Context: Seventeen years ago Francisco Varela introduced neurophenomenology. He proposed the integration of phenomenological approaches to first-person experience – in the tradition of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty – with a neuro-dynamical, scientific approach to the study of the situated brain and body. Problem: It is time for a re-appraisal of this field. Has neurophenomenology already contributed to the sciences of the mind? If so, how? How should it best do so in future? Additionally, can neurophenomenology really help to resolve or dissolve the “hard problem” of the relation between mind and body, as Varela claimed? Method: The papers in this special issue arose out of a conference organised by the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society in Bristol, UK, in September 2012. We have invited a representative sample of the speakers at that conference to present their work here. Results: Various papers argue that the first-person methods of phenomenology are distinct from, and more robust than, the failed “introspectionist” methods of early modern psychology. The “elicitation interview” emerges as a successful and widely adopted method to have emerged from this field. Phenomenological techniques are already being successfully applied to neuroscientific problems. Various specific proposals for new techniques and applications are made. Implications: It is time to take neurophenomenology seriously. It has proven its worth, and it is ripe with the potential for further immediate, successful applications. Constructivist content: Varela’s key aim was to develop a non-dualising approach to the science of consciousness. The papers in this special issue look at the philosophical and practical details of successfully putting such an approach into practice.
This is a major departure from traditional approaches to team and social group dynamics and is based firmly in Maturana and Varela’s explanation of language, (languaging and conversing). The obvious audience is academics and practitioners involved in team working and team work theory. However, for proponents of Maturana and Varela, the paper shows how the biology of cognition can be a foundation of a multidisciplinary theory of social group dynamics. Somewhat controversially, I suspect, I believe I have found a point of agreement between the “complexity scientist,” Stuart Kauffman, and Maturana and Varela. The result is a concept of supracritical conversational networks that are nonlinear dynamical systems and hence the source of “complexity” in social systems.
According to the sensorimotor approach, perception is a form of embodied know-how, constituted by lawful regularities in the sensorimotor flow or in sensorimotor contingencies (SMCs) in an active and situated agent. Despite the attention that this approach has attracted, there have been few attempts to define its core concepts formally. In this paper, we examine the idea of SMCs and argue that its use involves notions that need to be distinguished. We introduce four distinct kinds of SMCs, which we define operationally. These are the notions of sensorimotor environment (open-loop motor-induced sensory variations), sensorimotor habitat (closed-loop sensorimotor trajectories), sensorimotor coordination (reliable sensorimotor patterns playing a functional role), and sensorimotor strategy (normative organization of sensorimotor coordinations). We make use of a minimal dynamical model of visually guided categorization to test the explanatory value of the different kinds of SMCs. Finally, we discuss the impact of our definitions on the conceptual development and empirical as well as model-based testing of the claims of the sensorimotor approach.
The work of physicist and theoretical biologist Howard Pattee has focused on the roles that symbols and dynamics play in biological systems. Symbols, as discrete functional switching-states, are seen at the heart of all biological systems in the form of genetic codes, and at the core of all neural systems in the form of informational mechanisms that switch behavior. They also appear in one form or another in all epistemic systems, from informational processes embedded in primitive organisms to individual human beings to public scientific models. Over its course, Pattee’s work has explored (1) the physical basis of informational functions (dynamical vs. rule-based descriptions, switching mechanisms, memory, symbols), (2) the functional organization of the observer (measurement, computation), (3) the means by which information can be embedded in biological organisms for purposes of self-construction and representation (as codes, modeling relations, memory, symbols), and (4) the processes by which new structures and functions can emerge over time. We discuss how these concepts can be applied to a high-level understanding of the brain. Biological organisms constantly reproduce themselves as well as their relations with their environs. The brain similarly can be seen as a self-producing, self-regenerating neural signaling system and as an adaptive informational system that interacts with its surrounds in order to steer behavior.
Open peer commentary on the article “Exploration of the Functional Properties of Interaction: Computer Models and Pointers for Theory” by Etienne B. Roesch, Matthew Spencer, Slawomir J. Nasuto, Thomas Tanay & J. Mark Bishop. Upshot: Artificial life computer simulations hold the potential for demonstrating the kinds of bottom-up, cooperative, self-organizing processes that underlie the self-construction of observer-actors. This is a worthwhile, if limited, attempt to use such simulations to address this set of core constructivist concerns. Although we concur with much of the philosophical perspective in the target article, we take issue with some of the implied positions related to dynamical systems, sensorimotor contingency theory, and neural information processing. Ideally, we would like to see computational approaches more directly address adaptive, constructive processes and mechanisms operant in minds and brains. This would entail using tasks that are more relevant to the psychology of human and animal learning than performing digit sums or sorts. It also could involve relating the dynamics of agents more explicitly to ensembles of communicating neural assemblies.
This paper outlines an interactivist-constructivist theory of autonomy as the basic organisational form of life, and the role we see it playing in a theory of embodied cognition. We distinguish our concept of autonomy from autopoiesis, which does not emphasise interaction and openness. We then present the basic conceptual framework of the I-C approach to intelligence, including an account of directed processes, dynamical anticipation, normative evaluation, and self- directedness as the basis of intelligence and learning, and use this to briefly reflect on other contemporary dynamical systems approaches.
This book takes ideas from the enactive approach developed over the last twenty years in cognitive science and philosophy of mind and applies them for the first time to affective science – the study of emotions, moods, and feelings. Colombetti argues that enactivism entails a view of cognition as not just embodied but also intrinsically affective, and she elaborates on the implications of this claim for the study of emotion in psychology and neuroscience. In the course of her discussion, the author focuses on long-debated issues in affective science, including the notion of basic emotions, the nature of appraisal and its relationship to bodily arousal, the place of bodily feelings in emotion experience, the neurophysiological study of emotion experience, and the bodily nature of our encounters with others. Relevance: The author draws on enactivist tools such as dynamical systems theory, the notion of the lived body, neurophenomenology, and phenomenological accounts of empathy.
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.
Problem: Is constructivism contradicted by the reductionist determinism inherent in digital computation? Method: Review of examples from dynamical systems sciences, agent-based modeling and artificial intelligence. Results: Recent scientific insights seem to give reason to consider constructivism in line with what computation is adding to our knowledge of interacting dynamics and the functioning of our brains. Implications: Constructivism is not necessarily contradictory to digital computation, in particular to computer-based modeling and simulation. Constructivist content: When viewed through the lens of computation, in many of its aspects constructivism seems in line with what currently is held to be valid in science.