Date: 1st September 2021

Speaker of the day: Antoine Lutz

Article: Varela, “Neurophenomenology: A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem” (1996)

Keywords: mutual constraint, all-pervasive subjectivity, intersubjectivity, second-person approach



The term neurophenomenology (NPh) was coined by Laughlin, McManus and d’Aquili in Brain, symbol and experience: toward a neurophenomenology of human consciousness in 1990. To this day, it is still used in several publications each year.

In 1983, Levine introduced the explanatory gap between the first- and third-person data in the study of consciousness: e.g., we can describe pain as a firing of a specific fiber in a way that is true to physiology, but it will not help us to understand what it is to subjectively experience pain. Francisco’s aim was for a scientific theory that would explicitly account for what it is to be a subject, that is, a theory that incorporates the phenomenology of a person. He wanted to go beyond the analytical isomorphism between physiology and phenomenology, and called for reciprocal and generative constraints: a certain physiological process can be an emergent basis for a feature of consciousness, and – the other way around – phenomenology can provide sense (the conscious agent gives meaning to its neurophysiological counterpart) and constraint (the subject’s capacity to report of a certain feature of experience constrains its physiological aspect). With a better understanding of cognitive and phenomenological context of the perception, we can hence more accurately characterize the ongoing endogenous activity of the brain. To test the hypothesis of mutual constraints, we try to find out whether training in the NPh approach (that yields a phenomenological cluster) helps to reduce the opacity of the brain response.

Francisco further tackled the problem of mutual constraints in his 1997 article The Naturalization of Phenomenology as the Transcendence of Nature: Searching for generative mutual constraints. He analysed the triple braid: a constraint between the physiology, experience and mathematical description of both the first- and third-person levels.


1) Matthis Trautwein: In contrast to some other topics like embodied cognition and mindfulness, it seems to me as if NPh is still on the fringes of the cognitive sciences (CS). That might be due to the demanding nature of NPh, but there are other demanding projects in science, too, which are realised, and the CS have also been financially well supported during the last few decades. What can we do to propel the NPh forward?

Antoine Lutz: Francisco, for instance, was trying to push the researchers to investigate the knowledge about different modes of consciousness which can be observed during meditation. It takes time to understand the meditative techniques used here, and, furtherly, the natural attitude is blocking the whole point, so many researchers do not get it; only with practice you can gain insight into the meaningfulness of such an approach.

Sebastjan Vörös: A common objection is that NPh has mostly been limited to theoretical speculation and has produced very little empirical work.

Evan Thompson: In a restricted, methodological sense, NPh brings phenomenological methods into an active exchange with the more familiar and constantly evolving methods of data analysis. Francisco’s idea for NPh was that, rather than averaging over trials of a subject or multiple subjects, it would run on trial-by-trial reports from participants who are skilled in meta-awareness (be it meditation, microphenomenology, phenomenological psychiatry & psychology, etc.). To train individuals in these methods or to find people with a spontaneous interest and aptitude for them, and then to do some concrete work with them in the lab is very effortful and time- and resources-consuming. In the end, it is all measured in what you can generate in terms of publications and what you can get funding for within the existing institutional structures – which generally do not support this kind of work. It is a vicious circle; the sociological reality is that you will fare off better using the enactive ideas in context of robotics. Furthermore, NPh requests for a philosophical normative shift in understanding the relationship between consciousness as seen through the experience itself and through biology, in the sense that one ought not be prioritised over the other. Such shift in values is demanding and does not happen overnight, neither the consciousness comunity in neurosciences is interested in it (since the functionalistic thought still predominates).

Natalie Depraz: After Francisco’s death, nobody was able to combine the different competences (science, philosophy and microphenomenology) in one person, and it is difficult to put together a group of experts from each of these disciplines. Also, as a pioneer study, NPh had to present phenomenology and first-person method as one thing. In the very formulation of NPh is the idea of structure of experience, which is very far from what first-person method is (which applies to singular contents of experience). I think that the difference between the two levels of experience was not seen by Francisco. Only with the development of first-person methods and descriptions (i.e., explicitation interviews and microphenomenology) were these two levels sorted out, rendering us with a better insight into the way to combine the different skills.

