#38 How to train participants for neurophenomenological studies?

Dr. Antoine Lutz is harder than royalty to get a hold of! Anyways, the reason I wanted to get a hold of Lutz is to ask him a question about his and his colleagues’ landmark neurophenomenological study (Lutz et al, 2002) that I’ve already written about, so I won’t get into the details here. Maybe Lutz will serendipitously find my query here on this blog, but also, I ask the question for anyone who might know as well as Lutz does and to pose such a question for future researchers that intend to work with participants in a neurophenomenological study. Alas, my query to Lutz went something like this:

I have a clarification question regarding your collaborative 2002 paper called “Guiding the study of brain dynamics by using first-person data: Synchrony patterns correlate with ongoing conscious states during a simple visual task.”

I’m curious how you and your colleagues trained study participants in the phenomenological method. I assume they were naive to phenomenological reduction/method prior to conducting the experiment. The reason I ask is this: other methods such as micro-phenomenology (Petitmengin), phenomenological psychology (Giorgi), and interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith) perform the reduction and analysis on behalf of participants, and Giorgi even prefers participants to be phenomenologically naive to not muddle/interfere with participants’ subjective reports. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I gather that a neurophenomenological approach would require that participants are given some basic training, and I would like to know what that is, what minimum should be taught, and how involved are participants in shaping the study’s phenomenological clusters or themes?

Varela (1996), also part of the Lutz et al (2002) team, clearly explains how to perform the phenomenological reduction. Since Varela is commenting on Chalmers’ “hard problem” and the inherent “explanatory gap” therein, it seems like he writes for cognitive neuroscientists, to get them up to speed about what these phenomenologists actually are up to. But, let’s now bracket 😀 Varela’s explanation of the phenomenological reduction and focus on how Lutz et al trained their study participants. What level of phenomenological knowledge did they expect their participants to have? I’m asking because they aren’t so clear on this.

I won’t repeat what Lutz et al accomplished in their experiment and why it’s significant. What I’m mostly interested in right now is how Lutz et al trained their participants and therefore collected the phenomenological data that turned into experienced themes. Their participants were naïve about the phenomenological reduction. What appears the researchers did was to ask open questions such as “What did you feel before and after the image appeared?’’ (Lutz et al, 2002, 1587) or “How would you describe your experience?” (Gallagher, 2003, 88). So, it appears that what Lutz et al mean by “training” participants is to steer them to think more reflectively about their lived experience of the stimulus to coax descriptive responses, which later turned into the phenomenological themes that were intersubjectively corroborated among participants, furthermore, such themes thus co-shaped the experimental design. Gallagher (2003, 87; see also: Gallagher & Sørensen, 2006) clarifies things a bit:

“To be clear, phenomenological training in this experiment did not involve teaching subjects about the philosophical work of Husserl or the phenomenological tradition. Rather it consisted in training subjects to deliver consistent and clear reports of their experience. Trained reflective introspection combined with an attempt to firm up descriptive protocols, based on that reflective stance, may indeed be considered phenomenological training, and as Lutz and his colleagues have shown, it is clearly not impractical. But is it a genuine phenomenological method as Varela describes it — that is, as informed by the phenomenological reduction? How does it differ from other attempts to train introspection?”

Thank you Gallagher for this, but I would have liked to read this from Lutz et al or Lutz’s (2002) follow-up paper. So, participants were not trained in phenomenological method per se, rather, broadly trained in phenomenological attitude, check. Since that is the case, I would still like to know more about the questions Lutz et al used: how many questions in total were used, what kind of specific questions were used, how long did it take for participants to become more reflective of their lived experiences, did participants make or suggest questions of their own, is there a rhyme or reason for the open question methodology that you used? I think these are valid points for other researchers wanting to conduct their own neurophenomenological study. By seeing exactly what others did, future researchers will be more able to critique the study, can modify previous methods, etc., for the purpose of progressing science and producing better knowledge. As there is little to work with regarding training phenomenologically-naïve study participants, it looks like there is more than enough room to test out different participant training methods that will ideally advance the field of neurophenomenology.

Gallagher, S. (2003). Phenomenology and Experimental Design Toward a Phenomenologically Enlightened Experimental Science. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10(9-10), 85-99.

Gallagher, S., & Sørensen, J. B. (2006). Experimenting with Phenomenology. Consciousness and Cognition, 15(1), 119-134.

Lutz, A. (2002). Toward a neurophenomenology as an account of generative passages: A first empirical case study. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1(2), 133-167.

Lutz, A., Lachaux, J. P., Martinerie, J., & Varela, F. J. (2002). Guiding the study of brain dynamics by using first-person data: Synchrony patterns correlate with ongoing conscious states during a simple visual task. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(3), 1586-1591.

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