LUTZ & THOMPSON (2003) – Neurophenomenology


LUTZ, Antoine. THOMPSON, Evan. Neurophenomenology: Integrating Subjective Experience and Brain Dynamics in the Neuroscience of ConsciousnessJournal of Consciousness Studies, v.10, N.9–10, p.31–52, 2003.


Abstract: The paper presents a research programme for the neuroscience of consciousness called ‘neurophenomenology’ (Varela 1996) and illustrates it with a recent pilot study (Lutz et al., 2002). At a theoretical level, neurophenomenology pursues an embodied and large-scale dynamical approach to the neurophysiology of consciousness (Varela 1995; Thompson and Varela 2001; Varela and Thompson 2003). At a methodological level, the neurophenomenological strategy is to make rigorous and extensive use of first-person data about subjective experience as a heuristic to describe and quantify the large-scale neurodynamics of consciousness (Lutz 2002). The paper foocuses on neurophenomenology in relation to three challenging methodological issues about incorporating first-person data into cognitive neuroscience: (i) first-person reports can be biased or inaccurate; (ii) the process of generating first-person reports about an experience can modify that experience; and (iii) there is an ‘explanatory gap’ in our understanding of how to relate first-Person, phenomenological data to third-person, biobehavioural data.



  • there is the challenge of the so-called ‘explanatory gap’ in our understanding of how to relate (conceptually, methodologically and epistemologically) the first-person domain of subjective experience to the third-person domain of brain, body and behaviour (see Roy et al., 1999). P.32
  • Neurophenomenology stresses theimportance of gathering first-person data from phenomenologically trained subjects as a heuristic strategy for describing and quantifying the physiological processes relevant to consciousness. p.32
  • Thus one central aim of neurophenomenology is to generate new data by incorporating refined and rigorous phenomenological explorations of experience into the experimental protocols of cognitive neuroscientific research on consciousness.
  • Phenomenology in this broad sense can be understood as the project of providing a disciplined characterization of the phenomenal invariants of lived experience in all of its multifarious forms. By ‘lived experience’ we mean experiences as they are lived and verbally articulated in the first-person, whether it be lived experiences of perception, action, memory, mental imagery, emotion, attention, empathy, self-consciousness, contemplative states, dreaming, and so forth. p.32
  • Of central importance to neurophenomenology is the employment of firstperson phenomenological methods in order to obtain original and refined firstperson data. It seems true both that people vary in their abilities as observers and reporters of their own experiences, and that these abilities can be enhanced through various phenomenological methods. ‘First-person methods’ are disciplined practices subjects can use to increase their sensitivity to their own experiences at various time-scales (Varela and Shear, 1999; Depraz et al., 2003). These practices involve the systematic training of attention and self-regulation of emotion (see Section III). Such practices exist in phenomenology, psychotherapy and contemplative meditative traditions. Using these methods, subjects may be able to gain access to aspects of their experience (such as transient affective state or quality of attention) that otherwise would remain unnoticed and unavailable for verbal report. p.33
  • neurophenomenology is guided by the ‘embodied’ approach to cognition (Varela et al., 1991; Clark, 1997), which in its ‘enactive’ or ‘radical embodiment’ version holds that mental processes, including consciousness, are distributed phenomena of the whole active organism (not just the brain) embedded in its environment (Thompson and Varela, 2001, forthcoming; Varela and Thompson, 2003). p.34
  • In summary, neurophenomenology is based on the synergistic use of three fields of knowledge:
  • 1. (NPh1) First-person data from the careful examination of experience with specific first-person methods.
  • 2. (NPh2) Formal models and analytical tools from dynamical systems theory, grounded on an embodied-enactive approach to cognition.
  • 3. (NPh3) Neurophysiological data from measurements of large-scale, integrative processes in the brain.


