Introduction to a dedicated analysis of Francisco Varela’s Unity of Consciousness Hypothesis

FV+JHAojai_001817Francisco Varela, 1946 – 2001.

Francisco Varela was a Chilean neurobiologist with a rare multi-disciplinary expertise within and across biology, neuroscience, Buddhism, mindfulness, mathematics, and phenomenology. He coined the term neurophenomenology, which has become the epicenter for my desired research and my life’s work. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there has been minimal applied and experimental work beyond Varela. Varela’s most prominent student and follower, Evan Thompson, also a great hero of mine and a polymath in his own right (for evidence, see Mind in Life, where Thompson covers everything from an in-depth description of dynamical systems to a thorough analysis of conscious states experienced in meditation), seems to have focused more on the intersection between Buddhist mindfulness practices and understanding of mental states for a unified theory of consciousness. Alva Noë focuses on visual perception and motor processes, but also still writes about these in a densely philosophical way. Shaun Gallagher champions an integration of phenomenology and cognitive science, and while I also hugely admire his work, I often feel buried by a mountain of texts wondering when anyone is actually going to stop talking about the possibilities, and the importance of said possibilities, and actually find a way to apply the models, theories, and frameworks, even if science itself constrains the questions. There can be a methodology. I believe this. Many are working towards it. So, where do we start?

Also, I keep wondering — why are so many of Varela’s followers in Philosophy departments? I will always love philosophy, and hugely respect and admire its nobility. Regardless, Varela is someone who I see as applying philosophical ideas in a scientific context in a really exceptional, wise way. Why has there not been anyone to follow his work more tightly in the realms of cognitive science or neuroscience? It seems that the philosophers who focus on this work today operate more as consultants and interpreters to the work done by scientists, rather than in a sense “getting their hands wet” themselves, and I wonder if this divide is necessary. Perhaps I am trying to achieve too much in my life by trying to do phenomenology and cognitive science/neuroscience…but somehow it feels like I would be giving up and ultimately unsatisfied if I did not continue to pursue experimental work and attempt to develop better methods towards a study of consciousness, even if they fail.

“When all’s said and done, more is said than done.” – Anonymous, quoted in Francis Crick and Christof Koch’s paper on consciousness and neuroscience

So, let’s dive in…

I am going to begin with an analysis of a paper that Varela presented at a conference, complied within the book No Matter, Never Mind: Proceedings Towards a Science of Consciousness: Fundamental Approaches, edited by Kunio Yasue, Mari Jibu, and Tarcisio Della Senta (1999). Varela’s article is titled Emergence: the upward causation mechanism: Seeking correlates for the unity of consciousness. Varela writes that “specific cognitive acts require the transient integration of numerous areas widely distributed over the brain and in constant interaction with one another.” This means that, as opposed to something like the Massive Modularity Hypothesis, which proposes that all specific cognitive acts require specific and localized neural substrates and a neural architecture fixed within a certain brain area, cognitive acts require distributed neural substrates that become integrated into a coherent, unified ensemble. Thus, cognitive activity is the process of synchronous patterns, rather than isotropic events occurring in localized and specific brain regions that are tailored to support specialized cognitive functions. Another crucial point here is that Varela is more interested in understanding the specious present, specifically what he terms the “living present”, which is characterized by two contradictory properties: a unified, immersive presence, and a fleeing transience. Varela is not interested in cognitive domains in the modularity sense of “rational thinking”, “mathematical thinking”, etc., but instead he is interested in conscious states that occur through synchronous patterns that correlate to presentation of various stimuli. In Varela’s view, cognitive patterns emerge from phase-locking of widely distributed neuronal subpopulations or regions in what he terms “phase synchrony”, or simply, “synchrony.” There are two major problems with the study of consciousness: one is that it tries to reduce it entirely to the brain, and the other tries to treat it as an epiphenomenal emergent property. Varela sees both views as flawed, and describes his own views as non-dualistic even though his earlier work on autopoesis clearly illustrate a belief in self-organizing systems with emergent properties. He argues for an upwards emergent causation via brain self-organization through synchronous assemblies.

Fodor’s Massive Modularity Hypothesis (MMH) uses the isolated fusiform gyrus physical localization specialized for facial recognition to support its domain-specific modularity hypothesis. Interestingly, Varela also cites using Mooney faces, which are tied to processing between parietal and temporal regions, particularly the ventral fusiform gyrus. Mooney faces are unique in that they are degraded, minimalist representations of faces. However, Varela attributes this facial recognition ability to phase synchrony between parietal and temporal regions (it is important to note that the fusiform gyrus is between these regions). Thus, whereas MMH focuses on this one area (the fusiform gyrus) being functionally specialized for facial recognition, Varela explains facial recognition processes by the phase interactions between the parietal and temporal areas. Varela also states that these same phase interactions can be observed in episodic memory formation. Further, Varela’s picture of this cognitive processing is tracked through time, which seems (at least to me) to be missing from MMH, which is more like a still-picture capture of cognitive activity. Varela also notes phase uncoupling or resetting to be an important aspect of the cognitive task of facial recognition from perception to decision and response. (In Varela’s task, Mooney faces were presented upright and upside down and respondents had to push a button to indicate whether or not they saw a face — see image below. Thus, the “decision and response” refers to the switch between subjects perceiving the image to reporting about it.) The un-coupling of the neural assembles thus parallels the lived experience of transferring cognitive functions from perception to decision-generation. Varela also believes that gamma activation is related to cognitive integration…such that when the brain is in a gamma frequency, it exhibits phase synchronies and interactions, and he reports that the gamma frequency was higher for the “perception” (upright face) versus “no-perception” (upside down face)  conditions of the Mooney task. Thus, somehow higher gamma frequencies support phase interactions and synchronies.


Mooney faces, presented upright and upside down.

More on Francisco Varela’s life and work:

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