Analyzing the outline of the endless literature on consciousness, the separation between science and philosophy rather than being overcome, seems to come back in different shapes. According to this point of view, the hard problem seems to be how to study consciousness while avoiding a slip back to the old dualism. This article outlines the advantages of the phenomenological method. This method, more than getting over the mind-body separation, anticipates it through an open gaze, able to bring back the human presence as something structurally “ambiguous.” Reintroducing Husserl’s scientific project in a complete way, Francisco Varela opened up a research area yet to be explored, which promises to be fertile for neuroscience, provided that we accept that radicalism essential to phenomenology.
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: Meeting Ernst von Glasersfeld for the first time in 1985, when about 70% of his work had still to be conceived, written and published, was a great stroke of fortune for me; it was based on my collaboration with Silvio Ceccato that had started in 1981 and it profoundly influenced my contributions to radical constructivism in the following 25 years of our friendship. Problem: Presenting the details of how it all began can shed a light on the development of constructivist ideas. Method: Anecdotes from 1979 to 1985 about how I came to meet Silvio Ceccato in Milan in 1981 and the influence of these events on preparing the 1985 meeting with Ernst von Glasersfeld, also in Milan. Results: The article describes the timeline of 50 years of publications by von Glasersfeld, an anecdote about a connection between Ceccato and the University of Zurich in the 60s, the attempt to present Ceccato’s ideas as compatible and complementary with the neuroscience discourse in 1985, von Glasersfeld’s opinion about this attempt, and this attempt’s potential influence on the emergence of a new concept in neuroscience, “EEG microstates.” Implications: The events and facts reported in the article help us to understand some aspects of an early phase in the development of radical constructivism, especially the relationship between Ceccato, von Glasersfeld and other members of the Italian Operational School such as Bruna Zonta, Felice Accame, and the author himself.
Open peer commentary on the target article “Who Conceives of Society?” by Ernst von Glasersfeld. Excerpt: In the face of modern neuroscience we should give up on constructivism, even more so on radical constructivism, and stick to the physical and psychological reality given in science and daily life, even if it is the brain’s illusion from associative networks. The illusion of constructivism may hurt!
Whilst the usefulness of the computational metaphor in many areas of psychology and neuroscience is clear, it has not gone unchallenged and in this article I will review a group of philosophical arguments that suggest either such unequivocal optimism in computationalism is misplaced – computation is neither necessary nor sufﬁcient for cognition – or panpsychism (the belief that the physical universe is fundamentally composed of elements each of which is conscious) is true. I conclude by highlighting an alternative metaphor for cognitive processes based on communication and interaction. Relevance: This paper argues against computational accounts of mind and cognition, discussing Searle, Bishop and Penrose and suggesting a new metaphor for cognition based on interactions and communication. The new metaphor is sympathetic to modern post-symbolic, anti-representationalist, embodied, enactive accounts of cognition.
Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to outline an integrative, high-level, neurocomputational theory of brain function based on temporal codes, neural timing nets, and active regeneration of temporal patterns of spikes within recurrent neural circuits that provides a time-domain alternative to connectionist approaches. Design/methodology/approach – This conceptual-theoretical paper draws from cybernetics, theoretical biology, neurophysiology, integrative and computational neuroscience, psychology, and consciousness studies. Findings: The high-level functional organization of the brain involves adaptive cybernetic, goal-seeking, switching, and steering mechanisms embedded in percept-action-environment loops. The cerebral cortex is conceived as a network of reciprocally connected, re-entrant loops within which circulate neuronal signals that build up, decay, and/or actively regenerate. The basic signals themselves are temporal patterns of spikes (temporal codes), held in the spike correlation mass-statistics of both local and global neuronal ensembles. Complex temporal codes afford multidimensional vectorial representations, multiplexing of multiple signals in spike trains, broadcast strategies of neural coordination, and mutually reinforcing, autopoiesis-like dynamics. Our working hypothesis is that complex temporal codes form multidimensional vectorial representations that interact with each other such that a few basic processes and operations may account for the vast majority of both low- and high-level neural informational functions. These operational primitives include mutual amplification/inhibition of temporal pattern vectors, extraction of common signal dimensions, formation of neural assemblies that generate new temporal pattern primitive “tags” from meaningful, recurring combinations of features (perceptual symbols), active regeneration of temporal patterns, content-addressable temporal pattern memory, and long-term storage and retrieval of temporal patterns via a common synaptic and/or molecular mechanism. The result is a relatively simplified, signal-centric view of the brain that utilizes universal coding schemes and pattern-resonance processing operations. In neurophenomenal terms, waking consciousness requires regeneration and build up of temporal pattern signals in global loops, whose form determines the contents of conscious experience at any moment. Practical implications: Understanding how brains work as informational engines has manifold long-reaching practical implications for design of autonomous, adaptive robotic systems. By proposing how new concepts might arise in brains, the theory bears potential implications for constructivist theories of mind, i.e. how observer-actors interacting with one another can self-organize and complexify. Originality/value – The theory is highly original and heterodox in its neural coding and neurocomputational assumptions. By providing a possible alternative to standard connectionist theory of brain function, it expands the scope of thinking about how brains might work as informational systems.
