At a conference last month called Investigating the Mind, held here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, neuroscientists and Buddhist scholars discussed attention, mental imagery, emotion, and collaborations to test insights gleaned from meditation.
The paper proposes a renewal of the problem-space in which the relation between psychoanalysis and the cognitive neurosciences is played out, this is in response to the persistent embarrassment or stand-off that characterizes current attempts at dialogue. The authors suggest going beyond classical conceptual oppositions, (mind-body, subject-object etc.), and beyond the seduction of the idea of some ‘natural’ conceptual translation between the two practices. A process of reciprocal ‘transference’ becomes central to creating the space in which the “mixed,” (both biological and subjective), quality of our objects may be recognized and the pitfalls of reductionism be avoided. For psychoanalysis the hysteric was originally such a mixed or “quasiobject’ in which psyche and soma were in a relation of reciprocal representation. On the other hand, the cognitive neurosciences’ ‘embodied-enactive’ and neurophenomenological perspectives provide a philosophical framework for the place of subjectivity and interpretation in scientific work. This important epistemological shift in scientific thinking offers evocative conceptual tools (emergent processes, circular causality), which should transform the difficult dialogue between the neurosciences and psychoanalysis.
This chapter discusses the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment and attempts to determine what needs to be specified so that one can properly imagine a brain in a vat. Daniel Dennett notes that philosophers often fail to set up their intuition pumps properly by failing to think carefully about the requirements and implications of their imagined scenarios. His suggestion is considered here and a careful look at the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment is proposed. The chapter puts the thought experiment to new use, namely, to address the biology of consciousness and to develop some new considerations in support of the enactive approach in cognitive science. Its main argument is that the brain-in-vat thought experiment, when spelled out with the requisite detail, suggests precisely that the body is not merely causally enabling for consciousness, but also constitutive.
One of the outstanding problems in the cognitive sciences is to understand how ongoing conscious experience is related to the workings of the brain and nervous system. Neurodynamics offers a powerful approach to this problem because it provides a coherent framework for investigating change, variability, complex spatiotemporal patterns of activity, and multiscale processes (among others). In this chapter, we advocate a neurodynamical approach to consciousness that integrates mathematical tools of analysis and modeling, sophisticated physiological data recordings, and detailed phenomenological descriptions. We begin by stating the basic intuition: Consciousness is an intrinsically dynamic phenomenon and must therefore be studied within a framework that is capable of rendering its dynamics intelligible. We then discuss some of the formal, analytical features of dynamical systems theory, with particular reference to neurodynamics. We then review several neuroscientific proposals that make use of dynamical systems theory in characterizing the neurophysiological basis of consciousness. We continue by discussing the relation between spatiotemporal patterns of brain activity and consciousness, with particular attention to processes in the gamma frequency band. We then adopt a critical perspective and highlight a number of issues demanding further treatment. Finally, we close the chapter by discussing how phenomenological data can relate to and ultimately constrain neurodynamical descriptions, with the long-term aim being to go beyond a purely correlational strategy of research.
Current research on spontaneous, self-generated brain rhythms and dynamic neural network coordination cast new light on Immanuel Kant’s idea of the ‘spontaneity’ of cognition, that is, the mind’s capacity to organize and synthesize sensory stimuli in novel, unprecedented ways. Nevertheless, determining the precise nature of the brain-cognition mapping remains an outstanding challenge. Neurophenomenology, which uses phenomenological information about the variability of subjective experience in order to illuminate the variability of brain dynamics, offers a promising method for addressing this challenge.
Context: There is a growing recognition in consciousness science of the need for rigorous methods for obtaining accurate and detailed phenomenological reports of lived experience, i.e., descriptions of experience provided by the subject living them in the “first-person.” Problem: At the moment although introspection and debriefing interviews are sometimes used to guide the design of scientific studies of the mind, explicit description and evaluation of these methods and their results rarely appear in formal scientific discourse. Method: The recent publication of an edited book of papers dedicated to the exploration of first-and second-person methods, Ten Years of Viewing from Within: The Legacy of Francisco Varela, serves as a starting point for a discussion of how these methods could be integrated into the growing discipline of consciousness science. We complement a brief review of the book with a critical analysis of the major pilot studies in Varela’s neurophenomenology, a research program that was explicitly devised to integrate disciplined experiential methods with the latest advances in neuroscience. Results: The book is a valuable resource for those who are interested in impressive recent advances in first- and second-person methods, as applied to the phenomenology of lived experience. However, our review of the neurophenomenology literature concludes that there is as yet no convincing example of these specialized techniques being used in combination with standard behavioral and neuroscientific approaches in consciousness science to produce results that could not have also been achieved by simpler methods of introspective reporting. Implications: The end of behaviorism and the acceptance of verbal reports of conscious experience have already enabled the beginning of a science of consciousness. It can only be of benefit if new first- and second-person methods become well-known across disciplines. Constructivist content: Constructivism has long been interested in the role of the observer in the constitution of our sense of reality, so these developments in the science of consciousness may open new avenues of constructivist research. More specifically, one of the ways in which the insights from first- and second-person methods are being validated is by recursively applying the methods to themselves; a practical application of an epistemological move that will be familiar to constructivists from the second-order cybernetics tradition.
I review three answers to the question: How can phenomenology contribute to the experimental cognitive neurosciences? The first approach, neurophenomenology, employs phenomenological method and training, and uses first-person reports not just as more data for analysis, but to generate descriptive categories that are intersubjectively and scientifically validated, and are then used to interpret results that correlate with objective measurements of behaviour and brain activity. A second approach, indirect phenomenology, is shown to be problematic in a number of ways. Indirect phenomenology is generally put to work after the experiment, in critical or creative interpretations of the scientific evidence. Ultimately, however, proposals for the indirect use of phenomenology lead back to methodological questions about the direct use of phenomenology in experimental design. The third approach, “front-loaded” phenomenology, suggests that the results of phenomenological investigations can be used in the design of empirical ones. Concepts or clarifications that have been worked out phenomenologically may operate as a partial framework for experimentation.
The neurophilosophical project, as envisioned by Churchland, involves interrheoretic reduction, moving from (or eliminating) theories formulated in terms of common sense and folk psychology, to theories that have stood the test of scientific experiment. In her view, folk psychology, as well as introspective phenomenology, will be eliminated in favor of neuroscience. Neurophenomenology holds that phenomenology (as a practice) is not only possible, but is in fact a useful tool for science; and that phenomenology is ineliminable if the project is to pursue a neurobiology of consciousness. Clarification of these issues rests on an understanding of how phenomenology can be an alternative source of testable theory, and can play a direct role in scientific experiment. Rather than talking in the abstract about the role of theory formation in science, I consider two specific issues to show the difference between a neurophilosophical approach and a neurophenomenlogical approach, namely, the issues of self and intersubjectivity. Neurophilosophy (which starts with theory that is continuous with common sense) and neurophenomenology (which generates theory in methodically controlled practices) lead to very different philosophical views on these issues.