  • (3)  Transitive consciousness versus intransitive consciousness: Object-directed  consciousness (consciousness-of), versus non-object-directed consciousness (Rosenthal, 1997).
  • (7) Pre-reflective self-consciousness: Primitive self-consciousness; self-referential awareness of subjective experience that does not require active reflection or introspection (Wider, 1997; Williams, 1998; Gupta, 1998; Zahavi, 1999). p.35
  • Central to this tradition, and to certain Asian phenomenologies (Gupta, 1998;Williams, 1998), are the notions of intentionality (which is related to (3) above) and pre-reflective self-consciousness (7). Pre-reflective selfconsciousness is a primitive form of self-awareness believed to belong inherently to any conscious experience: Any experience, in addition to intending (referring to) its intentional object (transitive consciousness), is reflexively manifest to itself (intransitive consciousness).1 Such self-manifesting awareness is a primitive form of self-consciousness in the sense that (i) it does not require any subsequent act of reflection or introspection but occurs simultaneously with awareness of the object; (ii) does not consist in forming a belief or making a judgment; and (iii) is ‘passive’ in the sense of being spontaneous and involuntary (see Zahavi and Parnas, 1998). A distinction is thus drawn between the ‘noetic’ process of experiencing, and the ‘noematic’ object or content of experience. Experience involves not simply awareness of its object (noema), but tacit awareness of itself as process (noesis). For instance, when one consciously sees an object, one is also at the same time aware — intransitively, pre-reflectively and passively — of one’s seeing; when one visualizes a mental image, one is thus aware also of one’s visualizing. This tacit self-awareness has often been explicated as involving a form of non-objective bodily self-awareness — a reflexive awareness of one’s ‘lived body’ (Leib) or embodied subjectivity correlative to experience of the object (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Wider, 1997; Zahavi, 2002). Hence from a neurophenomenological perspective, any convincing theory of consciousness must account for this pre-reflective experience of embodied subjectivity, in addition to the object-related contents of consciousness (Varela et al., 1991; Thompson and Varela, 2001; Zahavi, 2002). p.35-36
  • Neurophenomenology thus corroborates the view, articulated by Panksepp (1998a,b) and Damasio (1999; Parvizi and Damasio, 2001), that neuroscience needs to explain both ‘how the brain engenders the mental patterns we experience as the images of an object’ (the noema in Phenomenological terms), and ‘how, in parallel . . . the brain also creates a sense of self in the act of knowing . . . how each of us has a sense of “me” . . . howwe sense that the images in our minds are shaped in our particular perspective and belong to our individual organism’ (Parvizi & Damasio, 2001, pp. 136–7). In Phenomenological terms, this second issue concerns the noetic side of consciousness, in particular the noetic aspect of ‘ipseity’ or the minimal subjective sense of ‘I-ness’ in experience, which is constitutive of a ‘minimal’ or ‘core self’, as contrasted with a ‘narrative’ or ‘autobiographical self’ (Gallagher, 2000). As a number of cognitive scientists have emphasized, this primitive self-consciousness is fundamentally linked to bodily processes of life regulation, emotion and affect, such that all cognition and intentional action are emotive (Panksepp, 1998a, 1998b; Damasio, 1999;Watt, 1999; Freeman, 2000; Parvizi and Damasio, 2001), a theme central to Phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Jonas, 1966; Husserl, 2001). p.36
  • According to Phenomenology, ‘lived experience’ comprises pre-verbal, pre-reflective and affectively valenced mental states (events, processes), which, while not immediately available or accessible to thought, introspection and verbal report, are intransitively ‘lived through’ subjectively, and thus have an experiential or phenomenal character. Such states, however, are (i) necessarily primitively self-aware, otherwise they do not qualify as conscious (in any sense); and (ii) because of their being thus self-aware, are access conscious in principle, in that they are the kind of states that can become available to thought, reflective awareness, introspection and verbal report, especially through first-person methods P.36
  • First-person methods are disciplined practices subjects can use to increase their sensitivity to their own experience from moment to moment (Varela and Shear, 1999). They involve systematic training of attention and emotional selfregulation. Such methods exist in Phenomenology (Depraz, 1999), psychotherapy (Gendlin, 1981; Epstein, 1996), and contemplative meditative traditions (Wallace, 1999). Some are routinely used in clinical and health programmmes (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1985), and physiological correlates and effects of these practices have been investigated (Austin, 1998; Davidson et al., 2003). The relevance of these practices to neurophenomenology derives from the capacity for attentive self-awareness they systematically cultivate. This capacity enables tacit, preverbal and pre-reflective aspects of subjective experience — which otherwise would remain simply ‘lived through’ — to become subjectively accessible and describable, and thus available for intersubjective and objective (biobehavioural) characterization. p.37
  • The epoché mobilizes and intensifies the tacit self-awareness of experience by inducing an explicit attitude of attentive self-awareness. The epoché has three intertwining phases that form a dynamic cycle (Depraz et al., 2000):
  1. Suspension
  2. Redirection
  3. Receptivity
  • The first phase induces a transient suspension of beliefs or habitual thoughts about what is experienced. The aim is to ‘bracket’ explanatory belief-constructs in order to adopt an open and unprejudiced descriptive attitude. This attitude is an important prerequisite for gaining access to experience as it is lived prereflectively. The second phase of redirection proceeds on this basis: Given na attitude of suspension, the subject’s attention can be redirected from its habitual immersion in the experienced object (the noema) towards the lived qualities of the experiencing process (the noetic act and its ‘pre-personal’ or ‘pre-noetic’ sources in the lived body). During the epoché, an attitude of receptivity or ‘letting go’ is also encouraged, in order to broaden the field of experience to new horizons, towards which attention can be turned. p.37