2) Andreas Weber: Francisco was really after an irreducible accout of a subjective experiential side of existence, which is very different even from the radical neuroscientists that take experiences into the boat, He takes the subjectivity to be all-pervasive. This is absolutely radical (e.g., The Naturalization of Phenomenology as the Transcendence of Nature) and we can be inspired by it.

3) Hanne de Jaegher: Does the NPh remain close to the human experience (as it aims to), if it uses a very specific approach to access the experience that requires a lot of training? We know that experience is mainly intersubjective, which means that we all have expertise in modifying it in interaction with other people. Is that seen clearly enough in the project of NPh?

Antoine: Francisco mentions in the paper that cultivating the phenomenological reduction naturally brings forth the intersubjective nature of consciousness. There are implications for it at several levels, including ethical. If we take the example of meditation, the understanding of a certain aspect of mind changes the way you relate with others – it makes you more pro-social.

Natalie: Francisco was acquainted with First Philosophy, wherein Husserl uses the term intersubjective reduction. Francisco was also interested in the continuity between the first- and third-person approach in becoming aware, i.e., in the so-called second-person approach. The intersubjective core within the research community and the process of validation were quite central for him.

4) The coin 100 & Michel Bitbol: If we follow through with Varela’s proposal of mutual constraints, do we not still end up with a set of correlations, albeit highly refined? A different reading would be that Varela emphasizes the importance of experience, which is the starting point of everything – but do you not then end up in experientialism or idealism, even though you say that you are seeking for a pragmatic solution? Yet another reading is that the expression neural-emergent basis sounds like the neural processes are more fundamental than consciousness, and the question that follows from this is whether there is a more neutral way to express this aspect of the mutual constraint?

Antoine: At the very least, the correlation is a novel one – using that framework, you might identify certain features of consciousness that you otherwise would not be able to. You may theoretically model theprocess. Regarding the question about experience as a central starting point, I do not think that this implies making any strong metaphysical statement about either reductionism or idealism – it is rather a neutral epistemological standpoint.

5) Urban Kordeš: How would you imagine a perfect NPh research design and its result, were the money and time not an object?

Antoine: Mobilizing a clear first-person invariance, which involves an active subjective awareness (reflexivity) + right neural candidates to draw reasonable correlates + a way to make good predictions of constraints on each level (a theoretical model). The idea is to make a triple constraint: translating a certain phenomenological feature into a process and then modeling it: the output are predictions that you can relate either to first-person data or to physiology.

6) Tim Heshusius & Viktorija Lipič: There seems to be an assymetry in most of NPh research where constraint seems to have been done only on the neurophysiological side – but how is it possible for the phenomenological side to constrain the neurophysiology, and to what degree would scientists agree with this? Also, are there any constraints (limits, restraints) to the NPh approach as such? Is the NPh due to the difficulty of establishing these bridges bound to not be able to address certain topics?

Antoine & Natalie provide some examples from the research.

Andreas: A part of the constraints of the whole picture, which consists of measurable elements (like heartbeat rate) and of experience, is subjective. And that is radical. Normally science thinks that they get the whole picture and can use it and then move forward (particularly in medicine). But Francisco hid this massive thing in the shy word constraint: he simply says that the subjective reality has an impact on what we can measure, and that this is irreducible.

7) Wolfgang Lukasz: It seems that Francisco’s paper challenges us not only to embrace a novel approach to scientific research on the pragmatic content level, but also to change our ways of seeing and relating to our own experience, thus changing the very activity of doing science. Might this dual (content- & meta-) challenge contribute to the paper not being picked up as widely by the scientific community? Do you experience such a challenge in your own scientific work?