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Francisco Varela

Francisco Varela


Francisco Varela (1946-2001) was a Chilean biologist, neuroscientist and philosopher, and is on the shortlist of visionary pioneers who conceived the interdisciplinary thesis of the embodied mind.

He began his academic career studying medicine and biology but also had a wide philosophical orientation, being primarily influenced by the work of phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Varela also became a Tibetan Buddhist in the 1970’s. Undoubtedly influenced by both, he was well-positioned to join an understanding of the body in nature with an internal examination of consciousness and experience. His interdisciplinary connections were extensive, which ultimately led to the co-founding of the Integral Institute, a thinktank specifically aimed at sharing ideas between different disciplines.

The ultimate accumulation of his expertise was the publication of the canonical book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, co-authored with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch. He is also responsible for introducing the term neurophenomenology, which conjoins the distinct methods of inquiry from phenomenology and neuroscience; a fundamental union in the development of the embodied mind thesis.

Varela is also responsible for introducing the concept of autopoiesis to biology, which refers to the self-creation and self-maintenance of biological systems.

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EmbodimentWithout question, hospital environments need to be kept as biologically sterile as possible to prevent the spread of disease and infection among patients and medical practitioners. But does that mean hospitals need to be kept culturally sterile too?

That’s a question being asked by folks in Performing Medicine, a movement and organization dedicated to treating patients and doctors as embodied agents through the use of art, dance, theater and photography.

As someone who is having to deal with hospital culture more than I’d like to lately, I’ve firsthand experience of the cold halls in hospitals; the blank white or lightish blue painted walls. A singular design of pale, square tiles line the floors of every hospital room, organized systematically like a game of Tetris where every falling piece is the same. For a place meant to treat sickness, hospital life and culture sure seems lifeless. Why?

The fact of the matter is that Western medicine is still operating from a disembodied perspective which abstracts the disease and the treatment in such a way that the patients and doctors aren’t viewed as embodied agents. By shifting the paradigm and taking into consideration the entailments of embodiment, better medical results can be achieved.

Performing Medicine lists a few of the advantages of an embodied approach:

• Creativity and agility of body and mind
• An awareness of the affect ones own behavior has on others
• The ability to construct difficult questions and analyse information that has no simple solution
• A questioning of one’s own cultural and ethical assumptions

Furthermore, by focusing specifically on the way patients and doctors move, speak, see and interpret, an embodied medical practice can heal and treat more efficiently and ergonomically.

In a series of conversations, symposia, art injections and courses, in collaboration with Tate Modern, Performing Medicine is sharing its philosophy with the public. Check them out!

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