The Book as Relationship

In The Book as Relationship, Max Yela argues that we, as humans, have a primal relationship with books. This relationship extends beyond the contents of the book; the bed-time stories we may remember from childhood or the experiences of escapism rendered from works of literature. The book, as an object, appeals to our fundamental needs and desires as human beings. Our interaction with the materiality and phenomenal aspects of books draw us closer to our natural and authentic way of being. Yela argues that books are the oldest form of art, and they are a singularly unique expression in the evolution of conscious organisms. For instance, books mediate; they express ideas and abstract concepts that are deemed worthy of remembrance. In this way, mediation is the one thing that distinguishes humans from other species (Yela, 4). Art, as we know, is an expression of our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and our spirituality or essence (i.e. what makes us human). To make art and to share art is to share our experiences, which are invariably intersubjective, to use a term from the phenomenological tradition. This all begins with the book.

Sadly, the book arts are beginning to lose traction and favor in the twenty-first century. Printed books are increasingly yielding to the influences of electronic media. This has troubled many bibliophiles for the last several decades. If we take the book to be “the central metaphor for civilized interpersonal relationships” (Yela, 5), we should ask ourselves how far our technologies will develop, and how much as a species we stand to lose in this transition from print to digital media. This is what I took away from “Position / Opposition” by Jessica Meuninck-Ganger; an art installation which depicts a series of life-sized print frames with various human faces in gestural expressions. The installation seemingly morphs and changes depending on the viewer’s physical orientation to the statuesque pages. This impression is aided by three different formats for “Position / Opposition.” There is a small accordion-fold book; an out-sized accordion-fold book, and the life-sized room model. The art piece is supposed to convey the dynamism of media content; that “interacting with the same content in a variety of different ways alters our understanding of that content” (Yela, 8). This is an idea that I fully accept. Today’s voguish use of electronic media draws us inexorably away from our own essential qualities as humans who have arisen from animate nature. The fast march of technology through the ages has led to increasing levels of abstraction, and this is no more evident than in our own age. One thing that technology seems to have taken away from us is the reverence we once held for our animate surroundings. I believe that taking our primary truths from technology holds the living world at a distance, which creates a profound loss of meaning. One can say that we are creating new meanings with digital literate technologies. But there is a qualitative difference between digital “books” and material books which affects us personally. Digital technology tends to have an estranging effect on ourselves and our relationships to each other, as well as to our natural surroundings. With technology, human values have been redirected to prize the artificial, and to invest in its ubiquity.

So what of the book? The book arts are changing. They are practically being swept away by developments in digital technology. Yela makes an important distinction between the imposing edifice of Meuninck-Ganger’s life-sized book, and her smaller accordion-fold version. The former requires the viewer to approach the piece with their whole body, whereas the latter can be negotiated simply with the hands; a more comfortable experience due to our predilection to standard books. The former experience may be awkward and intrusive, since others are engaging with the book simultaneously. The latter experience is a “one-on-one encounter, to be held in the hand of the individual and experienced in the most personal of spatial interactions” (Yela, 4). So it is with the distinction between digital and print books. While all three “Position / Opposition” installments have been rendered in physical format, they each elicit a different experience from the reader. As Marshall McLuhan has said, “The medium is the message.” No two books are alike. No two books generate the same inward experience unless they are made on the same scale and from the same materials.

The juxtaposition between Meuninck-Ganger’s different formats forces me to consider the stark contrast between digital and print books. Electronic media has become a global fetish; a phenomenon that, at once, includes the opinions of countless others. Furthermore, these technologies are affecting a process of homogenization in which multicultural values and traditions regarding books are beginning to disintegrate. Print culture, on the other hand, employs a ready philosophical resistance to this process of homogenization. The tangible book will always see its author or reader as an autonomous unit. The printed book is immediately divorced from the swaying opinions of others. Moreover, the philosophical nature of the book is closer to our own materiality and embedded nature within the natural world. No doubt, the tangible aspects of a physical book blend in well with our other sensuous surroundings. There is something very refreshing about taking a physical book – a medium that is both singular and linear – and finding a place for retreat and imaginative venture. This feeling is part of our biological nature. It does not exist with mediums that display electronic text, because one needs a source of electrical power for digital devices. These devices are also multi-linear in the sense that you need WIFI Internet access and an operating system, which has many other applications on the device; a great temptation for the mind to wander. In other words, no longer is there just one thing to focus on and enjoy when reading in electronic format. Where we once had purpose with the fully disclosed nature of the book, we now have the sporadic nullity of literate devices that are leading us in contradictory directions.

This leads me to consider William J. Bernstein’s book Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet. Bernstein is optimistic about digital communications technologies, even drawing a correlative link between every day, personal technology use and increased democratic values. He says, “Simply put, in a free market economy, communications and surveillance technologies rapidly become cheaper and more accessible to and–more important–controlled by the general population” (Bernstein, 3). Despite my reluctance, on purely philosophical grounds, to accept the global diffusion of digital communications technologies, I realize the potential this type of technology has for being a positive force in society. This technology can motivate individuals to organize, perfect a discourse, and engage in critical issues. For instance, digital activism is spreading and becoming the de jure method of civic engagement. The Arab Spring, perhaps, is the prime example of successful political motivation predicated on social media. Today, as well, we are reaching a critical point in our history with citizens demanding change from the government on issues of mental health, background checks, and gun control. The ubiquitous use of social media and portable devices used for sharing our immediate experiences has shocked many in this nation recently with images of violence. Never before have we had such grotesque evidence of an event streamlined for public media consumption. This media access has knocked many people out of their political stupor. But such stupor, I believe, is also a product of this very same media. McLuhan said that “all media works us over completely.” We are beguiled by technology and its strange power. The breakneck speed of our digital technologies; the power of its abstractions; and the tendency it has to disrupt our natural ways of relating to each other has very much worked us over completely.

