Neuroscience, what do you think you are doing and what are you actually doing?

I am interested in electrophysiology, neurophenomenology, and embodied cognition. The latter two are not within the realm of conventional neuroscience. I greatly despise “pathways” in terms of macro-level structuring. Unfortunately, neuroscientists are generally pretty terrible philosophers. Neuroscience has still not embraced philosophy because of the pragmatic nature of its research, and hence a lot of recent articles in cognitive neuroscience have some strange ways of trying to negotiate the breadth of their findings to a greater cognitive model while still using the same materialistic and information-processing models. Neuroscience is now finding itself in a conundrum, trying to negotiate the philosophical premises of its research and explain cognition from a largely ‘removed’ perspective that still posits a ‘one-system’, information-processing, and mostly Cartesian model. Therefore, it is time for new insights from other fields, like phenomenology, to step in. I think it is important to note that neuroimaging is not an absolute empirical method; that is, most of the time we have only a vague idea what the technology is really telling us (check out the ‘dead fish’ study). In functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), for instance, is a loose correlation between magnesium levels and blood flow which suggest ‘activity’, but it is unclear what this ‘activity’ truly indicates. Electroencephalograms, the most “primitive” neuroimaging technology, remain my favorite because to me it makes more sense to look at brain-wide “waves” of activity than to try to specify particular neural pathways from a large-scale and removed perspective. All said, the deeper problem is that we do not actually know what experience we are using to correlate with the neuroimaging because we rely on third-person methodologies for something that is quintessentially first-personal. Thus, a “battery” of neuropsychological assessments are used to quantify and operationalize experience, suggesting that certain ‘objective’ parameters can universally trigger or ignite the same experience. Scientists then measure neuronal patterns in response to this experience, for instance, the neural correlate for focused attention, whereas the phenomenal character of such an experience (as well as the other bodily states, non-neural, involved in the experience) has never been examined nor specified. We are drawing a loop around a loop and never really getting to the thing itself. Neuroscience needs phenomenology and I also believe that phenomenology can greatly benefit from practice and involvement with neuroscientists. Hence, Fransisco Varela’s “neurophenomenology!”

I like looking at the activities of ion channels and the genes that regulate the functioning of those channels, and I love how that reciprocally balances the function for macro-level experiences in the organism…like the Nav1.7 channel and sensitivity to pain. Electrophysiology is very discrete and clear, whereas cognitive and affective neuroscience often require many levels of standardization and many assumptions. Neuroscience frustrates me because it relies on a materialistic model for cognition that I think is absurd and naive. So, we need to find a way to correlate what we see in terms of “activity” in the brain with actual first-person experiential states before the data can actually mean anything.

This is all just my humble opinion and how I am accessing the realm; others are insanely successful with their views, like the Blue Brain Project that is reverse engineering the brain. I have to ask, though, what are we getting from all of this? What is the data amounting to? I think in the end we are going to have to confront the fact that we don’t actually know how to ‘simulate’ experience, at least not without a body (modern robotics is doing this). Further, we don’t actually know what it means to talk about “cognitive functions” in terms of the brain because we just watch things happen and link it to this or that without really knowing or describing what is there, in experience, in the first place.

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