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.
Underlying the recent focus on embodied and interactive aspects of social understanding are several intuitions about what roles the body, interaction processes, and interpersonal experience play. In this paper, we introduce a systematic, hands-on method for investigating the experience of interacting and its role in intersubjectivity. Special about this method is that it starts from the idea that researchers of social understanding are themselves one of the best tools for their own investigations. The method provides ways for researchers to calibrate and to trust themselves as sophisticated instruments to help generate novel insights into human interactive experience. We present the basics of the method, and two empirical studies. The first is a video-study on autism, which shows greater refinement in the way people with autism embody their social interactions than previously thought. The second is a study of thinking in live interactions, which provides insight into the common feeling that too much thinking can hamper interaction, and into how this kind of interactional awkwardness might be unblocked.
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.
In the article I will defend the view that cognitive science needs to use first- and second-person methods more systematically, as part of everyday research practice, if it wants to understand the human mind in its full scope. The neurophenomenological programme proposed by Varela as a remedy for the hard problem of consciousness (i.e., the problem of experience) does not solve it on the ontological level. Nevertheless, it represents a good starting point for how to tackle the phenomenon of experience in a more systematic, methodologically sound way. On the other hand, Varela’s criterion of phenomenological reduction as a necessary condition for systematic investigation of experience is too strong. Regardless of that and some other problems that research of experience faces (e.g., the problem of training, the question of what kind of participants we want to study), it is becoming clear that investigating experience seriously – from the first- and the second-person perspectives – is a necessary step cognitive science must take. This holds especially when researching phenomena that involve consciousness and/or where differentiation between conscious and unconscious processing is crucial. Furthermore, gathering experiential data is essential for interpreting experimental results gained purely by quantitative methods – especially when we are implicitly or explicitly referring to experience in our conclusions and interpretations. To support these claims some examples from the broader area of decision making will be given (the effect of deliberation-without-attention, the cognitive reflection test). Relevance: It argues against the possibility of epistemological reduction and for researching cognition from both the first- and the third-person perspectives in a balanced way to achieve better understanding of the human mind.