On a final note, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said that “What is dangerous is not technology. There is no demonry of technology, but rather there is the mystery of its essence” (Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, 28). The essence of technology and our own essence is very much disproportional. The book, however, has something to say to us. Its tradition is one of harmony with the environment, with cultural lifeways, and with a standard for intellectual endeavor. But the book’s propensity to provide shared experiences has been disrupted. The intersubjectivity of the book has been fragmented. Still, our evolution with digital technology is slowly, and painfully, bringing us to a new pinnacle of achievement, I think; a desperate grasp at reconnecting to a shared humanity.

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Social Phenomenology: Implications for Information Retrieval Systems

Abstract

This paper explores the shift in focus of the information sciences from cognitivist theories of information behavior to the everyday information practices of individuals. By “everyday information practices,” Savolainen (2008) means the processes of information seeking, information use, and information sharing. This shift emphasizes the conscious, lived experience of individuals in their discrete informational environments. Whereas previous studies of information behavior revolved around objective analyses of information systems, the new science attempts to qualify the subjective phenomena of information users. These phenomena include user perception and affective mental states, which have become the main focal points in attempts to study human-computer and human-system interaction. This empirical approach to studying information behavior has the potential to change how information is delivered and presented to users in various contexts. Following the social phenomenology of Savolainen (2008), I argue that the concept of lifeworld and users’ unique psychological characteristics are a vital consideration when evaluating or designing an information retrieval system.

Introduction

Understanding the psychology of information users is important in the digital age, as the need for information today is often punctuated by high demand and fast-paced work tasks. This means that information users are often busy in their daily lives performing retrieval tasks with the ubiquity of computer-mediated technologies. Information users, however, can easily become absorbed in these technologies, causing them to miss out on important opportunities for socialization. Recently, Kushlev et al. (2017) studied information-seeking behavior using smartphones to determine the effects on social and emotional well-being. Using experimental methods, the authors found that individuals who used smartphones for everyday information tasks felt more socially isolated than their “phoneless” peers. Because social connection is an essential psychological need, Kushlev et al. surmised that pervasive technological information seeking and use can have a negative impact on affective mood states (p. 72).

Social phenomenology confers the same understanding, allowing that affective mental states can radically influence user information practice. By “everyday information practices,” Savolainen (2008) means the processes of information seeking, information use, and information sharing. Each of these activities depart from one’s lifeworld, or the totality of experiences comprised in every individual (p. 51). This totality concerns the subjective viewpoints of individuals, the interplay of these viewpoints with others – referred to in the phenomenological tradition as intersubjectivity – and the social environments where individuals are embedded. Because users tend to assimilate new information based on what they already know, subjectivity dominates the information-seeking and retrieval process. Subjectivity is also greatly influenced by feelings and emotions, which are ingrained in one’s lifeworld. Cognitive and information scientists have gradually come to accept that affective mental states are precognitive and that they invariably influence cognitive behavior. Because cognition is required for information retrieval, it is important to consider the social phenomenological perspective when evaluating or designing an information retrieval system.

Literature Review:

The literature on information behavior over the past thirty years has increasingly considered the psychology of individuals. Beginning with Kuhlthau (1991), the process of searching for information was considered from the user perspective. Drawing on the work of psychologists and information scientists, Kuhlthau recognized that information needs were often preceded by uncertainty or anxiety. In order to ameliorate this anxiety, users had to distill meaning from information they retrieved during the information search process. Kuhlthau designed a model called the Information Search Process (ISP) model, which incorporated the affective (feelings), the cognitive (thoughts), and the physical (actions). The model also described six stages of information seeking. These are task initiation, topic selection, prefocus exploration, focus formulation, information collection and search closure (pp. 366-68). Kuhlthau’s model was applied in a large-scale, longitudinal study which surveyed 385 library users at 21 institutions including academic, public, and school libraries (p. 365).

Essentially, Kuhlthau argued that there are causal associations between cognitive states and affective states. For example, initiation of a new research task for high school or college students – the principal participants in Kuhlthau’s study – will cause uncertainty (a cognitive state), leading to anxiety and a lack of confidence (affective states). But as students embark on the research process and gain more knowledge of their topic, their confidence will increase. However, a dip in confidence during the exploration stage of the ISP is inevitable, as students will feel overwhelmed by the amount of information on their selected topic. This will cause them to revert back to a negative affective state. As students begin to identify relevant sources and interpret documents, there will again be a concomitant rise in positive affective states. Broadly understood, Kuhlthau’s ISP model indicates that higher knowledge states directly correlate to more positive affective states.

Kuhlthau’s model was widely accepted and was the first model of the research process to include emotions as an important factor for research. The ISP model was subsequently used to teach students to accept negative feelings as a natural part of the research process. This idea was embodied in Kracker’s (2002) opinion that “correctly placing the root of the negative emotions within the [research] process itself, rather than within the individual, allows students to experience the emotions in a less threatening and less personal way, and may help them feel less responsible for the discomfort they encounter” (p. 290). Recognizing that anxiety and stress can interfere with learning, Kracker devised a 30-minute presentation of Kuhlthau’s study for a group of high school and college students. Results suggested that knowledge of the ISP model reduced anxiety, but the study fell short in determining how the end product of the research process was perceived both emotionally and cognitively. Therefore, in another study, Kracker and Wang (2002) used content analysis to survey the psychological impact of research. The authors surveyed ninety students from four different sections of a technical and professional writing course (p. 296). Analyzing these students’ natural language descriptions of their own personal research projects, the authors coded 122 words representing feelings and 25 affective categories that group words based on similarity of meaning (p. 298). The affective categories measured emotional states, perceptions, and affinities toward the research process, thus encompassing both positive and negative feelings. 8 cognitive categories were selected based on Kuhlthau’s ISP model, comprising Kuhlthau’s six stages of information seeking, as well as “overall view of research” and “iterative nature of the process.” In addition, 5 derived categories were added measuring students’ thoughts on writing, learning, creativity, assistance from others, and locating sources (p. 299).

