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).