#26 Fine-tuning neurophenomenology’s fixed and non-fixed variables

Considering I’m doing a literature review “lite” of the field of neurophenomenology, thus will read many texts on the topic, the best strategy to stream about these articles, books, and book chapters is to find how they differ from each other. The texts I’ve read so far all give explanatory introductions into the field, a bit of history, who the major contributors were/are, etc. In the following, I’ll find some points from Thompson, Lutz, and Cosmelli’s (2005) chapter called “Neurophenomenology: An Introduction for Neurophilosophers” in the edited book called Cognition and the Brain: The Philosophy and Neuroscience Movement

Book cover of Cognition and the Brain.

One of the main reasons I wanted to read Thompson et al’s (2005) text at the beginning of my literature review is because they pitch their long and well-illustrated chapter as an introduction to neurophenomenology. Before I jump into one of the most well-known neurophenomenological studies, Lutz et al’s (2002) study, I thought it wise to read a summary of their study from a secondary text such as this one. The second case study they mention—David, Cosmelli, Hasboun, Garnero 2003; Cosmelli 2004; Cosmelli, David, Lachaux, Martinerie, Garnero, Renault, and Varela 2004—either one or all of these studies, is also an early neurophenomenology study that goes through the motions of how they conducted their research. What I take away from both summaries of the experiments listed above is not so much the particulars of their first- and second-person methods nor their neuro-physiological testing methods, but how they attempted to graft subjective experiences onto the physiological tests, how they used the subjective data to look for (at the very least) correlative markers in the physiological data. Thompson et al (2005, 77) say, for example, “The phenomenological clusters were thus used as a heuristic to detect and interpret neural activity.” 

Things about Thompson et al’s (2005) text that I didn’t like and/or struggled to digest: (1) They gave A LOT of neuroscientific detail and jargon that I’m not accustomed to and don’t think I’ll ever be since I’m not interested in doing neuroscience; I’m interested in analyzing and interpreting the results of neuroscience. Luckily for me, my colleague will be doing the neuroscience bit, I’ll do the phenomenology bit, and together we’ll smooth it out into a neurophenomenological research paper. (2) Their approach is heavy on the analytic philosophical tradition, whereas I lean toward continental philosophy in my desire to understand ordinary/sober consciousness as well as non-ordinary/psychedelically altered consciousness, particularly phenomenology. Disclaimer: I find philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and philosophy of language among other fields within the analytic tradition to be interesting and relevant to aspects of my overall research aims and ambitions; however, there were terms that I had not been acquainted with yet and it will take time to make them a part of my intellectual/analytic repertoire. At the end of day, their text is an introduction for neurophilosophers, with whom I do not academically identify. With that said, it was an interesting and engaging piece. 

I’m still haunted by, ok, not haunted, but definitely left wondering about Evan Thompson’s words in that he told me there is no fixed way to do neurophenomenology. What is fixed then? First, one of the researchers must know neuroscience. S/he must know how to use the testing equipment, have vast knowledge about the workings of the brain, what the data means, how to present the data in nice-looking charts, etc., for future researchers to be able to replicate the experiment exactly how we did it. Second, there must be someone on the team who has read and written phenomenology, who has some knowledge and grasp about how to do phenomenology, how to adopt the phenomenological attitude, to perform a phenomenological analysis/reduction to discover experiential categories and invariant structures of the experience.

Now, what is non-fixed is the degree of (1) creativity and (2) accessibility to the latest equipment in order to test a particular hypothesis. Some hypotheses will likely need shelving until technology can catch up to the demands of one’s rigorous questions. The Higgs boson, hypothesized in the 1960s to exist, couldn’t be confirmed for example until technologists finally finished constructing the Large Hadron Collider in the late 2000s. Or, from a more qualitative view, new methods of first- and second-person documentation may need to be developed, just as microphenomenology sprung from neurophenomenology as a much-needed method to extract subjective data from phenomenologically naïve or otherwise incapable participants. Regarding creativity, we are bound only by our own creativity and imagination to solve the puzzles before us. There is a way to figure it out, it depends on the question at hand, the subtleties the predicament, the variables that can be manipulated or discovered for the first time. That’s right: some of the blame for not being able to figure something out lands in one’s lap; we are bound by our own (in)ability to think in different and yet-unknown ways. We are our own limitation; we are our own boundary to entry into new worlds, new data, new discoveries. 

Right, there you have it. I recommend this text, they did a good job in breaking down the topic and it’s very well referenced. I take their text as a sign for what there is still to come in my literature review, that is, heavy neuroscientific analyses that are out of my comfort zone. But I shall slog through anyway! because I need to expose myself to this field and its methods for my upcoming experiments. I end this post with a final quote from their text that explains what the neurophenomenological project is all about. 

“By enriching our understanding of subjective experience through such phenomenological investigations, and using these investigations to cast light on neurodynamics, neurophenomenology aims to narrow the epistemological and methodological distance between subjective experience and brain processes in the concrete context of the working neuroscientist. At a more abstract conceptual level, neurophenomenology aims not to close the explanatory gap (in the sense of conceptual or ontological reduction), but rather to bridge the gap by establishing dynamic reciprocal constraints between subjective experience and neurobiology” (Thompson et al, 2005, 88-89). 

Ok, a final final thought: I like how they say neurophenomenology doesn’t aim to close the explanatory gap (a la Chalmers’ hard problem), rather to bridge it. Bridging might sound like the same thing as closing, but it is not. You can have a partially finished bridge, a bombed-out bridge, etc., so the way I interpret the word “bridge” is that neurophenomenologists do not aim to solve the hard problem of consciousness, instead try to get as close as possible, as hard as possible, by using a combination of first-, second-, and third-person methods. To me it sounds like they aim to have a bridge with both sides as near as possible to the other side, inching closer toward one another until, hopefully, the gap is closed by whatever means. I think neurophenomenology is one of many possible current and future methods that will allow us to do just that. 

Thompson, E., Lutz, A., & Cosmelli, D. (2005). Neurophenomenology: An Introduction for Neurophilosophers. In A. Brook & K. Akins (Eds.), Cognition and the Brain: The Philosophy and Neuroscience Movement, (40-97). Cambridge University Press.

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  1. Pingback: #29 Phenomenological clusters and visionary states of expectation and surprise - AMhouot.com

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