data, but not “privileged.” This stance indicates a rejection of older philosophical and psychological traditions that emphasized the use of introspection. Nonetheless, even in the time of behaviorist hegemony, psychologists still asked subjects questions in perception experiments, and clinicians have always used patient assessments to gain insight (Nahmias, 2002). While certain path-breaking cognitive scientists and psychologists explored the nature of introspection, and worked out the circumstances in which verbal reports could be authoritative and true accounts of aspects of cognitive processes (Erickson and Simon, 1991), (Ericsson, Chase, and Simon, 1979), the results of other widely cited experiments have been interpreted to denigrate introspective data, especially that of Nisbett and Wilson’s (1977) “Telling More than we can know” paper. Their research has been interpreted to indicate, for instance, that subjects made demonstrably inaccurate judgments about their underlying mental states because human beings apparently have little or no direct introspective access to the underlying cognitive processes of the mind (pg. 233):

The accuracy of subjective reports is so poor as to suggest that any introspective access that may exist is not sufficient to produce generally correct or reliable reports.”

The interpretation of their data featured assertions that are now influential:  subjects lack  introspective access to the causal relationship between stimuli controlled by the experimenter and the verbal reports they produce. They are unable to accurately report which stimuli affected their responses. Rather, these verbal reports of effects of stimuli are based on unvalidated belief (such as naïve “folk psychological” theories about the causal connections between the stimuli and their response). Furthermore, if the reports on stimulus-response relationships are correct, it is because their naïve theories happen to be correct, and not because introspection gave them any privileged access to information. The upshot can be summarized as: subjects in situations with variables controlled by scientists make introspective judgments about why they behave in a particular manner or think a certain way, they state this explanation verbally to an experimenter, who can show the explanation to be false: (pg. 243)

“In order to test subject ability to report influences on their associative behavior, we had 81 male introductory psychology students memorize a list of word pairs. Some of these word pairs were intended to generate associative processes that would elicit certain target words in a word association task to be performed at a later point in the experiment. For example, subjects memorized the word pair “ocean-moon” with the expectation that when they were later asked to name a detergent, they would be more likely to give the target “Tide” than would subjects who had not previously been exposed to the word pairs….Immediately following the word association task, subjects were asked in open-ended form why they thought they had given each of their responses in the word association task. Despite the fact that nearly all subjects could recall nearly all of the words pairs, subjects almost never mentioned a word pair cue as a reason for giving a particular target response. Instead subjects focused on some distinctive feature of the target (“Tide is the best-known detergent”), some personal meaning of it (“My mother uses tide”), or an affective reaction to it (“I like the Tide box”).

The influence of this research has had the practical effect of renewing suspicions among psychologists and other researchers about introspective data, even if such methods continue to be used (Jack and Roepstorff, 2003) and despite the balanced view of Nisbett and Wilson where introspection has some utility regarding “sensations and/or private facts”, which takes into consideration the longtime use of introspective data as a method in psychology. Cognitive scientists, psychologists, physicians, and others can adopt their pragmatic distinction between the contents of cognition, such as sensations and emotions which can indeed be known and verbally reported, and the underlying causes, the information-processing or cognitive processes, which remain epistemologically inscrutable to introspection.

Yet while clinical medicine often regards introspective data with caution, it nonetheless uses it pragmatically. For instance, the standard neuropsychology text Clinical Neuropsychology (Heilman and Valenstein, 2003) states (pg.5)

at times, patients’ observations of their own mental state may not only be helpful but necessary.”

This implies that it is a standard clinical methodology to use introspective data, and that patients have some useful access to their own minds.

This data-collection method of asking subjects and patients for self-reports is routinely used, according to psychologist Arthur Stone (Stone, 2000) (pg. 297):

“In both clinical practice and in research, the primary method of obtaining information about physical symptomology is through self-reports. Every day, thousands upon thousands of health care providers ask their patients to describe how they are generally feeling and too discuss specific symptoms. Patients present their doctors with panoply of global states (“I feel lousy,” “I am fatigued,” “I don’t feel right”) to very concrete descriptions (“I have a sharp pain in my right knee that is worse on awakening”). Information from these interviews, along with various medical tests, provides the basis for treatment and for the evaluation of its efficacy. In medical research, information of the same sort is obtained with questionnaires and structured interviews. These data-collection methods may provide a more systematic way of gathering physical symptom information, but regardless of the mode of data collection, the information is self-reported. Thus, reports of physical symptoms may be considered the mainstay of medical practice and research”

Jack and Roepstorff on introspection

cognitive science, introspection, symptom reports

From Trusting the Subject (2003), Anthony Jack and Andreas Roepstorff write:

0907845568

“The unique challenge facing a science of consciousness is that that the best instrument available for measuring experience depends on cognitive processes internal to the subject. So just how much faith can we place in the capacity of the mind to understand itself? In principle, the construction of a maximally robust methodology for introspective evidence would require a detailed understanding of the operation of introspective processes — the processes that mediate the acquisition of introspective knowledge and underlie the production of introspective reports”

And:

“It is important to realize that no principled problem stands in the way of the scientific assessment of various types of introspective evidence. The testing of the reliability, consistency and validity of various types of introspective report measures lies well within the orbit of currently available methods. A measure may be called ‘reliable’ if it yields the same results when tested in multiple sessions over time (‘test–retest reliability’) and across individuals (a cousin of ‘inter-rater’ and ‘inter-observer’ reliability). Of course, subjects’ reports may differ, and so appear to be unreliable, simply because their internal mental processes and states vary. Thus it is critical to establish well controlled experimental conditions for eliciting reports. The considerable advances in behavioural science since the time of the Introspectionists offers experimenters considerable advantages in this regard (see Ericsson, this volume). Not only do these advances make it much more probable that experimenters can establish conditions under which introspective measures can be shown to be reliable, they also provide much greater insight into the behavioural and neural correlates of experiential phenomena.

A measure may be called ‘consistent’ when it can be shown that the results are not due to specific features of the measurement technique. Tests of consistency provide a means of checking that the observed effect is not due to a methodological artefact. Thus we might test the consistency of introspective  evidence by comparing immediate forced-choice button-press reports with retrospective and open-ended verbal reports. In this way we might establish, for instance: that the results of forced-choice button-press reports have not been influenced by variations in the criterion for response or by automatisation of response such that they no longer constitute true introspective reports; and that retrospective reports have not been distorted by forgetting or memory interference effects.

‘Validity’ is the most important factor to establish, yet it is also the most theoretically complex, and a particularly vexed issue in cognitive science. A measure is validated when it can be shown to accurately reflect the phenomenon it purports to measure. Validity is complex because scientific measures are often simultaneously interpreted as providing evidence for phenomena at a number of
different levels. A rough characterisation of three major sources of evidence in cognitive science might read as follows:

-Data from functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) serves most directly as evidence of cerebral blood flow (which has been validated), less directly as evidence for neural activity (which is in the process of being properly validated), and least directly as a means of identifying and localising specific cognitive functions (far from well validated).

– Behavioural measures (e.g. the averaging of reaction time measures over multiple trials) serve most directly as evidence for stable patterns of behaviour, less directly as a means of assessing information processing, and least directly as means of establishing the existence and operation of specific cognitive functions.

-Introspective reports serve most directly as evidence about the beliefs that subjects have about their own experience, less directly as evidence concerning the existence of experiential phenomena, and least directly as evidence concerning the operation of specific cognitive functions.