dissabte, 29 de novembre de 2008

Cooking as neurophenomenology

(Picture by Francesc Guillamet)

Yesterday, in the Catalan TV program "En clau de vi" which introduces the complex world of wine to the general public, we had the fortune to see and hear Ferran Adrià, 4 times considered by the critics "the best cook in the world" and the chef of the world-known restaurant El Bulli.

When asked "what is gastronomy" he replied in a very elegant and neurophenomenological way, holding a glass of water. He said that we usually just drink the water and don't pay attention to it. But, when we consider water from a gastronomic perspective, things do change. First we take a look at it and observe that it is transparent. And that, Adrià stated, is quite amazing, there almost no ingredients that are transparent. Next we smell it, and we can't find any specific smell, again something quite unusual in the culinary world. When we drink it, besides not noticing much flavor, our mouth will be full with the texture of water, that sort of "acquous" property that liquids like water have. So, Adrià concluded, water is something quite remarkable, a very special experience in gastronomy.
In the end, gastronomy is not about expensive ingredients or amazing technological instruments; it's just about paying proper attention to your inner experiences.

If you understand Catalan, you can see the whole program here.

dilluns, 17 de novembre de 2008

Consciousness as dancing

Brain can't explain consciousness as we are not only the brain. Consciousness is more like dancing. That is, to experience something is not something that happens to you. It is something you do. Hear more about this and lots of more powerful ideas from this video interview to the philosopher Alva Nöe. via The Edge

dissabte, 15 de novembre de 2008

Neurophenomenology and taste

Sometimes it is considered that the "neuro" in "neurophenomenology" is just a way of reselling an old word in a new package. Something akin to: "We won't get any fundings if we use an old fashioned word related to XIX Century philosophy, we need to make it scientific." But this misses the point completely. You can call it "neuro", "physio" or whatever you might like, but in order to construct a meaningful and scientific theory of what the mind is we need some feedback back and forth between the first person dimension and the third, between the mind and the brain, in order to make some sense of the epistemological circle in which neurophenomenology is embebbed.
Let’s consider how we understand the phenomenological process of taste. More specifically, I’d like to take into consideration the “fifth taste” or umami. Despite the fact that it is well known in the East, in the West, untill recently we talked just about four flavors. Why did we accept the existence of a fifth one? A key reason was descovering the detectors for glutamatic acid that we all humans have in our tongue. The reason was not -as some people have speculated- that we didn’t have that flavor in our cooking. We do have it. Glutamatic acid is present in meat, cheese (parmesan seem to be particularly rich) in anchovies…
So the problem is not the lack of qualia, but a misrepresentation of it, not having a taste perception subtle enough to be able to distinguish umami from the other four tastes. In a pure phenomenological dimension this would probably lead to a problem impossible to resolve. The japanese person says that she notices umami in that piece of cheese, but the European one can’t find more than some combination of sweet, sour, salyt and acid tastes.
When we include physiological and neurological elements, like finding the detectors for umami in the tongue, we are generating a new type of discovery action, which helps to revise our own judgements on how many tastes there are.
And then just finding these new receptors and the chemicals they can trace is not enough. Otherwise it would be just neurological knowledge. Now we need to do an important phenomenological work of reclasifying our landscape taste, seeing also umami when we formerly saw only sweet, sour, salty and acid.
And we still have a lot to do. For example, the description on how to phenomenologically classify wines according to its taste still uses the four basic tastes. Very few wineries or wine experts talk about umami when describing wines. I could only find Randy Caparoso and Tim Hanni. We certainly need more iniatives like the Umami Information Center, trying to understand and make umami more known.

diumenge, 9 de novembre de 2008

The neurophenomenology of affordances

We have started our seminar meetings on the subject of space and cognition, and a big deal of the debate will be centered in the concept of affordance. On theoretical issues, we plan to combine research in neurophenomenology with the experimental tradition in philosophy of science, as well as the paradigm of distributed cognotion. Practically we'd like to establish a set of principles which could be used to analyse how the spatial distribution of research instruments and objects can be improved in order to facilitate the cognitive process in scientists.
To do so, a key concept is affordance. And our first discussion will deal with the basic ambiguity this term has in philosophical and psychological literature. Are affordances physical or relational? According to the creator or the Term, J.Gibson, we should consider affordance as physical properties that object can have, and humans can perceive them. However this does clash with a more phenomenological approach, from the cognitive readings of Heidegger by Dreyfuss to what emerges from system theory and the way it is been used, for example, by Norman.

This entry from the Encyclopedia at Interaction-Design.org presents a brief but excelent explanation of the main differents between the two conceptions.

Here you find some notes from Gibson himself on how affordances can be classified, showing again the more physicalist approach to the subject. You can also check the notes of Gibson on a reclassification of affordances, as well as this interesting reflection on the differences between perception and proprioception.

My own view on the subject is clearly towards a relational position. First of all, affordances only makes sense as long as there is a user who can find the affordance useful for something. Secondly, from an embodied mind framework, the mind makes the thermometer as well as the thermometer makes the mind.

dimecres, 5 de novembre de 2008

Quote of the week

It is our contention that the rediscovery of Asian Philosophy, paticularly that of buddhist tradition, is a second renaissance in the cultural history of the West, with the potential to be equally important as the rediscovery of Greek thought in the European renaissance.

Varela, Thompson and Rosch: The Embodied Mind.