The hitchhiker’s guide to neurophenomenology – The case of studying self boundaries with meditators

This paper is a practical guide to neurophenomenology.

Varela’s neurophenomenological research program (NRP) aspires to bridge the gap between, and integrate, first-person (1P) and third-person (3P) approaches to understanding the mind. It does so by suggesting a methodological framework allowing these two irreducible phenomenal domains to relate and reciprocally support the investigation of one another. While highly appealing theoretically, neurophenomenology invites researchers to a challenging methodological endeavor. Based on our experience with empirical neurophenomenological implementation, we offer practical clarifications and insights learnt along the way.In the first part of the paper, we outline the theoretical principles of the NRP and briefly present the field of 1P research. We speak to the importance of phenomenological training and outline the utility of cooperating with meditators as skilled participants. We suggest that 1P accounts of subjective experience can be placed on a complexity continuum ranging between thick and thin phenomenology, highlighting the tension and trade-off inherent to the neurophenomenological attempt to naturalize phenomenology. We then outline a typology of bridges, which create mutual constraints between 1P and 3P approaches, and argue for the utility of alternating between the bridges depending on the available experimental resources, domain of interest and level of sought articulation. In the second part of the paper, we demonstrate how the theory can be put into practice by describing a decade of neurophenomenological studies investigating the sense of self with increasing focus on its embodied, and minimal, aspects.

These aspects are accessed via the dissolution of the sense-of-boundaries, shedding new light on the multi-dimensionality and flexibility of embodied selfhood. We emphasize the evolving neurophenomenological dialogue, showing how consecutive studies, placed differently on the thin-to-thick 1P continuum, advance the research project by using the bridging principles appropriate for each stage. .

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