Kracker and Wang searched for co-occurrences between the two phenomenal categories of affective and cognitive. For example, feelings of anxiety were reported for 10 different cognitive categories (p. 300). However, feelings of confidence were reported for all of the same categories except iterative nature and writing process (p. 300). While more students indicated anxiety over confidence (69 mentions versus 31 mentions, respectively), the number of mentions across Kracker and Wang’s study were widely scattered. For example, discrepancy existed between feelings of difficulty and easiness (48 mentions versus 24 mentions), and feelings of dislike and interest (15 mentions versus 32 mentions) (p. 300). This last finding is odd, as it seems that positive affinity toward research should be low compared to the relatively high mentions of negative mood states. Also notable is the fact that Kracker and Wang found elective students as having had a more negative experience than major students (p. 300). Explications for these findings depended on further study, which problematized the authors efforts of finding patterns and trends relating to student perception and affinity toward research tasks.

Despite the importance of this research in bringing to light the centrality of user perception and emotion, there are problems with the ISP model. Savolainen (2015) argues that Kuhlthau “does not characterize the relationship between short-lived affective factors (feelings) and moods (relatively enduring affective-cognitive factors understood in terms of attitudes)” (p. 184). Savolainen agrees that affect and cognition are interrelated, but instead of defining mood as an orientation or an affective mental state that can be, as it were, conjured at will – as with Kuhlthau’s invitational and indicative moods (1991, p. 363) – Savolainen’s definition of mood takes on a more complex, phenomenological meaning. What Savolainen finds at fault is the functionalism inherent in Kuhlthau’s research. Writing further, Savolainen says: “Following the ideas of [George] Kelly (1963, p. 64), mood has been assigned a more central role in the ISP model because it allows the range within which the cognitive factors can operate to broaden or narrow (p. 184). In other words, it seemingly did not matter to Kuhlthau what constituted mood; only that mood methodologically supported the processes of the ISP. This framework presupposes that emotions do not come into play until they are triggered by the research process. Social phenomenology, on the other hand, employs a temporal dialectic where human action is rooted biographically and perceived as project-oriented and perspectivist (Savolainen, 2008, p. 53). This implies that the past can influence the future, and mood can influence information-seeking and use.

Nahl (2007) is another author who has advocated a user-centered focus based on affective processes. Nahl proposed the Social-Biological Information Technology (SBIT) model. In this model, there are three biological subsystems that operate during the stages of information processing and use. These are the affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor subsystems, which are believed by Nahl to operate interdependently. Briefly explained, the affective subsystem relies on a user’s emotions and motivations to use a system for information retrieval. When motivated, the cognitive subsystem analyzes the information retrieved to determine what to do with it in terms of “goal-directed planning” (p. 2025). The efficacy of this planning, however, is dependent on the intentionality of the user. For instance, the user may intend to use a system determinedly or, perhaps, apathetically. As Nahl says, “unless the user constrains thinking within the limits that count as goal-planning, the procedure does not count as planning, but as distraction, misinterpretation, serendipity, or shift in goal-intention” (p. 2025). Finally, the sensorimotor subsystem relies on the “use affordances” (p. 2025), or the design features that solicit user interaction with an information system interface. All three subsystems operate within the social context of the user and through the technological infrastructure of the user’s informational environment.

In the above description of the SBIT model, the adjective of constraint presupposes that emotions can be easily controlled by users in their efforts to direct the information search process. Aside from the initial affective motivations and intentions, Nahl does not see emotions as entering into the equation until the user has cognitively interpreted or assessed the information retrieved. Savolainen (2015) argues that Nahl’s framework hinges on appraisal theory, “suggesting that emotions are elicited by the individual’s cognitive interpretation or assessment of perceived information about the environment” (p. 188). In fact, as Savolainen shows, affective processes are the last step in the sequential procedures of the SBIT. For example, the sensorimotor subsystem notices information (step 1); the cognitive subsystem appraises information (step 2); and finally, the affective subsystem evaluates information based on feelings and emotions (step 3). According to Nahl, step 3 is the “end point” of information reception (Savolainen, 2015, p. 190). But what about emotions influencing cognitive processes before the search process even begins?

Outside of information behavior research, there have been some convincing studies in the field of cognitive neuroscience. Cohen et al. (2016) tested to determine how sustained emotional states impact cognitive control. The authors found that positive emotional states activated neuronal circuitry in the frontoparietal and frontostriatal lobes of the brain (p. 453). These are the areas associated with cognitive performance. When these brain areas were lit up on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, individuals were more focused, and their cognitive skills increased. Conversely, diminished neuronal activity in these areas of the brain led to decreased cognitive performance, triggered by negative emotional cues (p. 454). However, like any cognitive study focusing on subjective phenomena, Cohen et al. were unable to empirically prove how their test subjects were feeling when they were submitted to positive and negative emotional cues. But the authors explicitly suggest that emotional states will invariably influence cognitive and neural processes.

It is more than likely that there is an additive effect between positive and negative emotional states and the development of one’s cognitive abilities. Here, the concept of lifeworld is useful. As stated above, users assimilate new information based on what they already know. In other words, the stock of knowledge for information users is sedimented (Savolainen, 2008, p. 57). We can utilize Savolainen’s idea of sedimentation when thinking about emotions as well. Throughout the course of lived experience, for example, emotions are compounded as individuals negotiate the lifeworld. These emotions can be predominately positive or negative, shaping an individual and their affective character. In developmental psychology, it is understood that this is how psychopathologies form (Cohen et al., pp. 446, 455). In light of the evidence on cognitive control, then, negative affective states are a vital consideration for information scientists. Especially considering that “one in five adolescents [meet] the criteria for mental illness” (Cohen et al., p. 455). This fact carries considerable import for post-secondary educators, but also for information system designers as well. Indeed, emotions are not – as Nahl suggests – spontaneous feelings that users experience only after appraising information. Nor are they moods that information users can solicit at will – as per Kuhlthau – to direct the research process. Instead, emotions are highly influential features that are rooted biologically and biographically in terms of the user’s lifeworld. Therefore, understanding how to deflect or redirect the negative emotions of users during the information retrieval process is an imperative for system design.

