Kat: Let's start with sharing the generic diachrony that we derived from all the interviews of this pilot as illustrated in Fig. 3:
1) The experiences of all participants started with a search, as an open stage of browsing through a large landscape of memories.
2) At a certain moment a distinct memory rises and manifests into consciousness as either fitting or not fitting the task.
3) In the experiences of three of the five interviewees, this selection is re-evaluated by a more thorough and active assessment of the experience performed. This might happen, either immediately after the experience is remembered (valid for two interviewees, in both conditions), or at the very end of the selection process (valid for one interviewee).
Phases 1, 2, and eventually 3 are then repeated until an instance of each condition (successful or challenging) is chosen for presentation to the interviewer.
Bess: So, this generic diachrony ignores the specifics of each individual experience for the purpose of pointing out their common temporal structure. For example, here it is not mentioned that I first recalled a positive experience, quickly and spontaneously–the interview with Leonore. Instead, it says "appearance of one specific memory of an interview"–this leaves open how fast or effortful it appeared and whether it was a positive or challenging interview.
Kat: Indeed. Generic structures (synchronic and diachronic) can be of two types, depending on experimental design and your research question. They may give an overview of all the dimensions of a type of experience that are suggested by the data, thus comprising all those categories and instances that may only be expressed by one interviewee. We will describe such a structure later in the synchronic section. Alternatively, generic structures may describe the common characteristics only: what is shared across all interviews. In this sense, Fig. 3 illustrates a very rough diachronic structure that all experiences shared, but generally speaking, derivation of generic structures focus on what is shared or coherent between interviews.Footnote 21
Bess: Maybe it should be said here that, although every experience is in some sense unique, coherence and repeatability validates micro-phenomenological research. This plays out in at least four ways. Firstly, on the level of a single interview: If, despite the iterative structure of the interview, the consistency of the interviewee’s report is high, this indicates reliable data. Secondly, on the level of the generic analysis: the recurrence of structures across experiences reported by different interviewees or over interviews suggests reliability.Footnote 22 Thirdly, on the inter-researcher level: when different researchers repeat the entire study, or when different analysts are given the same raw data, and find similar structures, this indicates reliability through replicability. Fourthly, the validation of results may come from triangulation between different research methods. When a different research method is applied, do the structures identified correspond to other findings? For example, when micro-phenomenology is combined with neuroimaging (Lutz, 2002; Lutz et al., 2002; Petitmengin & Lachaux, 2013; Varela, 1996), the detection of the neural correlates of an experiential structure is a mutual confirmation of the validity of both findings.
Kat: There may even be a fifth way: Sometimes, micro-phenomenological interviews and their analyses have been shown to inform practices. For example, micro-phenomenology has been used in the teaching of fashion design (Petreca, 2016), and seizure preventive strategies for epilepsy have been developed using micro-phenomenology (Petitmengin et al., 2006). But regarding this study and our current concern with the derivation of generic structures, we are dealing with the second type of validation: the recurrence of structures across experiences reported by different interviewees.
Bess: Shall we then move on to how we derive generic synchronic dimensions?
Kat: For this, let's go back to this "sense of connecting" that you experienced in the re-evaluation phase of your experience. Early on, I was struck by an unexpected consistency across interviews. For example, all interviewees described a bodily aspect as one of the validation criteria for their choice of a successful interview.
Bess: Right, let's have a closer look at this recurring bodily aspect.
Kat: In your case, two moments spontaneously popped up along with a "sense of connecting". For at least one of these moments, this sense was experienced visually and bodily. Your descriptions led us to derive a number of further synchronic characteristics for both of these modalities. To sum up Fig. 2: Visually, you experience Leonore walking in front of you, you see the scene from a first-person perspective. By bodily, you refer to a sensation that you then specify further in a number of sub-categories, for instance: It's being in the upper and lower stomach (bodily location). I was quite surprised that, in all the other reports about remembering a successful instance of micro-phenomenology, I identified quite similar descriptive categories.
Let's have a look at the descriptemes of Christian's successful interview during his searching phase. His interviewee is called Marc.
