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Consciousness Concepts of Francisco Varela

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We need to examine, beyond the spook of subjectivity, into the concrete possibilities of a disciplined examination of experience that is at the very core of the Phenomenological inspiration. To repeat: it is the re-discovery of the primacy of human experience and its direct, lived quality that is Phenomenology's foundational project. This is the sense within which Edmund Husserl inaugurated this thinking in the West, and established a long tradition that is well and alive today not only in Europe but world-wide. In fact, between 1910-1912 while Husserl was at the peak of his creative formulation of Phenomenology, in the United States William James was following very parallel lines in his pragmatic approach to cognitive life.

(Francisco Valera, Neurophenomenology : A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem, Journal of Consciousness Studies, June 1996)

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Francisco Varela was born in Chile on 07 September 1946 and died in Paris on 28 May 2001. He received his M. Sc. (Licenciatura) in Biology in 1967 from the University of Chile in Santiago, where he studied with the famed neurobiologist Humberto R. Maturana

From 1968 to 1970, Varela was a graduate student in Biology at Harvard University. The topic of his doctoral thesis was "Insect Retinas: Information Processing in the Compound Eye." He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970.

After receiving his Ph.D. Varela choose to return to Chile to help build a stronger scientific research community in his native country. From 1970 to 1973, Varela and Maturana, now colleagues at the University of Chile, formulated their famous concept of Autopoiesis.

According to the Autopoiesis concept, living systems are autonomous systems that are both endogenously controlled and self-organizing.  The minimal amount of autonomy necessary and sufficient for describing biological life is basically an operationally closed, membrane-bounded, reaction network.  Autopoiesis defines cognition in this minimal biological form as the "sense-making" capacity of life; the nervous system, as a result of the autopoiesis of its component neurons, is not an input-output information processing system, but rather is an autonomous, operationally closed network, whose basic functional elements are invariant patterns of activity in neuronal ensembles. This theory laid the groundwork for ideas that were to become prominent many years later in other scientific areas of inquiry such as the origin of organic life, artificial life, dynamical neuroscience, and embodied cognition.

In 1973, Varela came to the United States, where he took a position as Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver. There he taught and pursued his research until 1978. In 1978-79, he spent a year in New York at the Brain Research Laboratories of the NYU Medical School, and as scholar in residence at the Lindisfarne Association. In 1980, he returned to Chile, staying there until 1985.  In 1986, he moved to Paris, where he worked at the Institut des Neurosciences and at the Centre de Recherche en Epistémologie Appliqué (CREA).  In 1988, he was appointed to be Director of Research at the Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), a position he held until his death from hepatitis in 2001.

In the ten years prior to his death, Varela focused much of his energy on consciousness studies including a new basic approach to the study of the human mind that he labeled Neurophenomenology He firmly believed that scientific research needs to be complemented by detailed phenomenological investigations of human experience as it is lived and verbally articulated in the first person. Varela proposed that consciousness could best be studied by combining 1) Western experimental neuroscience and perceptual psychology; 2) Eastern (mainly Buddhist) mindfulness and meditative traditions; and 3) the principles obtained from the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Lastly, Varela believed that the future of consciousness studies crucially depended upon using the latest brain-imaging and other experimental tools of neuroscience as well as by training scientists to observe and describe their own mental and emotional states in a disciplined way through Buddhist mindfulness techniques.

This neurophenomenologal approach was first defined in a landmark paper, published in June 1996,  entitled Neurophenomenology : A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem.  In this paper, he first discussed the now well-known "Varela Diagram" containing four axes that denote four essential theoretical orientations and the relative positions of some of the major philosophers and scientists (including himself) involved in consciousness studies (see below).

Varela Four-Axes Diagram


Varela rejected the Computational Theory of Mind (CMT) approach to human consciousness that is currently advocated by many prominent thinkers in the field such as Eric Baum and Daniel Dennett.  In Varela's view, the CMT approach defines cognition as being a largely unconscious information-processing system that utilizes a representationalist epistemology.  Varela argued that CMT, upon careful scrutiny,  lacks explanatory utility.  The CMT approach is not appropriately grounded in neurobiological data; also CMT ignores or underemphasizes the value of human experience with it's fundamental embodied stance within the world.

Just one month before his death, in the April 2001 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Varela and his colleagues presented a new concept called the Brainweb.  The following is from the abstract for that article:

The emergence of a unified cognitive moment relies on the coordination of scattered mosaics of functionally specialized brain regions. Here we review the mechanisms of large-scale integration that counterbalance the distributed anatomical and functional organization of brain activity to enable the emergence of coherent behavior and cognition. Although the mechanisms involved in large-scale integration are still largely unknown, we argue that the most plausible candidate is the formation of dynamic links mediated by synchrony over multiple frequency bands.

Francisco Valera was an active and enthusiastic supporter of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of consciousness. He was a serious practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist meditation and a student of Buddhist psychology and philosophy.  In the 1970's, he served on the faculty of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and was a Fellow of the Lindisfarne Association in New York City.  Valera believed that Buddhism and Western cognitive science have much to gain from each other. This was the subject of his 1991 book entitled The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. In support of this belief, Varela was a key member of the Advisory Board of the Mind and Life Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which has sponsored private meetings between the Dalai Lama, and Western scientists since the 1990's. 

Valera strongly supported the establishment of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and served on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Center's professional periodical entitled the Journal of Consciousness Studies. He was also instrumental in the creation of a new journal, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, and before his death served as a consulting editor.

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