Discussion

Searching for information can be an enjoyable and enlightening experience, especially if that search is predicated on a user’s interests. Savolainen (2008) defines interest as a “teleoaffective structure” which “gives a general direction to thinking and provides a horizon for action (p. 57). But even personal interests can be adversely affected by negative mental states. Research interests in particular, and the cognitive effort it takes to perform research tasks, can be significantly influenced by negative emotions that are biological and biographical, but also stress-induced by the demands and time limitations of an assigned task. For instance, one of the first stages of the research process is resource gathering. This procedure relies on formulating search queries. As Savolainen (2015) says, “people may plan a search query by thinking of words they know that fall within the desired or intended topic” (p. 190). But this can be challenging for some users. Information users who suffer from major depression, for example, may have a harder time determining keyword relevance and synthesizing sources. Depression causes a generalized cognitive slowing and a deficit in word retrieval from memory. This deficit is due to “changes in the functioning of neural networks that coordinate complex cognitive abilities” (Douglas et al., 2012, p. 281). This is not to say that depressed users are poor researchers, or that they are incapable of producing quality work. In fact, one can argue that the opposite is true, as depressed individuals are more likely to employ information strategies that are “more active or systematic, [and] detailed” compared to the “relatively passive or nonsystematic” strategies of people with positive affective states (Sinclair & Mark, 1995, as cited in González-Ibáñez & Shah, 2016, p. 2). But the question that concerns us here is how information retrieval systems can enhance the cognitive processes of users who are predisposed to negative affective states based on their past experience in the lifeworld.

The literature on research tasks evoking negative affective states is unequivocal. This phenomenon has even been experimentally measured in healthy control groups, defined by Douglas et al. (2012) as individuals without the presence of a mental illness (p. 279). Significantly, we can understand this to mean that information use predicated on technological systems can adversely affect individuals. Like Kushlev et al.’s findings mentioned at the beginning of this paper, information practices in the digital age can potentially retard social and emotional growth. Such an outcome, however, is ultimately determined by wider systemic factors arising from users’ social and economic environments. Still, the more complex the task, the more difficult it is for users to deduce task inputs, search processes, and search outcomes, which impacts negatively on users’ emotional states (Poddar & Ruthven, 2010, pp. 42-43).

Thus far, only the beginning stages of research have been described and implicated in producing negative feelings among users. But many post-secondary students have an aversion to the writing process as well. This process relies on variegated skills such as elaboration of sources, paper organization, critical evaluation, and synthesis of arguments. Zhou (2013) argues that negative emotions interrupt the regulation and application of these skills. I contend, however, that the presence of negative affective states (even in regard to a psychological disorder like major depression), does not necessarily mean that the user so affected is less willingly engaged in the research process, or that their problem-solving behavior is less identifiable. Judging by the research of Cohen et al., conditions like depression – and negative mood states in general – will only slow the cognitive processing of a user while they are engaged in an information research task. Cognitive insight does not necessarily disappear. The question becomes: can this cognitive slowing be allayed by the right kind of information system design? As we already know, the main objective of an information retrieval system is to provide users with relevant information that can be evaluated quickly and efficiently for a multitude of tasks. Today, in light of the affective research, relevance is no longer a simple measurement of correlation between document representation and user query. In contemporary system design, relevance is a user-centered concept that is concerned with providing a holistic experience where users feel that their retrieved information is valuable and beneficial. I now turn to the prospect of user-centered design based on an implicit understanding of negative affective states.

Implications

Efforts to temper the negative feelings of users began in the field of Human-Computer Interaction through the use of affective language displays. For example, apologetic on-screen display (OSD) messages were programmed into some information retrieval systems to empathize with users in various contexts of the search process. Park et al. (2016) believe that apologetic interaction can help moderate negative emotions and decrease user frustration, as well as increase users’ feelings of system trustworthiness, aesthetic, and usability. Most information retrieval systems, however, are neutral in that they only return status reports of a user’s search. For example, when a search query fails to retrieve any dynamic or static content, many systems will simply display a “No results found” page. Ultimately, Park et al. found that apologetic OSD messages markedly improved users’ levels of frustration with the system (p. 736). Improvements were also found in the perceptual categories of usability and aestheticism. Participants felt that an apologetic system was more usable than a neutral system (p. 737). Additionally, and more surprisingly, participants also felt that the apologetic system was more aesthetically appealing (p. 736). Although this last finding may have more to do with the interface design of the testing systems than the actual presence of affective messages. In any case, it appears that designing systems with emotionally-sensitive messages does have the potential to moderate the information behavior of users. But the authors’ state that “little is known about the impact such affective messages have on users’ affective states and their perceptions of the system” (p. 733). Moreover, it is unknown whether or not these messages have any long-term positive effects on users’ affective character.

Dynamic human-system interaction is an area suitable for artificial intelligence scientists as well as psychologists. Affective messages must be displayed at the right time and in the right context for specific scenarios. For instance, users employ different strategies and keywords when searching for information, so the system has to be dynamic and adaptive to different styles of searching. Furthermore, the system must understand its users in order to provide proper affective messages. This matter increases in complexity when considering the relation between relevance judgments and affective responses. Barral et al. (2016) mention that “after deciding that a text is relevant, one might start reading the relevant text item, which in turn might elicit several emotional responses” (p. 505). This interplay of the cognitive and the emotional is sometimes unpredictable, as it can be difficult to determine in advance the reactions that different individuals will have when confronted with certain pieces of information. For example, a news article editorializing on a national tragedy may bring one individual to tears, while another individual may respond by disappointingly shaking their head. In other words, individuals have unique psychological and personality traits that cause them to react in different ways.

Several studies have attempted to measure physiological responses to information in order to determine users’ felt emotions (e.g. Gwizdka, 2014; and González-Ibáñez & Shah, 2016). Affective recommender systems have been posited (Tkalčić et al., 2011), whereby metadata derived from physiological tests can be used by the system for affective messaging and suggestions for further reading. Barral et al. (2016) annotated textual content with electrodermal data to measure user relevance and emotional response. These types of studies are essential for designing information retrieval systems that can mitigate negative affective responses and redirect users, encouraging them to interact with systems in a more cognitively-enriching way. The question remains, however, if it is ethical to allow machine intelligence the ability to manipulate user perception of information.

