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Francisco J. Varela
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The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  990 ratings  ·  42 reviews
Although the scientific study of the mind has developed rapidly, it has devoted little attention to human cognition understood as everyday lived experience. The Embodied Mind discusses the spontaneous and reflective dimensions of human experience. The authors argue that it is only by having a sense of common ground, between mind in science and mind in experience that our u ...more
Hardcover, 308 pages
Published October 1st 1991 by MIT Press (MA) (first published 1991)
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Jan 13, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For the past year or so I've been steeped in literature in cognitive science focused on addressing issues surrounding representation. Human beings can represent all sorts of things; chairs and cups, dogs and cats, the smell of a glass of wine, hunger and thirst, the meanings of words, and on and on. We can represent things that are directly in front of us, as well as things that not present to our senses (tracking a person walking around a corner, recalling last year's vacation, imagining a unic ...more
Way ahead of its time, this is the book that coalesced the embodied mind paradigm. There were others that came before such as Bateson's "Mind and Nature" and Maturana & Varela's "The Tree of Knowledge" but this volume was first to set out against both cognitivism and connectionism as being different versions of the representationalist-computationalist-disembodied view of mind to lay out an agenda for a biological-body-environment- and dynamical system-based view of mind and cognition.

Don't also
Jul 21, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Meh, Not So Fast--

I was far more impressed by Anthony Chemero's treatment of the subject than this classic text (though I have to take into consideration that Varela et al. were writing in a completely different period and context, and, as ushers of a new paradigm, had to deal with a different set of difficulties from those Chemero had to deal with, writing 18 years later). Most of the explanations felt incomplete, inadequate, and unconvincing (especially their exposition on the no-self, critiqu
Given the increasingly integrative nature of fields of study pertaining to the science of human experience (or is the experience of human science?) previously conceptualized as separate and distinct (i.e neurobiology, cognitive psychology, buddhism, philosophy etc), it was initially of historical interest that I picked up this book.
Reading it from the viewpoint of a practicing psychiatrist/psychotherapist with inclinations toward buddhist practices rather than a neuroscientist or a philosopher,
Stuart Macalpine
In this book Eleanor Rosch who developed Prototype theory in concept based learning explores Buddhist traditions of mindfulness to suggest a new way of studying the mind that avoids the "objective world" and "mind as computer" naivety of cognitivism, and also the rather solipsistic subjectivism of the extremes of idealism and skepticism.

Her point is actually pretty basic, but the text is dense. The basic point is that ideas arise in the mind and exist in the world due to a structural-coupling an
Apr 08, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The implementation of Merleau-Ponty's framework into modern cognitive science is definitely important and well presented (hence the 2 stars). But that's where the value of this book ends (IMHO).

What again is the added value of all the Buddhist references? Mindfulness is undoubtedly a promising research tool. However, I am a bit tired of all the "look, they used it for thousand of years, we have to listen to them". Show how Buddhist phenomenology can refine the western one or how it can offer a s
Jun 24, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Amazing discussion of cognitivism, connectionism, and enactivism. Quite difficult to get through at times, as Varela delved into the gritty details of certain theories. Ultimately, however, this book is a great scientific introduction to the practice of mindfulness/awareness, stripped of its religious baggage.
Jul 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book is centred around a conflict between Cognitive Science and Human Experience: 1) cogsci findings show that the mind is fragmented into various divisions, 2) despite that, it feels like there is a single self that unifies our experience. To resolve this conflict the authors suggest that Human Experience should be expanded by Mindfulness/Awareness meditation to develop an intuitive feeling for the lack of a unified self. Likewise cognitive science should also be expanded by ideas of Enacti ...more
Feb 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone looking for a middle way between our daily opposite (but often equal) absolutes
Shelves: cogsci
This is something else.

Francisco Varela, along with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, present an assortment of "middle ways," in special, between objectivism and nihilism, science and experience.

Science is traditionally concerned with what is 'verifiable' in a very peculiar way: that which is describable in words or diagrams, and that can be measured, compared, and usually reproduced. That works wonders for basically anything involving the creation of technology or the study of the natural world.
Muhammad Arqum
Oct 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of those books that teach you so much about a subject that it is difficult to write a review with so much newly found, overwhelming knowledge inside your head which is yet to form concrete grounds. Being a tech geek and having academic background in the IT/CS field I had already quite a decent familiarity with IA and cognitive sciences and such subjects, and the fact that this domain had always fascinated me was the reason I picked this book. Without having a clear idea of what th
Dec 27, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: psychology
I found this book very disappointing, as it wasn't very clear and most of its arguments fell flat. In their defence, Varela, Rosch and Thompson were not aiming to articulate a completed position so much as 'lay down a new path for thinking'; nonetheless, it would have been nice to see more arguments and less crude analogies with Buddhism and the experience of meditators. I don't doubt that meditation and Buddhism can teach us a lot about the mind, but this book doesn't make much of a case for it ...more
Alex Athanassakos

This is a very "dense" book that would appeal to people a) with a lot of background in the philosophy of mind and b) looking for alternative approaches to those provided by western philosophy. However, if you have not read anything yet in that area, I suggest you start with something easier and more introductory.