This chapter outlines a broad theory of sign use in natural and artificial systems that was developed over several decades within the context of theoretical biology, cybernetics, systems theory, biosemiotics, and neuroscience. Different conceptions of semiosis and information in nature are considered. General functional properties of and operations on signs, including measurement, computation, and sign-directed actions are described. A taxonomy of semiotic systems is built up from combinations of these operations. The respective functional organizations and informational capabilities of formal systems and computempiral-predictive scientific models, percept-action systems, purposive goal-seeking systems, and self-constructing systems are discussed. Semiotic relations are considered in terms of Morrisean semiotic triad of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Analysis of statetransition structure is used to demarcate functional boundaries, such as epistemic and control cuts. Capabilities for open-ended behavior, combinatoric and emergent creativity, and umwelt expansion are taken up. Finally, basic problems of neurosemiotics, neural coding, and neurophenomenology are outlined.
A review of the attempts at establishing neurophenomenology as a new research paradigm for neuroscientific research on music concludes that the integration of the first-person perspective of phenomenology and the third-person perspective of neuroscience remains an unfinished project. Relevance: This paper proposes methods for phenomenological investigation of music, and discussion of research in the neurosciences and music.
Cognitive neuroscience investigations of self-experience have mainly focused on the mental attribution of features to the self (self-related processing). In this paper, we highlight another fundamental, yet neglected, aspect of self-experience, that of being an agent. We propose that this aspect of self-experience depends on self-specifying processes, ones that implicitly specify the self by implementing a functional self/non-self distinction in perception, action, cognition and emotion. We describe two paradigmatic cases – sensorimotor integration and homeostatic regulation – and use the principles from these cases to show how cognitive control, including emotion regulation, is also self-specifying. We argue that externally directed, attention-demanding tasks, rather than suppressing self-experience, give rise to the self-experience of being a cognitive-affective agent. We conclude with directions for experimental work based on our framework.
Context: Affective neuroscience has not developed first-person methods for the generation of first-person data. This neglect is problematic, because emotion experience is a central dimension of affectivity. Problem: I propose that augmenting affective neuroscience with a neurophenomenological method can help address long-standing questions in emotion theory, such as: Do different emotions come with unique, distinctive patterns of brain and bodily activity? How do emotion experience, bodily feelings and brain and bodily activity relate to one another? Method: This paper is theoretical. It advances ideas for integrating neurophenomenology and affective neuroscience, and explains how this integration would allow progress on the above questions. Results: An integrated “affective neuro-physio-phenomenology” may help scientists understand whether discrete emotion categories come in different experiential varieties, which would in turn help interpret concomitant brain and bodily activity. It may also help investigate the bodily nature of emotion experience, including how experience relates to actual brain and bodily activity. Implications: If put into practice, the ideas advanced here would enrich the scientific study of emotion experience and more generally further our understanding of the relationship of consciousness and physical activity. The paper is speculative and its ideas need to be implemented to bear fruit. Constructivist content: This paper argues in favor of the neurophenomenological method, which is an offshoot of enactivism.