Conclusion

The phenomenal lifeworld situates all actions that human beings take in their social and cultural environments. This paper investigated the subjective experience of users with information retrieval systems. The act of gathering and evaluating information has been shown to be rooted biologically, and the way users create meaning out of information retrieved depends on their past experience, as well as their sedimented knowledge and emotions. With the prevalence of digital technologies and networked retrieval systems, the process of information seeking, use, and sharing has become much more insular and isolated in the digital age. The negative emotions that follow complex research tasks are often compounded by this isolation. Because information retrieval systems are increasingly used for everyday information practices, it is important to consider the social integration of these systems. Social phenomenology offers an alternative perspective to approach issues that have so far been discussed in terms of “information behavior” (Savolainen, 2008, p. 202). The intersubjectivity of users and system designers is often obscured through the mediation of systems, but system designers need to be aware of how users approach the information search process. This approach is not performed in a vacuum, as users will always bring their subjective experiences with them to the user interface. Subjective experience is the province of phenomenology, and I think, therefore, that it is a meaningful framework for the information sciences.

References

Barral, O., Kosunen, I., Ruotsalo, T., Spapé, M. M., Eugster, M. J., Ravaja, N., & Kaski, S (2016, November 15). Extracting Relevance and Affect Information from Physiological Text Annotation. User Modeling and User-Adapted Interaction, 26(5), 493-520.

Cohen, A. O., Dellarco, D. V., Breiner, K., Helion, C., Heller, A. S., Rahdar, A., & Pedersen, G (2016, March 1). The Impact of Emotional States on Cognitive Control Circuitry and Function. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 28(3), 446-459.

Douglas, K. M., Porter, R. J., Knight, R. G., & Alsop, B. (2012) The Dynamics of Word Retrieval in Major Depression. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 47(3), 276-283.

González-Ibáñez, R., & Shah, C. (2016, October 14). Using Affective Signals as Implicit Indicators of Information Relevance and Information Processing Strategies. ASIST, 1-10. Gwizdka, J. (2014, August 26). Characterizing Relevance with Eye-tracking Measures. IIiX ‘2014, 58-67.

Kracker, J. (2002). Research Anxiety and Students’ Perceptions of Research: An Experiment. Part I. Effect of Teaching Kuhlthau’s ISP Model. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(4), 282-294.

Kracker, J., & Wang, P. (2002, January 22). Research Anxiety and Students’ Perceptions of Research: An Experiment. Part II. Content Analysis of Their Writings on Two Experiences. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(4), 295-307.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the Search Process: Information Seeking from the User’s Perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.

Kushlev, K., Proulx, J., & Dunn, E. W. (2017). Digitally Connected, Socially Disconnected: The Effects of Relying on Technology Rather than other People. Computers in Human Behavior, 76, 68-74.

Nahl, D. (2007, September 7). Social–Biological Information Technology: An Integrated Conceptual Framework. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(13), 2021-2046.

Park, S. J., MacDonald, C. M., & Khoo, M. (2012, June 11). Do You Care if a Computer Says Sorry? User Experience Design through Affective Messages. DIS 2012.

Poddar, A., & Ruthven, I. (2010, August 18). The Emotional Impact of Search Tasks. Proc. of the 3rd IIiX 2010, 35-44.

Savolainen, R. (2008). Everyday Information Practices: A Social Phenomenological Perspective. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Savolainen, R. (2015). The Interplay of Affective and Cognitive Factors in Information Seeking and Use: Comparing Kuhlthau’s and Nahl’s Models. Journal of Documentation71(1), 175-197.

Tkalčić, M., Košir, A., Tasić, J. (2011). Affective Recommender Systems: The Role of Emotions in Recommender Systems. Proceedings The RecSys 2011 Workshop on Human Decision Making in Recommender Systems, 9–13.

Zhou, M. (2013, April 24). ‘‘I am Really Good at It’’ or ‘‘I am Just Feeling Lucky’’: The Effects of Emotions on Information Problem-solving. Association for Educational Communications and Technology, 505-520.

Towards a Neurophenomenology of Consciousness

In David Chalmers’ seminal paper “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Chalmers’ laid out his binary model of the hard and easy problems. The easy problems of consciousness are those which can be explained by computational or neural mechanisms, whereas the hard problem relates principally to experience and qualia. Reframed as a question, how can individuals have subjective mental experiences that arise from “soggy grey matter?” (McGinn). Moreover, why are these experiences different, and capable of producing a rich inner life? Chalmers showed that functional explanations simply failed to give a satisfactory account of phenomenal consciousness, and he moved to suggest that what was needed was an “extra ingredient” to bridge the explanatory gap in the science of the mind (Chalmers).

Responding to Chalmers’ non-reductive conclusion in 1996, the Chilean biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist Francisco Varela offered an alternative conception to the hard problem. Eschewing characteristic arguments associated with functionalism, reductionism, and mysterianism, Varela made the case for a first-person study of consciousness combined with cognitive scientific methods. Borrowing from the tradition of continental phenomenology, he maintained that consciousness is irreducible and “[l]ived experience is where we start from and where all must link back to, like a guiding thread” (Neurophenomenology 334). In other words, to arrive at any genuine knowledge of the world (and our place in it) presupposes a first-person view of phenomenality. Many philosophers of mind privilege the first-person view (Varela noted John Searle and Ray Jackendoff as examples), agreeing that consciousness is irreducible. However, they claim that such a position suffers from self-referential problems, and is therefore impossible to quantify or explain empirically. Varela attempted to move beyond this mere pessimistic surrender to the question. He proposed a first-person starting point, reinforced by a disciplined examination of experience, using both past and present methodologies. Ultimately, I feel that Varela’s neurophenomenology is an intellectually honest approach to the science of the mind. Cognitive science has so compartmentalized the brain that some philosophers are given to abstract analogy, comparing brains to robots or computers. These types of assertions are ontologically destitute, retaining little semblance of an originary, lived experience that, I believe, is necessary for understanding consciousness. Although the school of phenomenology has historically been neutral with regards to ontology, a co-determination of both external and phenomenological analysis offers a promising way ahead for studying consciousness.

