Culture and Cognition Workshop in Bristol, UK

Francisco Varela (1946-2001)

Francesco Varela (1946-2001)

Fred Cummins of University College Dublin contacted me to give me a head’s up on a workshop that looks pretty good, covering some of the same topics that we look at here at Neuroanthropology.

The workshop is ‘Cognition and Culture: an enactive view,’ and will especially explore the legacy of Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela. The meeting organizers explain that they seek to ‘develop a robust vocabulary and set of concepts that are capable of sustaining dialogue between researchers in cognitive systems, cognitive science, arts, media, and culture by using the insights and approaches of the enactive approach to cognition.’

Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela wrote a couple of books together, but they are probably best known for the concept of autopoeisis and the book, Tree of Knowledge. Varela also did work on the embodied mind and directly contributed to some of the current neurosciences research on Buddhist monks (such as the Mind and Life Institute, which Varela helped to found); he passed away in 2001, leaving a very rich legacy (see his ‘focus file’ here). Varela, and his mentor Maturana, were both biologists with philosophical inclinations, doing quite a bit to encourage the study of phenomenology in biology and the embodied nature of the brain. Varela did some early brain imaging research, linking observed changes to perceptions. Although there are some parts of his thinking that we at Neuroanthropology might seek to expand and transform, Varela was a giant in the move to create a synthetic brain science that bridged the gap between biological and sociocultural or psychological research.


Varela and Maturana also explored the qualities of autopoietic systems, systems that were not in equilibrium but that managed to maintain themselves stably for extended periods with inputs and outputs of matter and energy. As Evan Thompson’s obituary of Varela explains, according to autopoeitic theory:

living systems are autonomous systems (endogenously controlled and self-organizing), and the minimal form of autonomy necessary and sufficient for characterizing biological life is autopoiesis, i.e., self-production having the form of an operationally closed, membrane-bounded, reaction network. Maturana and Varela also held that autopoiesis defines cognition in its minimal biological form as the “sense-making” capacity of life; and that the nervous system, as a result of the autopoiesis of its component neurons, is not an input-output information processing system, but rather an autonomous, operationally closed network, whose basic functional elements are invariant patterns of activity in neuronal ensembles (see Varela 1979).

The essential product of an autopoietic system is the system itself, not some other product. The idea of autopoiesis has a lot to do with self organization and dynamic systems thinking (for example, the assumption of non-guided structuring and the characterization of systems, like organisms, as stable through self production).

The workshop will be held in the Watershed Media Centre, Bristol, UK, on 5 and 6 December 2008. Contact information can be found at the conference website.

3 thoughts on “Culture and Cognition Workshop in Bristol, UK

  1. Thanks Daniel —
    Yeah, I didn’t mention it, but The Embodied Mind is the book of his that I know best. I wonder how they would rewrite it now with the language and data available to us.

    I also got a note from Dr. Cummins pointing out a couple of typos that I made in my cold-ridden state (I’m on the mend). The most important substantive one is that the meeting is a ‘workshop’ not a ‘conference.’ By that, they really want to encourage works in progress, not just finished products. I always find the workshop setting more conducive to actually getting and giving feedback that will wind up integrated into the published works, so I was happy to go through and edit the post to reflect this error (on my part).

    Thanks to Dr. Cummins.

  2. I wonder how they would rewrite it now with the language and data available to us.

    Before Fransisco Varela passed on, he and Evan Thompson were working on the follow-up to their Embodied Mind book. It was provisionally titled Why the Mind Isn’t in the Head. After Varela’s death, however, the project evolved and eventually became Thompson’s Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Check it out here. Definitely one to read.

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