The authors provide a good review of the problems around "what is mind" and I really enjoyed the connection they make between objectivism and nihilism. However, they seem to have a parti
Regina Andreassen
Too basic.
Teo 2050


Varela FJ, Thompson E, & Rosch E (1991) (10:54) Embodied Mind, The - Cognitive Science and Human Experience


Foreword to the Revised Edition (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
• Notes

Introduction to the Revised Edition (Evan Thompson)
• Notes
• References

Introduction to the Revised Edition (Eleanor Rosch)
• Enaction Clarified
• • Phase 1 Enaction
• • Phase 2 Enaction
• Personal Experience: Why Buddhism?
• Science and Buddhism
• • Mindfulness
• • Beyond Mindfulness: Basic Knowledge Quest
Roger Whitson
Aug 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Even though this book was written in 1991, it remains one of the best academic accounts I've seen of the intersections between mindfulness, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. I say this knowing little about cognitive science. I've read Thompson's more recent book WAKING, DREAMING, BEING - which has some interesting descriptions of various cognitive states, but the comprehensiveness of the theories laid out by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch here is particularly interesting. And as a non ...more
Aug 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Broad study on cognitive science that is unapologetic about its range of sources, from philosophy (Merleau-Ponty to Nietzsche) to colour theory (including art) to artificial intelligence to Buddhist meditation practices to neurology to social criticism (and the idea of commonage). Somehow the authors pull together a book that is not only interesting but also very engaging and legible. Great insights, a little dated, but still relevant for the breadth of research that went into the book.
May 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The absolute milestone for those interested in the so called '4e' approaches to cognition and human experience. Simply brilliant!
Sergej van Middendorp
Foundational to the theory in my dissertation. A great read that relates embodiment in philosophy back to Merleau Ponty and biology.
Apr 26, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
A challenging read full of interesting ideas.
Juan Alberto Yoga
Feb 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
the chapter on multi-chromates is jawdroppin. these are animals that see more than three colors.
Vadim Kulikov
Mar 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ground breaking and seminal work which is the first to introduce the term "enactivism". I found the first half a little hard to read compared to the second half which I found exciting! Could be just me.
Dec 19, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Varela was an amazing scientist whom brought Buddhist thought into artificial intelligence and transformed AI's whole approach towards the need for embodied intelligence inspired by the middle way of dependent origination. Varela set up the life and mind institute with the dalai lama but unfortuantely died of cancer and im not sure anyone took over his role so the institute may have fallen wayside but def he was instrumental in getting the dalai lama publicly on board with neuroscientific resear ...more
Oct 16, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Varela et al make the case for bridging the gap between a phenomenological (first person) approach to experience and a dynamic systems-based approach to how the brain works. Evan Thompson continues this line of thinking in "Mind in Life" which was originally meant to be co-authored with Varela. Varela died in 2001.
William Staudenmaier
Excellent paradigm for the study of human thought, reflection, and action. Superb ground for deep exploration of experience. Describes in detail the capacities for letting go, reflecting, re-engaging in a fully human, compassionate manner. Provides research paradigms. The book is very detailed and provides an solid basis for the full depth and breath study of human science.
I think I'm going to have to go back to this and also have a good look at the reviews here, because even though I found merit in a lot of the ideas that this book expresses, I'm not sure I completely understood all of it and the line of argumentation supporting it. Definitely a complex topic that I have to revisit to wrap my mind around it.
the chapter on multi-chromates is jawdroppin. these are animals that see more than three colors.
Apr 06, 2010 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
great think on consciousness and embodiment; recommended by John Kowalko
Hollis Fishelson-holstine
I've read others by Varela and always enjoy them - I love his combination of science and spiritualism
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Francisco Varela was a biologist, philosopher, and neuroscientist who, together with his teacher Humberto Maturana, is best known for introducing the concept of *autopoiesis to biology*, for bringing phenomenology and first-person approaches to biology and neuroscience, and for co-founding the Mind and Life Institute to promote dialog between science and Buddhism.

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“Just as the mindfulness meditator is amazed to discover how mindless he is in daily life, so the first insights of the meditator who begins to question the self are normally not egolessness but the discovery of total egomania. Constantly one thinks, feels, and acts as though one had a self to protect and preserve. The slightest encroachment on the self's territory (a splinter in the finger, a noisy neighbor) arouses fear and anger. The slightest hope of self-enhancement (gain, praise, fame, pleasure) arouses greed and grasping. Any hint that a situation is irrelevant to the self (waiting for a bus, meditating) arouses boredom. Such impulses are instinctual, automatic, pervasive, and powerful. They are completely taken for granted in daily life.” 3 likes
“To deny the truth of our own experience in the scientific study of ourselves is not only unsatisfactory; it is to render the scientific study of ourselves without a subject matter. But to suppose that science cannot contribute to an understanding of our experience may be to abandon, within the modern context, the task of self-understanding. Experience and scientific understanding are like two legs without which we cannot walk.

We can phrase this very same idea in positive terms: it is only by having a sense of common ground between cognitive science and human experience that our understanding of cognition can be more complete and reach a satisfying level. We thus propose a constructive task: to enlarge the horizon of cognitive science to include the broader panorama of human, lived experience in a disciplined, transformative analysis.”
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