Privileging a first-person view of consciousness invariably implies a phenomenological inspiration. Varela focused on the “anni mirabiles” for phenomenology: Edmund Husserl in the West, William James in the United States, and the Kyoto School in Japan (Neurophenomenology 335). Most fundamental to Varela’s project was Husserl. It was Husserl who inaugurated the method of phenomenological reduction, which consists of “bracketing” all our “folk or scientific opinions, beliefs, and theories about consciousness” (Gallagher 686). To this end, consciousness and the phenomenal field are stripped of any theoretical conclusions made by science or psychology. In other words, experience and qualia are returned to their essences for renewed study. Husserl advocated this return “to the things themselves,” precisely because lived experience is pretheoretical (Neurophenomenology 336). It would seem, then, that phenomenology is antithetical to the whole enterprise of science, since science seeks to understand reality. However, Husserl sought a firm grounding for epistemology (a necessary prerequisite for any scientific endeavor), which was to be without naïve allegiance to objectivism or scientism (Gallagher 686).

Enter Husserl’s concept of intentionality, borrowed from his preceptor, Franz Brentano. Husserl maintained that consciousness has an intentional character, meaning that one is always conscious of something. In other words, consciousness is object-related, which entails that experience is influenced by phenomena. However, an object can also be intended without it actually existing. For example, one can imagine a unicorn and relate to that object abstractly, rather than perceptually. Indeed, whether generated inwardly or outwardly, for Husserl, “[a]ll that is needed for intentionality to occur is the existence of an experience with the appropriate internal structure of object-directness” (Zahavi 21). Varela used this schema to defend the attitude of reduction, which he saw as necessary to “turn the direction of the movement of thinking from its habitual content-oriented direction backwards towards the arising of thoughts themselves” (Neurophenomenology 337). The phenomenological reduction, then, construed in this fashion, would affect a genuine approach to the study of the mind.

By following the premises of phenomenological reduction and intentionality, Varela maintained that the immediacy of experience gained a more vivid, intimate character. Varela noted that “[t]his gain in intimacy with the phenomenon is crucial, for it is the basis of the criteria of truth in phenomenological analysis, the nature of its evidence” (Neurophenomenology 337). What one intuits, then, is of exceeding importance. However, intuitive evidence still requires symbolic inscription, such as “an ‘embodiment’ that incarnates and shapes what we experience” (Neurophenomenology 337). Here, I believe, Varela was suggesting a radical change in Western epistemology. Based on his readings of Buddhist mindfulness/awareness, meditation, phenomenology, and cognitive science, Varela was pushing for a reflection of experience that necessarily includes the animate, breathing body. Moreover, for a proper reflection, the mind must be coordinated with the aforementioned body. Given the mind’s tendency to get distracted, it can be difficult to attune the mind-body relation. This is why Varela rounded off his discussion on the aspects of a phenomenological-reduced conscious by emphasizing the importance of skill-training in attentive bracketing, intuition, and illuminative description (Neurophenomenology 338).

The mind-body problem was explicated by Varela to show how abstract, disembodied reflection has traditionally dominated Western thought. For Varela, the Cartesian problematic was not simply a theoretical speculation separate from the body, but a speculation that originates in “a practical, lived experience. . . involving the mustering of one’s whole mind and body” (The Embodied Mind 30). Here, Varela drew parallels between his mission and the pragmatism of philosophers like William James. Varela was interested in what the mind-body relation was capable of doing in a very real, pragmatic sense. James had been unequivocal about pragmatism, concluding his lecture on “What Pragmatism Means” by stating that “[p]ragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences” (James 36). Pragmatism, then, is a method that stands firm against rationalism and abstract, scientific dogmatism. Varela upheld this idea, and in keeping with classical phenomenology, he claimed that science was a “theoretical activity after the fact,” incapable of recapturing or explaining the richness of experience (The Embodied Mind 19). Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed this idea further in his book Phenomenology of Perception, and these insights largely paved the way for Varela’s phenomenological reduction.

Before the phenomenological reduction of Husserl, the dominant field of psychology posited introspectionism as the fundamental course for quantifying human experience. The idea inherent in early experimental psychology was that mental phenomena were physical, and it was therefore up to psychology to investigate mental structures (Zahavi 13). Husserl rejected this notion, because he saw psychologism as suffering from several categorical errors. Namely, that psychology was in a position to claim the theoretical foundation for logical empiricism. In order to come to a closer understanding of experience, introspectionism suggested that subjects reflect on their experiences as if they were an unbiased, outside observer. For obvious reasons, this research program failed, because subjects’ reflections were influenced by their very own preconceptions of the mind. Indeed, this preconceptual analysis was what Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger referred to as “the abstract attitude of the scientist and the philosopher” (The Embodied Mind 30). Where phenomenology differs from mere introspectionism is in the technique of bracketing, or maintaining a critical distance from quick or easy descriptive processes. Other philosophers, such as Tim Bayne and Daniel Dennett, have been unable to draw this distinction between introspectionism and the method of phenomenological reduction. Here, it will be important to consider some typical objections to phenomenology before returning to Varela’s outline for neurophenomenology.

Tim Bayne has argued against the idea that phenomenology is a unique or privileged method for describing the first-person nature of consciousness. At the same time, however, Bayne admits that his knowledge of phenomenology is “limited.” He goes on to assert that phenomenological reduction and introspection are dubious methods which both attempt to do the same thing; that is, explain conscious experience (Bayne 351-352). Bayne’s only concession to phenomenology is that (à la Husserl’s concept of eidetic essences) phenomenology is more strictly involved than introspectionism in trying to discover the necessary structure of consciousness. Still, Bayne maintains that, while Varela may have been occupied with the noble goal of trying to understand the essential structure of consciousness, there is nothing in his research program that offers a promising way ahead in the science of the mind. Furthermore, Bayne takes issue with Varela’s use of James’ pragmatism. He notes that James was “a good old-fashioned introspectionist,” which somehow makes Varela’s high estimation of him suspect (Bayne 355). However, even if James was critical of phenomenology (a footnote in Andrew Bailey’s paper “Beyond the Fringe” suggests that he was), his pragmatism still lends considerable support to Varela’s attempt to guide a factual study of the mind. Indeed, pragmatism is not only compatible with first-person methodologies to science; pragmatism can be profitable for these methodologies as well. So, Bayne’s criticism is without merit.