  • This explication of the procedural steps of the epoché represents an attempt to fill a lacuna of Phenomenology, which has often emphasized theoretical analysis and description, to the neglect of the pragmatics of the epoché as an embodied and situated act (Depraz, 1999). P.38
  • According to the Phenomenological way of thinking, in ordinary life we are caught up in the world and our various belief-constructs and theories about it. Phenomenologists call this unreflective stance the ‘natural attitude’. The epoché aims to ‘bracket’ these assumptions and belief-constructs and thereby induce na open phenomenological attitude towards direct experience (‘the things themselves’). The adoption of a properly phenomenological attitude is an important methodological prerequisite for exploring original constitutive structures and categories of experience, such as egocentric space, temporality and the subjectobject duality, or spontaneous affective and associative features of the temporal flow of experience rooted in the lived body (for an overview of these topics, see Bernet et al., 1993). P.38
  • Neurophenomenology asserts that first-person methods are necessary to gather refined first-person data, but not that subjects are infallible about their own mental lives, nor that the experimentalist cannot maintain an attitude of critical neutrality. First-person methods do not confer infallibility upon subjects who use them, but they do enable subjects to thematize important but otherwise tacit aspects of their experience. p.39
  • Anyone who has acquired a new cognitive skill (such as stereoscopic fusion, wine-tasting, or a second language) can attest that experience is not fixed, but dynamic and plastic. First-person methods help to stabilize phenomenal aspects of this plasticity so that they can be translated into descriptive first-person reports. p.39 In the case of dance improvisation the movements themselves are the first-person report
  • Frith, following Jack and Roepstorff (2002), also comments that ‘sharing experiences requires the adoption of a second-person perspective in which a common frame of reference can be negotiated’ (Frith, 2002). First-person methods help to establish such a reference frame by incorporating the mediating ‘- second-person’ position of a trainer or coach. P.39-40
  • Both animal and human studies demonstrate that specific changes in    neural synchrony occur during arousal, sensorimotor integration, attentional selection, perception and working memory, which are all crucial for consciousness (for reviews and discussion, see Varela, 1995; Tononi and Edelman, 1998; Dehaene and Naccache, 2001; Engel and Singer, 2001; Engel et al., 2001; Varela et al., 2001). P.41
  • In addition, neurophenomenology favours an embodied approach to neural dynamics: The neurodynamic pole underlying the emergence and flow of cognitive-phenomenal states needs to be understood as necessarily embedded in the somatic contexts of the organism as a whole (the lived body in  Phenomenological terms), as well as the environment (Thompson and Varela, 2001). In the case of human consciousness, the neurodynamic pole needs to be understood as necessarily embedded in at least three ‘cycles of operation’ constitutive of human life: (i) cycles of organismic regulation of the entire body; (ii) cycles of sensorimotor coupling between organism and environment; (iii) cycles of intersubjective interaction (for further discussion, see Thompson and Varela, 2001; Varela and Thompson, 2003). P.41
  • Such joint collection and analysis of first-person and third-person data instantiates methodologically the neurophenomenological hypothesis that cognitive  neuroscience and phenomenology can be related to each other through reciprocal constraints (Varela, 1996). The long-term aim is to produce phenomenological accounts of real-time subjective experience that are sufficiently precise and complete to be expressed in formal and predictive dynamical terms, which in turn could be expressed as specific neurodynamical properties of brain activity. Such twofold dynamical descriptions of consciousness could provide a robust and predictive way to link reciprocally the experiential and neuronal realms. p.42
  • This paper began by delineating three challenges faced by the attempt to integrate first-person data into the experimental protocols of cognitive neuroscience: (1) first-person reports can be biased or inaccurate; (2) introspective acts can modify their target experiences; and (3) there remains an ‘explanatory gap’ in  our understanding of how to relate subjective experience to physiological and behavioural processes. p.46-47
  • There is not  necessarily any inconsistency between altering or transforming experience (in the way envisaged) and gaining insight into experience through such transformation. If there were, then one would have to conclude that no process of cognitive or emotional development can provide insight into experience before the period of such development. Such a view is extreme and unreasonable. The problem with the objection is its assumption that experience is a static given, rather than dynamic, plastic and developmental. Indeed, it is hard to see how the objection could even be formulated without presupposing that experience is a fixed, predelineated domain, related only externally to the process of becoming aware, such that this process would have to supervene from outside, instead of being motivated by and called forth from within experience itself. First-person methods are not supposed to be a way of accessing such a (mythical) domain; they are supposed to be a way of enhancing and stabilizing the self-awareness already immanent in experience, thereby ‘awakening’ experience to itself.5 p.47
  • Neurophenomenology, on the other hand, focuses on the temporal dynamics of the noetic-noematic structure as a whole. p.48
  • As we have proposed throughout this paper, the investigation of such empirical issues depends fundamentally on the ability of subjects to mobilize their insight about their experience and provide descriptive reports in a disciplined way compatible with the intersubjective standards of science. For this task, better procedural descriptions and pragmatics of the process of becoming aware of experience need to be developed (Varela and Shear, 1999; Depraz et al., 2003). p.49

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