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Book Summary: The Embodied Mind, by Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch

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The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, by Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch


The Essence

What happens when a perception scientist, and psychologist, and a philosopher ask themselves what lies between the gaps of what can be understood scientifically and phenomenologically about the mind? Physical reductionist would argue that the mind is merely a representation of something within the brain. However, as the work argues, the mind is more of a relational process, one that cannot exist outside of its capacity to enact meaning for itself. The Embodied Mind progresses lines of inquiry within cognitive science towards a more emergent and complexity focused approach to thinking about the mind. As intellectual boundaries are crossed, cognitive science must integrate the broader understanding of cognition as an expression of our brain within a larger space that includes both the body and environment. Existence as we experience it can be thought about as a network that is a functionally coupled hierarchically modular set of relationships that feedback within and between scales. Meaning, that inhabiting the human world actively facilitates the processing that relates to generating conscious experience as we know it. Much is still to be learned on the subject, yet by adding esoteric philosophical ideas into the mix, The Embodied Mind provides a fresh and innovative perspective for considering Enactive theories of mind.

The Embodied Mind Journal Entry Notes:

This is my book summary of The Embodied Mind. My notes are a reflection of the journal write up above. Written informally, the notes contain a mesh and mix of quotes and my own thoughts on the book. Sometimes, to my own fault, quotes are interlaced with my own words. Though rest assured, I am not attempting to take any credit for the main ideas below. The Journal write up includes important messages and crucial passages from the book.

  • The new sciences of mind need to enlarge their horizon to encompass both lived human experience and the possibilities for transformation inherent in human experience. Ordinary everyday experience, on the other hand, must enlarge its horizon to benefit from the insight and analyses that are distinctly wrought by the sciences of mind.
  • Everyday perceived, believed, theorized, researched, and known is done so by an observer.
  • We need to enlarge our horizon to encompass non-western traditions of reflection upon experience.
  • Mindfulness, as defined here, is this context is to experience what one’s mind is doing as it does it, to be present with one’s mind.
  • There comes a piercing realization of just how disconnected humans normally are from their overt experience. Part of which I believe is due to our disconnected from our bodies introspective network of sensations.
  • The untamed mind constantly tries to grasp some stable point in its unending movement and cling to thoughts, feelings, and concepts as if they were solid ground
  • Disrupt MindLESSness; Discover the state of just being.
  • “People often worry that were they to loosen their hold on craving and grasping, their desire would go away, and they would become numb and catatonic. In fact, exactly the reverse is the case. It is the mindless, the unaware, state of mind that is numb¾swathed in a thick cocoon od wandering thoughts, prejudgments, and solipsistic ruminations. As mindfulness grows, appreciation for the components of experience grows. The goal is not to avoid action but to be fully present in one’s actions so that one’s behavior becomes progressively more responsive and aware.” We are what I have heard Peter Attia and Sam Harris talk about recently know as a conscious competence.
  • The environment is not a structure imposed on living beings from the outside but is, in fact, the creation of those beings
  • The environment is not an autonomous process but a reflection of the biology of the species.
  • Just as there is no organism without an environment, so there is no environment without an organism.
  • Freedom is not the same as living in the everyday world conditioned by ignorance and confusion; it is living and acting in the everyday world with realization. Freedom is not escape; it is transformation.
  • Realization being that we do not stand on solid ground, that things incessantly arise and pass away with being able to pin them down to a stable objective or subjective ground, affects our very life and being.
  • “Objects do not exist independently of conceptual schemes”
  • Enactive Approach: The living body is a self-producing and self-maintaining system that enacts or brings forth relevance, and that cognitive processes belong to the relational domain of the living body coupled to its environment.
  • Meaning does not reside in the constituents per se; it resides in the complex patterns of activity that emerge from interactions of many constituents.
  • Context is important in how people interpret and proceed with what they are doing.
  • The idea that the brain is an information-processing deceive that responds selectively to features of the environment remains the core of modern neuroscience and popular understanding.
  • The combination of mental factors that are present makes up the character of particular moments of consciousness.
  • We have knowledge only of our representation of the world. One of the more entrenched assumptions of our scientific heritage¾that the world is independent of the knower. This is systematically wrong given that no objective observation of the world is ever made out of the context of a single or set of subjective knowers; we live in a perceiver dependent reality.
  • The Enactive approach consists of:
    Perception consists of common principles of lawful linkages between sensory and motor systems that explain how action can be perceptually guided in a perceiver¾dependent world.
    2. Cognitive structures emerge from the recurrent sensorimotor patterns that enable action to be perceptually guided.
  • Sensorimotor coupling: Cognition in its most encompassing sense consist in the enactment or bringing forth both of a world by a viable history of structural coupling.
  • One of the most fundamental cognitive activities that all organisms preform is categorization.
  • Groundlessness: A state of knowing not based on an observer and observed. We out to learn how to negotiate our way through a world that is not fixed and pregiven but that is continually shaped by the types of action in which we engage.
  • Embodied cognition is an extension of the functionally connected networks that make up the physical nervous system. The body acts as a dynamic interface enabling neural activity to generate actions that in-turn lead to new sensory inputs.
  • Bodily environmental linkages create dynamic couplings between otherwise distinct cognitive systems, and they become part of the internal model of each agent, an essential component of social development.

If you liked what you saw. Here are 3 titles that I recommend based on what was discussed in The Embodied Mind.

  1. Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy by Evan Thompson Stephen Batchelor
  2. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding by Humberto R. Maturana, Francisco J. Varela
  3. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind by Evan Thompson 

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