The opposition between first-person and third-person accounts of consciousness has been debated ad nauseam by philosophers. Varela’s opinion was that “so-called third-person, objective accounts are done by a community of concrete people who are embodied in their social and natural world as much as first-person accounts” (Neurophenomenology 340). Varela was attempting to bridge the objective and subjective divide into a harmonious relation. However, other philosophers balk at harmony, and are adamant against a first-person approach. The most prominent philosopher among third-person advocates is probably Daniel Dennett. A radical eliminativist, Dennett has characterized phenomenologists as being “deeply into obscurantism” (Masís 71). In Consciousness Explained, he notes that Husserl’s philosophy is “a special technique of introspection” (Dennett 44). We have already seen that this is false, but Dennett is still comfortable with maligning the continental tradition and saying that phenomenology has “failed.” As a cognitive scientist, Dennett reasons that “[e]ven if mental events are not among the data of science, this does not mean we cannot study them scientifically. . . a theory [of mind] will have to be constructed from the third-person point of view, since all science is constructed from that perspective” (Dennett 71). Since traditional phenomenology is not objective enough for Dennett, he outlines his own techniques for explaining phenomenal experience by coining new terms like autophenomenology and heterophenomenology.

According to Dennett, heterophenomenology is a “neutral path leading from objective physical science and its insistence on the third-person point of view, to a method of phenomenological description that can (in principle) do justice to the most private and ineffable subjective experiences, while never abandoning the methodological scruples of science” (Dennett 72). Dennett claims that worldly experience (Husserl’s Lebenswelt or lifeworld) is a “theorist’s fiction,” and first-person experience is characterized by so-called autophenomenology, which is simply a naïve account of one’s phenomenal experience. Basically, what Dennett means is that our interpretations of our own subjective experiences are invariably false. He asserts that what we believe to be going on in our day-to-day mental lives is just part of a “grand illusion.” For example, anyone with a headache would authoritatively claim that their experience of that headache is a painful one. But Dennett warns us against making such authoritative claims. In his words, “[y]ou are not authoritative about what is happening in you, but only about what seems to be happening in you” (Dennett 96). For Dennett, these illusory seemings run the gamut of mental events, and he maintains that the structure of conscious experience is not accessible on a “personal level” (The Embodied Mind 48). As if there were a “homunculus” working behind the scenes of our conscious awareness, what we perceive to be real, for Dennett, is not real at all. Dennett’s computational theory of the mind, then, “reduces phenomenological experience and subjectivity to something merely private and ineffable” (Masís 76). But what philosophers like Dennett fail to comprehend is that the transcendental stance of phenomenology is not purposefully obscure. Phenomenology, as a philosophical endeavor, is characterized by rigorous attention to neutralizing a certain dogmatic attitude towards reality, thereby focusing on sense and meaningfulness in the world of lived experience (Masís 82). Therefore, phenomenology does not investigate private and ineffable seemings, but reality as such. Dennett’s heterophenomenology, then, has very little to do with classical phenomenology. He relies too heavily on verbal reports and a posteriori beliefs about experience, which place him in error precisely because phenomenology has shown that experience is pretheoretical. Indeed, this argument characterizes the dividing line of Chalmers’ binary approach described at the outset of this paper. Dennett, on the other hand, seems to be in favor of a dogmatic, theoretical attitude that is somehow equipped with the necessary scientific tools to explain consciousness. As Jethro Masís amusingly says, he is “bewitched by a certain species of scientism” (Masís 86).

Varela argued that experience was not private or ineffable; it was intersubjective. Experience is something that is shared between and among body-subjects that are in the world. Intersubjectivity, then, illuminates a second-person approach of cognition and allows for empathy within the framework of the mind. Recently, Natalie Depraz has elaborated on intersubjective validation in respect to Husserlian phenomenology. She contends that openness toward worldly-embedded body-subjects (persons) “enables [us] to deal with a second-person approach oriented toward the third-person one. . . without going into the heterophenomenological stance, which is counter-productive as far as a lived experiential intersubjectivity is concerned” (Depraz). In other words, being open to the world as a first-person cognizing subject allows for a relational mutuality of experience. Where physiological responses are observed to be similar across a broad sample size of isomorphic subjects experiencing the same external phenomena, it is unlikely that experience is either private or ineffable. Indeed, a neurobiological proposal is therefore necessary for any proper understanding of intersubjective validation, as well as Varela’s research program on the whole.

Thus far, the information presented here on Varela et al. has been largely conceptual. However, the reader looking for concrete scientific examples should realize that Varela did not shirk away from scientific inquiry. Indeed, as a biologist and neuroscientist, Varela’s approach to the mind was intimately bound up with empirical effort. Still, he believed that scientific research on consciousness was to be done from the safety-net of phenomenological reduction. For Varela, the neural correlates of consciousness were something “to be established, not just as a matter of philosophical commitment or physicalist assumption, but from a methodologically sound examination of experiential invariants” (Neurophenomenology 344). Therefore, a disciplined method of gathering first-person data is necessary in order to study consciousness in a scientific way. Following these desiderata, Varela’s neurophenomenology is just such a disciplined method of experience and cognitive science. In Varela’s words, “the hypothesis presented here provides an explicit avenue to conduct research in cognitive science as if both brain physiology and mental experience mattered” (Neurophenomenology 344). Clearly, brain physiology and mental experience do matter, as we have seen from the perspectives of first and second-person approaches. In this sense, Varela’s neurophenomenology builds productively on the work of Searle, Christof Koch, and Chalmers. For instance, neurophenomenology is naturalistically-oriented, it seeks out the neural correlates of consciousness, and it grants “structural coherence;” albeit with an added ontological value (Neurophenomenology 345). All things considered, Varela’s contribution, I believe, deserves a deep respect from individuals associated with the philosophy of mind.

