Monday, 13 April 2015

Neuro-physio-phenomenology



Last class we were introduced to the seminal work of F. Varela, E. Thompson, and E. Rosch called The Embodied Mind. The book begins to outline a method Varela would come to term ‘neurophenomenology’, the practice of using first-person methods and reports alongside third-person imaging data to mutually illuminate subjective experience and measured activity in the brain and body. Phew. In her book The Feeling Body, Giovanna Colombetti (who has coauthored papers with Thompson) puts forth a research program she calls neuro-physio-phenomenology as a means to illuminate emotion experience. 

She argues that neurophenomenology and neuroscience should join forces to better understand emotion experience; whereas neurophenomenology has largely ignored emotion and could benefit from incorporating bodily information, neuroscience has largely focused on brain and bodily activity without any recourse to first-person reports. 

Colombetti suggests a neuro-physio-phenomenological approach to studying emotion experience is much more in line with enactivism’s emphasis of the continuity of mind and life by focusing on the activity the whole of the organism, not just in the brain. 

One point of criticism with neurophenomenology is around the reliability of first-person data collection - one sticking point being that the observation of phenomenological states would fundamentally change the experience (bringing it from something pre-reflective to reflective awareness), and that the need to train subjects would have a similar effect. However Colombetti doesn't see this as a major problem for the study of consciousness. She offers several reasons why we might not want to be so sceptical in this regard, and says ultimately that neurophenomenology just happens to be linking (trained) reports of a possibly somewhat shifted experience with third-person data, but reports of experience nonetheless - still useful for studying consciousness. 

But I wonder if the study of emotion experience might not bypass this problem so easily. If one goal of studying emotion experience is to elucidate categories of emotion corresponding to specific brain/body states, a distorted experience by means of having a trained subject reflect on it would be a problem for this task by in some sense altering the 'boundaries' of where we would want to draw them for the average untrained, unreflecting person. But hey, how do we feel about categories of emotion? 

Here is an article by Colombetti and Thompson on an enactive approach to emotion, if anyone is interested in the topic but isn't feeling like reading her entire book.

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