The View From Within: First Person Approaches To The Study Of Consciousness

Miscellany of articles on the edge of the science of consciousness. Challenging and fascinating. On the roll of the body in consciousness and healing, about the metaphysics of introspection and more. View from Within: First-person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness is all that and more.

On the attempt to integrate the experience of consciousness with the findings of science. The duality between trying to be ‘objective’ and the actual first person perspective which is the very subject discussed is approached from several sides.

Like all scientific books, this one is particularly difficult to read for the non-initiate. I have been trying to get myself to read this one ever since I got it for my birthday two months ago.

Consciousness is always a fascination for me, and the scientific descriptions and explanations of it never really satisfy. This book attempts to bridge the gap between the experience and the ‘objective’ via the (updated) philosophy of Husserl.

Throughout the history of human thought … intuition has played an essential role (Claire Peugeot)

About first person methodologies – verbal and nonverbal

Scientists of consciousness are stuck with a very difficult paradox: they want to study objectively (otherwise it would not be science) something inherently subjective: the (human) mind. This paradox is one of the reasons for this book: the editors want to get out of the paradox and get up some sort of working method for taking the experience seriously as scientific data. In order to do that, what’s needed is methodology.

The peer review by J. Baars, included in the book (p. 216), notes, with reason, that such a field of science already exists. It’s called: psychology. But in a sense he’s wrong. Psychology says a lot about the content of consciousness, but very little about the experience of it. In other words: it’s very good at looking at our verbalizations of our experience of being aware, but not very good at the non verbal processes that are behind that.

It’s a legitimate question whether it’s possible to get to the nonverbal – but that’s certainly attempted by some of the authors in this book.

For instance, I was impressed by the study by Carl Ginsburg (p. 79) of people who had problems with how to use their bodies. Using the Feldenkrais method he was able to help them. Imagine a lady who’s had to live without hips her whole life, till at the age of 26 doctors think she’s stopped growing so they implant hips in her legs. Funny thing is: she’d learned to walk and everything without hips. But now, with the anatomy most of us take for granted she finds walking hurts. The operation has given her better tools, but her brain is not equipped to use it. Ordinary physiotherapy has already proven not to help. So she comes to Carl Ginsburg and he finds a way to let her experience what it means to have hips. This means the brain gets reprogrammed. Interestingly – she finds this means she becomes a different person. She doesn’t resist this. She just notes that her learning to walk as other people do, means letting go of the person she’d become managing to walk without them.

Carl does a better job of explaining it than I do, probably. The thing is: how we ‘are’ is intimately related with our physical being. People who loose weight often describe having to relearn life with this different lifestyle and body image. I think it’s a related (though less drastic) example. Our bodies are part of who we are in this world.

Not only is this an example that helps us understand the way the brain works in concert with the body – it also shows how important the nonverbal is. For this lady it’s all about how the body is experienced and used. Experiencing and using the body differently, because it has been upgraded, means relearning who you are. And while she could talk about that this meant changing who she was, she could not put into words how her personality was changing.

Intuition, introspection and meditation

One of the themes in this book is very much ‘hip’: they all touch on the spiritual side of practical psychology.

Introspection as a scientific method of researching the nature of consciousness is explored by Pierre Vermersch. He goes into why this method has been abandoned while also exploring how it can be reintroduced and why it’s important.

Claire Petitmengin-Peugeot (p. 43) goes into a topic that has been in the (scientific) news a lot recently: intuition. What’s been in the news is that in some cases intuitive knowledge is better at making the right decision than conscious knowledge is. This has lately been nuanced: in many cases thinking things through is a better way to make a difficult decision. Petitmengin-Peugeot doesn’t go into all that. She has looked at the process of intuition itself, using a method very much like the one described by Pierre. She notes various stages in the process that people experienced in using intuition can note for themselves. If you think she’s talking about psychics here – you’re wrong. Her sample population included 2 scientists, 8 therapists from different therapeutic schools, two artists and 12 people who experienced intuition in daily life (p. 48). The sample population included men and women. Reading her descriptions it’s clear that intuition isn’t something you just ‘have’, it can be refined and learned.

B. Alan Wallace (p. 175) and Jonathan Shear with Ron Jevning (p. 189) go into another popular topic: meditation. They explore the methodology and conclusions that can be drawn from traditional meditation methods and the philosophies that have sprung from them. This dialog is clearly ongoing in science, as shown by the reception of the Dalai Lama among scientists of consciousness (though he is absent from this book). Exciting topic.

Wallace maintains that it takes an experienced meditator to be conscious enough of what goes on inside to look at it objectively. This makes for difficult science because it would mean that aside from their scientific training, researchers would have to invest years to learn meditation as well. Still, it’s a perspective that deserves serious attention.

Shear and Jevning look into the practical results that have already been obtained through different meditative traditions and the implications they have for the future research in this area.

Do we have the time to criticize the critics of introspection?
(P. Vermersch, p.18)


One of the areas of consciousness study that I’m least familiar with is the philosophy of phenomenology. I call it a philosophy, because it usually seems to be more about talking about talking about consciousness, then about actually researching it. The articles published under this heading are partly in that tradition.

For instance I could not understand what Nathalie Depraz was talking about in her article about The Phenomenological Reduction as Praxis (p. 95).

Francisco Varela went into the experience of the present, which is a nicely practical topic. Still, I didn’t really take much from it.

Since William James is one of my favorite original psychologists, I did read the article by Andrew Bailey with interest (p. 141). James went into that nonverbal theme more than is usually stressed when people talk about his phrase ‘stream of consciousness’.

To top it off Jean Naudin and a lot of colleagues talk about the Husserlian Reduction as a method of Investigation in Psychiatry (p. 155). Husserl was the founding philosopher of phenomenology, apparently. I thought they gave a helpful perspective on the experience of being a schizophrenic. It made clear that it is helpful to look at underlying patterns, instead of only at symptoms, when trying to understand psychiatric patients.

  • Editors: Francisco J VarelaJonathan Shear
  • Series: Consciousness Studies
  • Paperback: 313 pages
  • Publisher: Imprint Academic (September 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0907845258
  • ISBN-13: 978-0907845256
  • Product Dimensions: 9.9 x 6.9 x 1 inches