In his 1996 paper “Neurophenomenology: A methodological remedy for the hard problem,” Francisco Varela called for a union of Husserlian phenomenology and cognitive science. Varela’s call hasn’t gone unanswered, and recent years have seen the development of a small but growing literature intent on exploring the interface between phenomenology and cognitive science. But despite these developments, there is still some obscurity about what exactly neurophenomenology is. What are neurophenomenologists trying to do, and how are they trying to do it? To what extent is neurophenomenology a distinctive and unified research programme? In this paper I attempt to shed some light on these questions.
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.
Context: We are presently witnessing a revival of introspective methods, which implicitly challenges an impressive list of in-principle objections that were addressed to introspection by various philosophers and by behaviorists. Problem: How can one overcome those objections and provide introspection with a secure basis? Results: A renewed definition of introspection as “enlargement of the field of attention and contact with re-enacted experience,” rather than “looking-within,” is formulated. This entails (i) an alternative status of introspective phenomena, which are no longer taken as revelations of some an sich slice of experience, but as full-fledged experiences; and (ii) an alternative view of the validity of first-person reports as “performative coherence” rather than correspondence. A preliminary empirical study of the self-assessed reliability of introspective data using the elicitation interview method is then carried out. It turns out that subjects make use of reproducible processual criteria in order to probe into the authenticity and completeness of their own introspective reports. Implications: Introspective inquiry is likely to have enough resources to “take care of itself.” Constructivist content: It is argued that the failure of the introspectionist wave of the turn of the 19th/20th centuries is mostly due to its unconditional acceptance of the representationalist theory of knowledge, and that alternative non-representationalist criteria of validity give new credibility to introspective knowledge.
From the Introduction: Our aim is to show that, irrespective of its alleged theoretical “impossibility”, introspection is a living reality. We will focus on one of the currently available methods that we ourselves practice: the elicitation interview method.
Conflicting claims have been made about whether introspection can be reliable at all. Lots of objections have been formulated against it in classical and modern literature. We thus list these objections and outline some replies, in addition to some theoretical rebuttals based on contemporary philosophy of science. We further point out that these objections target an abstract image of introspection rather than introspection per se. Accordingly, we describe one of the currently available methods that we ourselves practice: the elicitation (or micro-phenomenological) interview method. Our aim is to show that, irrespective of its alleged theoretical impossibility”, introspection is made real by this kind of method which incorporates replies to most standard objections.
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.
Open peer commentary on the article “Going Beyond Theory: Constructivism and Empirical Phenomenology” by Urban Kordeš. Upshot: A constructivist epistemology might help us better understand what kind of knowledge expert introspection cannot deliver. Indeed, there are well-known trade-offs with regard to the insights that can be gained through introspection. If trivialization is to be avoided, then it should be assumed that, contrary to standard science, introspection just is not a declarative kind of knowledge.
Recent advances in brain imaging have improved the measure of neural processes related to perceptual, cognitive and affective functions, yet the relation between brain activity and subjective experience remains poorly characterized. In part, it is a challenge to obtain reliable accounts of participant’s experience in such studies. Here we addressed this limitation by utilizing experienced meditators who are expert in introspection. We tested a novel method to link objective and subjective data, using real-time fMRI (rt-fMRI) to provide participants with feedback of their own brain activity during an ongoing task. We provided real-time feedback during a focused attention task from the posterior cingulate cortex, a hub of the default mode network shown to be activated during mind-wandering and deactivated during meditation. In a first experiment, both meditators and non-meditators reported significant correspondence between the feedback graph and their subjective experience of focused attention and mind-wandering. When instructed to volitionally decrease the feedback graph, meditators, but not non-meditators, showed significant deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex. We were able to replicate these results in a separate group of meditators using a novel step-wise rt-fMRI discovery protocol in which participants were not provided with prior knowledge of the expected relationship between their experience and the feedback graph (i.e., focused attention versus mind-wandering). These findings support the feasibility of using rt-fMRI to link objective measures of brain activity with reports of ongoing subjective experience in cognitive neuroscience research, and demonstrate the generalization of expertise in introspective awareness to novel contexts.
The aim of the article is twofold. First, it aims to overview current empirical methods in the area of first-person research. Such a review cannot overlook epistemological and ontological issues, but must at the same time keep in mind methodological and almost technical nature of the problem. Empirical experience research is positioned within the frame of cognitive science and the overview of approaches and techniques of empirical phenomenology is presented, together with epistemological considerations. The second aim of the paper is concerned with the future of research in the discussed area. It suggests that in-depth, existentially liable introspection and self-inquiry should be considered as serious scientific research tools.