First-person science, by way of Varela, still has numerous philosophically-stubborn minds to convert before it becomes the dominant approach to cognitive science. Fortunately, there are adept phenomenologists continuing the work of the late Francisco Varela, who regrettably passed away in 2001. Alva Noë and Evan Thompson are two such philosophers who endorse the marriage of classical phenomenology and cognitive science. Following Varela, Noë and Thompson advocate an embodied and enactive cognitive science, in which an organic philosophy based on the lifeworld and originary, lived experience is the starting point. Western science, as we have seen, has been characterized by disembodied and abstract modes of thought, incommensurate with ideas that suggest “mind and world are mutually overlapping.” But Varela maintained that “cognitive science cannot escape this circulation, and must cultivate it instead” (Neurophenomenology 346). For neurophenomenology, cultivation is feasible in practice. The goal of phenomenological description, as explained by Varela, is of no more difficulty than attaining a know-how skill, such as playing a musical instrument. Indeed, neuroplasticity suggests that the mind does entail transformation. For instance, Varela and Thompson have argued in favor of neural causation, indicating that consciousness can be a volitional act. This observation comes from their studies on meditation, which Thompson has since elaborated on in his work on contemplative neuroscience.

Contemplative neuroscience “views attention, awareness, and emotion regulation as flexible and trainable skills, and works with experimental participants who have undergone extensive training in contemplative practices designed to hone these skills” (Thompson 187). Thompson’s work remarkably demonstrates that conscious experience can be willfully controlled by individuals trained in mindfulness/awareness and meditation. If this is the case, we are not in need of that little homunculus which Dennett likes to place at the center of his Cartesian theater. Thompson, like Varela, invokes the psychology of James to describe how voluntary attention is ordinarily captive to the whims of a wandering meta-consciousness, spontaneously giving rise to transient thoughts and memories. Given the dilemma that cognitive scientists face with respect to introspected verbal reports, Thompson suggests that a neurophenomenology of volitional consciousness is a useful approach to understanding conscious experience. Thompson mentions Antoine Lutz et al., who studied advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditators and compared them to novice meditators. Ultimately, the researchers found that higher gamma waves accompanied practitioners self-reports of increasing meditative clarity (Thompson 193). These studies indicate that neural networks are complex systems which “arise spontaneously given the local couplings among the network’s components and the way those couplings are globally constrained and regulated” (Thompson 193) Therefore, consciousness is characterized by reciprocal causal relations. However, this new insight into the neurobiology of free will has been criticized by neurophenomenology’s detractors as well.

Thompson’s neurological evidence has been misconstrued by Bayne as being characterized by “some kind of (token) identity theory.” In a desperate rebuttal, Bayne claims that the acceptance of “global order parameters” goes against the neurophenomenological stance that the mind is necessarily embodied (Bayne 358-359). But this statement makes Bayne sound ignorant of the facts. These studies, after all, were performed on advanced meditators who were consciously regulating their bodies. Bayne’s strongest argument, however, comes immediately after this oversight. He says that, “merely establishing that there are causal relations does not suffice to close the explanatory gap” (Bayne 359). This is a disheartening conclusion for neurophenomenology, but it is certainly not off the mark. Without a doubt, Bayne’s conclusion is the strongest part of his paper. He maintains that, even if cognitive scientists were able to empirically verify an isomorphism between phenomenal states and neuronal states, the “explanatory itch would remain” (Bayne 360-361). Indeed, any formal mathematical model would only permit predictions of phenomenal states on the basis of neural data. Explaining why particular neural states have a particular phenomenology would still be the mysterious lacuna in every consciousness laboratory. It may seem reasonable, then, to throw in with Colin McGinn and other mysterians. We may never be able to answer the hard problem due to a certain “cognitive closure” (McGinn). Still, it is useful to maintain an optimistic attitude going forward. As long as there is work to be done in the field of neuroscience, the continental tradition of phenomenology offers, I think, the best philosophical position for orienting oneself with respect to the matter.

 Works Cited

Bailey, Andrew R. “Beyond the Fringe: William James on the Transitional Parts of the Stream of Consciousness.” The View From Within: First-person approaches to the study of consciousness. Ed. Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear. Bowling Green, OH.: Imprint Academic, 1999. Print.

Bayne, Tim. “Closing the gap? Some questions for neurophenomenology.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 3 (2004): 349-64. Web.

Chalmers, David J. “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2.3 (1995): 200-19. Web.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. 10th ed. Boston, MA.: Little, Brown and Company, 1991. Print.

Depraz, Natalie. “Empathy and second-person methodology.” Continental Philosophy Review 45.3 (2012): 447-59. Print.

Gallagher, Shaun. “Phenomenological Approaches to Consciousness.” The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness. Ed. Susan Schneider and Max Velmans. 4th ed. Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 686-96. Print.

James, William. Pragmatism. 10th ed. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 1907. Print.

Masís, Jethro. “Phenomenological Skillful Coping: Another Counter-Argument to Daniel Dennett’s Heterophenomenology.” Journal of Philosophy of Life 2.1 (2012): 67-91. Web.

McGinn, Colin. “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?.” Mind V, July 1989. Web.

Thompson, Evan. “Contemplative Neuroscience as an Approach to Volitional Consciousness.” Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will. Ed. George F. Ellis, Nancey Murphey, and Timothy O’Connor. N.p.: Springer, 2009. 187-97. Web. <http://evanthompson.me/articles/>.

Varela, Francisco J. “Neurophenomenology: A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 3.4 (1996): 330-49. Web.

Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. 20th ed. Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1991. Print.

Zahavi, Dan. Husserl’s Phenomenology. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2003. Print.