BSP Podcast: Francesca Brencio on the neurosciences and the phenomenological challenge

podcast update

The BSP Podcast continues with the third release of three episodes on the theme of “Engaging phenomenology in the neurosciences”.

Season 5 episode 94: 21 November 2020

Season five of our podcast continues with another presentation from our 2020 annual conference: ‘Engaged Phenomenology’ Online. This episode features Francesca Brencio who was one of three speakers (along with Prisca Bauer and Valeria Bizzari and Francesca Brencio) on the preconstituted panel “Engaging phenomenology in the neurosciences”. Bauer and Bizzari’s presentations feature in episodes #92 and #93 of the BSP Podcast respectively. Brencio, from the University of Seville, concludes this triad of papers.

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Francesca Brencio
‘Shifting the paradigm. Neurosciences and the phenomenological challenge’

ABSTRACT: In the history of neurosciences, phenomenology arrived pretty late as a method able to enhance the understanding of neurological conditions. While psychiatry and psychology recognised the contribution of the phenomenological method at the beginning of XX century, other branches of neurosciences (neurology, neuropsychology, etc.) are still not including this approach, affirming that the investigation of the brain’s neuronal states can be understood only through third-person perspectives and that the subject’s experience is not necessary in order to understand clinical conditions and psychopathological phenomena, since memory, behaviour, perception and consciousness can be explained through a purely biological approach. This paper aims to propose a paradigm shift and to challenge neurosciences to bridge the gap between brain and experience. This contribution is articulated in two parts:  in the first one, I will briefly rebuild the origin of this methodological gap in order to show how the implications of this approach affect contemporary understanding and treatment of neurological conditions and neurodiversity. Techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and Electroencephalogram (EEG) measure brain activity in response to sensorimotor, cognitive, affective or social stimuli or tasks, and many have tried to find brain correlates of neuropsychological conditions. However, recent findings show that causes or risks of mental disorders may operate at many levels, including genetic and neural elements of course, but also individual, family and social environments, that can be grouped under the item “experience”. In the second part, I will propose how to bridge the gap with an interpretative hypothesis aimed to show how the brain is part of a more complex system of elements in which human being is situated, involved and embedded. The 4E approach, as the most recent result of phenomenological adjustment to neurosciences, and the systemic approach stress the need of understanding the mental life of people and their life circumstances in a non-reductionist view. We will see how there is a bidirectional way to understand the link between brain and experience: mental disorders cannot be reduced only to brain dysfunctions and brain disorders cannot be caused by abnormal mental experience.

BIO: Francesca Brencio is Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Seville, Convener and Instructor at the Pheno-Lab, a theoretical laboratory on Philosophy and Mental Health at the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine at the University Hospital in Freiburg and Member of The Phenomenology and Mental Health Network, The Collaborating Centre for Values-Based Practice in Health and Social Care, Catherine’s College, University of Oxford (UK). Her field of research is mainly related to Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Philosophy of Psychiatry and Philosophy of religion.

This presentation is part of a preconstituted panel with Prisca Bauer, Valeria Bizzari, and Francesca Brencio. “Engaging phenomenology in the neurosciences”: Before becoming a subject of study in philosophy classes, phenomenology is the method that underpins all of science. Husserl conceived phenomenology as an a priori science of essences, but it has developed through other important authors during the beginning and first half of XX century (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2012; Moran, 2000; Zahavi, 2003). Engaging phenomenology in the contemporary scenario means embracing the legacy of the classics and also exploring its potential for different fields of knowledge, such as politics, public space, health. Phenomenology is a methodical effort to describe the basic structures inherent to conscious experience, such as embodiment, spatiality, temporality, intentionality, intersubjectivity, and to analyse their possible deviations and derailments (Fuchs, 2002). In recent years phenomenological approaches contributed to psychiatry and psychopathology by providing novel theoretical frameworks (Sass, Parnas, & Zahavi, 2011) and defining the subjective essence of experience more clearly. The aim of this panel is to explore how the phenomenological method can contribute to neurosciences through three different areas of research: to bridge the gap between the brain and lived experience allowing to understand mental disorders as not merely reducible to brain dysfunctions and brain disorders as consequence of abnormal mental experience; to offer a multidisciplinary account of autism, linking the role of the body and intercorporeality with recent findings in philosophy of neuroscience under the predictive brain hypothesis; and to improve care in people with epilepsy by implementing the neurophenomenological paradigm through systematic interviews, which allow people with epilepsy to recognise subjective seizure “warning signs”. The aim of the panel is to present findings already recognised by the scientific and academic community, and to go a step further by showing the necessity of a paradigm shift capable of improving the understanding and treatment of neurological conditions and neurodiversity.

This recording is taken from the BSP Annual Conference 2020 Online: ‘Engaged Phenomenology’. Organised with the University of Exeter and sponsored by Egenis and the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health. BSP2020AC was held online this year due to global concerns about the Coronavirus pandemic. For the conference our speakers recorded videos, our keynotes presented live over Zoom, and we also recorded some interviews. Podcast episodes from BSP2020AC are soundtracks of those videos where we and the presenters feel the audio works as a standalone:

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