#39 Front-loaded phenomenology as pillar of stability in hyperdimensions

I have been interested in the difference, or rather the nuance, between Varela’s (1996) neurophenomenology and Gallagher’s (2003) front-loaded phenomenology for some time. The former takes pains to train study participants in phenomenological reduction, or put another way, to think phenomenologically even if instruction isn’t formal, and the latter doesn’t require participant training, albeit it is possible. This is the first difference I noticed between the two methods. I’ve discussed neurophenomenology in great detail in previous streams, so in this mind-wander I want to get a clearer picture what is front-loaded phenomenology. Let’s start with a quote:

“Rather than starting with the empirical results … or with the training of subjects … this third approach would start with the experimental design. The idea is to front load phenomenological insights into the design of experiments, that is, to allow the insights developed in phenomenological analyses … to inform the way experiments are set up. To front load phenomenology, however, does not mean to simply presuppose phenomenological results obtained by others. Rather it involves testing those results and more generally a dialectical movement between previous insights gained in phenomenology and preliminary trials that will specify or extend these insights for purposes of the particular experiment or empirical investigation” (Gallagher, 2003, 91).

To front-load phenomenology is not really a method, in my opinion; it simply entails taking phenomenologically obtained subjective insights, the how of experience, and then testing whether such insights are intersubjectively validated. To test for intersubjectivity, the experiment is designed with phenomenological descriptions of previously lived experiences. What front-loaded phenomenology and the broadly stated term of experimental phenomenology do for cognitive neuroscience is offer both participant and experimenter a “methodologically controlled, phenomenologically enlightened ways of understanding the importance of first-person experience and how it can affect the experimental results” (Gallagher, 2003, 97). Applying phenomenology in natural science does just this: it gives more structure to descriptions of participants’ lived experiences, a structure exemplifying and complimenting the innate structure found in quantitative data collection methods. Any researcher skeptical about incorporating qualitative data into their research would likely find comfort in knowing that their participants’ reports about that which is being tested has some structure, some way to methodically organize the flip side of the data collection coin. It just doesn’t seem possible to strip the lived experience component from neuroscience, for there must be an experiencer behind that cold numerical data.

Front-loading phenomenology is just one way to think about applying phenomenology to natural science in the project of “naturalizing” phenomenology (Zahavi, 2010). Gallagher & Sørensen ask:

“On our view the question of experimenting with phenomenology (or naturalizing it) need not involve a large ideological controversy. It is rather a strictly methodological question. Can phenomenological method, or the results produced by following the phenomenological method, be methodologically integrated into experimental settings? That is, the question is not about phenomenological method, or phenomenology per se, but about the methodological procedures that would allow phenomenology to be used in the behavioral and cognitive neurosciences” (2006, 130).

I agree. But why even ask this question? Isn’t it obvious that phenomenological results/observations can be incorporated in some way in experimental design? They can be incorporated from first-person observations or second-person microphenomenological interviews, as I would argue, Gallagher et al (2015) successfully did in their neurophenomenological study on the awe and wonder of outer space.

Since my interests lie in applying any and all phenomenological methods to psychedelic science, what can we say about applying front-loaded phenomenology to psychedelic research? Although I understand why some researchers might not want to train participants in phenomenological reduction (see: Gallagher et al’s “training trade-off hypothesis” [2015, 81-85]) because it would take too much time in consideration of limited project funding and time, I believe researchers should take the time to train subjects to report on psychedelic lived experiences because such reports are needed to know what to test for. For example, if the research focuses on collecting biomarkers and physiological effects of psychedelics, one likely doesn’t need to ask the participant what the experience is like. If researchers are interested how a psychedelic affects participants’ consciousness and visionary experience, however, then indeed we must know what they experienced to modify subsequent experiments, to test specifically for that which was experienced. If psychedelic users report synesthesia when experiencing a particular piece of music or some variable that produces X result, experimenters can test, for example, psychedelic-naïve participants (synesthetes or otherwise) with that piece of music and other variables that occasion the synesthesia. Regarding the above example, phenomenological method can inform such inquiry by filtering methods and findings through the phenomenological lens, therefore giving structure to a normally unconstrained mental experience. Moreover, phenomenologically training participants could act as a pillar of stability throughout the experience, something to fall back on when things get challenging for participants during their experience.

To me, front-loading phenomenology is a given. With that said, my preferred method of naturalized phenomenology is neurophenomenology, but it seems possible that one can incorporate both methods for a front-loaded neurophenomenology depending on the experiment and its research question. In brief, neurophenomenologists train participants to reflect upon their experiences and discover for themselves their own phenomenological themes that would co-shape the experiment, whereas front-loaded phenomenology does not require participant training or input, and rather starts with already obtained phenomenological insights that inform the experiment. I’ll explain in the coming months my preference for neurophenomenology regarding my own research. Until then.

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.

Gallagher, S., Reinerman-Jones, L., Janz, B., Bockelman, P., & Trempler, J. (2015). A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder: Towards a Non-Reductionist Cognitive Science. Palgrave Macmillan.

Varela, F. J. (1996). Neurophenomenology: A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3(4), 330-349.

Zahavi, D. (2010). Naturalized Phenomenology. In S. Gallagher & D. Schmicking (Eds.), Handbook of Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, (3-19). Springer.

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