Grey Matters: Examining Subjective Experience

What is the human mind, and how can we develop it to its greatest potential?

There are many ways of trying to answer this age-old question. As a neuroscientist, I was trained within a theoretical system that largely equates the mind with the physical structure of the brain. Operating from this perspective, science has made incredible strides, giving us insights ranging from the molecular array of genes and proteins to the electrical firing patterns of individual neurons and neuronal assemblies. Yet, until recently, a central element of the human mind was largely missing from neuroscientific investigations: lived experience.

However much neuroscience can tell us about the brain, if we are to have a complete picture of the mind, conscious experience must ultimately be incorporated into our investigations. As a way to illustrate this, imagine reading a detailed description of the neural circuitry that underlies vision—the many processes that result in detecting color, contrast, shape, and motion. While such a description could provide a thorough account of the biological substrates involved in, say, observing a sunset, it is a different thing entirely to gaze at the sun dipping below the horizon and experience its gradations, beauty, stillness, as well as the emotions or memories that arise. A similar case can be made for the majority of mental processes since most have an experiential component.

To access lived experience in scientific studies, researchers must take into account what
is referred to as the “subjective perspective”—the participant’s first-person point of view on their own experience, usually reported through narrative, questionnaires, scales, or novel interfaces with measurement instruments. For many decades, however, the use of subjective report in psychological and cognitive research was considered unreliable, in part due to studies showing that memories can be inaccurate, and that introspection can be influenced by factors such as expectation or denial. As a result, subjective data was largely abandoned in favor of more “objective,” third-person measures such as behavior or physiological data. Experience was thus relegated to a black box, inaccessible to science.

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Fortunately, cognitive science has begun to return to first-person approaches with renewed interest. Concerns about the reliability of subjective report remain important; at the same time, recent research continues to prove the value of subjective information. The National Research Council, for example, just released a report formally urging researchers to seek information on subjective well-being, which they describe as “the self-reported levels of contentment, stress, frustration, and other feelings people experience throughout the day and while performing different activities.”

Mind and Life’s own history is related to this shift in thinking, and an emphasis on subjective experience remains central to our mission. In the 1990s, Francisco Varela, cognitive neuroscientist and one of Mind and Life’s cofounders, proposed the scientific approach known as neurophenomenology, which seeks to integrate valid first-person subjective information with third-person objective measures. Varela, along with Mind and Life Fellow Evan Thompson, believed that relating moment-to-moment subjective experiences to dynamic activity in neural networks represents an enormous opportunity for cognitive research, and will yield a more comprehensive understanding of the human mind. Areas where this approach is highly relevant include investigations into perception, attention, memory, the self, motivation, volition, emotion, spontaneous cognition, mind wandering, and craving and addiction—all fields in which Mind and Life has sponsored research.

Of course, as cognitive neuroscience continues to advance as a discipline, the development of rigorous methods to probe the subjective contents of the mind will be increasingly essential. Standard questionnaires, for example, often do not offer enough opportunity for individualized answers, and responses are framed within a priori assumptions. Interviews are more detailed, but the resultant information is qualitative in nature and complicated to code and score in a systematic way. Further, untrained participants may be unable to introspect at a high level of detail about their internal experiences, making their reports unreliable or unclear.

To encourage exploration of both the challenges and potential of neurophenomenology, I recently joined with Evan Thompson to host a special issue in the journal Human Frontiers in Neuroscience devoted to the theme of “examining subjective experience.” This issue, now complete and available online for free, contains 18 innovative articles furthering the goals of neurophenomenology. Both primary research reports as well as theoretical and methodological papers are featured, highlighting creative new approaches for probing subjective experience in real-world and laboratory settings, and for eliciting more refined and informative first-person reports. Topics include investigating the experience and neural correlates of selflessness, detailed interview methods that can be used with untrained participants, perspectives on dreaming and hypnosis, and studies of real-time biofeedback in meditators using fMRI.

In the quest to understand the mind—and in so doing, discover ways to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing—sub- jective experience can serve as a guiding beacon, illuminating scientific findings in a new and meaningful light. Editing this collection of articles, I have been pleased and encouraged to see the high quality of cutting-edge research that also embraces the richness of subjective experience. It is our hope that this issue will help advance the field of neurophenomenology, and serve as a resource as we continue to study the complexities of human experience in an integrative way.


 

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Wendy Hasenkamp, PhD, serves as senior scientific officer at the Mind & Life Institute. As a neuroscientist and a contemplative practitioner, she is interested in understanding how subjective experience is represented in the brain, and how the mind and brain can be transformed through experience and practice to enhance flourishing. Her research examines the neural correlates of meditation, with a focus on the shifts between mind wandering and attention. She has also contributed to neuroscience curriculum development, teaching, and textbook creation for the Emory Tibet Science Initiative, which aims to integrate science into the Tibetan monastic education system in India.