"Marc's figure … this shape is kind of covering around half of his body. […] So, he's like a fuzzy presence behind. It's kind of dark, I can't see his eyes or something, just the contours. […] there is a sensation in my chest and around my heart as well. [laughs][…] So it's like a little… I don't know how to express… not a vibration… but the feeling of… a kind of touch. […] Yeah, you could almost have the same sensation by doing this [repeatedly puts gentle but firm pressure on his chest with his right flat hand]. […] from the chest region which… feels like a connection, you could say… some kind of attentive connection that kind of flows here [moves his hand from his chest towards me and back] […]. And when I say connection to Marc or to [that which] he was describing – it's not a cord, not like that. It's just… very faint. Subtle. […] There's a flow in both directions."
Bess: There are quite obviously similarities to my experience: Firstly, of course, he reports about "feeling a connection". I was talking about the "sense of connecting"–this seems very close. There is also a visual part of him seeing the interviewee and imagining something the interviewee talked about. And there was the "bodily" part, this sensation seems to have a location similar to the one I report as it is captured by Fig. 4
Hearing his description, even if similar to mine, I wonder whether a reader not familiar with describing subjective experience might raise an eyebrow at these words. They might sound a bit esoteric or ungrounded?
Kat: Well, in a micro-phenomenological interview we are asked to describe what we live through, our experience. This is often quite hard to fit into words and there is, of course, always risk that we are dealing with conceptual metaphors or that an interviewee confabulates part of an experience. However, it is important that a description must not be discredited just for the reason of it sounding unfamiliar. In particular, Chris´ report contains examples of what is called transmodal experiences (see also Petitmengin, 2007). Such experiences do not fall within a specific sensory modality and are therefore often even harder to fit into words and common categories: strictly speaking, they are not images, kinaesthetic, tactile sensations, or sounds, but are experiences that cross the borders of these categories: They often have specific sub-modalities such as intensity, direction, movement and rhythm that can describe different sensory registers. And while, as with anything we experience, these sensations are likely influenced by cultural embedding, they need not be confabulations or artefacts of a conceptual discourse.
Bess: Earlier, you mentioned that practice can have an influence on your ability to articulate experience, which reminded me of Martijn van Beek's interview.
Kat: Let's take a close look: Here is Martijn's description of how the memory of the successful interview comes up in the initial search:
"The image of the interview, of the situation, of the person. […] Yeah, I see that person, and the room, totally the way it was. […] A visual image… and then the memory of the contact between us […] I can actually sense the contact. It's a ... it's not easy to put into words, but there's a sense of ... of ease, trust, sort of this kind of atmosphere. And then it's… physically all centred around the heart, sort of warm, intense. Like it's related to practice, it immediately goes into this practice landscape. […] Because... it opens up what opens up when I practice my meditation."
5Bess: Some of this sounds similar to my experience again. He is sensing a special "contact", as he calls it, physically located around the heart, warm in temperature, etc. – see the abstractions in Fig. 5.
Bess: What about the sense of "ease and trust" he mentions?
Kat: This is an example of not detailed enough data. I should have asked more questions to know how precisely Martijn experienced this. I actually attempted to do so in the interview, but the report drifted into more general descriptions of meditation practice.
Bess: Yes, when touching upon an expertise of theirs, even highly trained interviewees often tend to speak more generally rather than referring to a singular experience. This can be very informative but does not deliver experiential data.
Kat: Right. I still feel we have enough data to exemplify how to construct a generic synchronic structure. Though, as we are dealing with a very limited sample here, with data from a few interviews, the generic synchronic structure can not only focus on recurrent features. Instead, Fig. 6 gives an overview of all dimensions this type of experience contains, as suggested by the data. So, it can show similarities and consistency, but also maps out unique dimensions.
Bess: For example, not all interviewees described the target sensation as having a temperature: Still, this category is part of the generic synchronic structure as portrayed in Fig. 4, where numbers indicate how many of the specific structures showed evidence of this dimension. It's worth highlighting that this figure covers several dimensions, the derivation of which has not been described in this article. And the boxes in lighter green represent specialised categories that allow further comparison.
Kat: Yes, so the analysis first focuses on abstracting the structural categories involved in a certain experience type. In this example, the sense of connecting is characterised as having a bodily location. Using specialised categories, we can then refine the structural categories initially identified, for example, by highlighting different possible locations, such as the belly and the chest. This better allows us to compare instances within and across participants: for example, how many interviewees allocated the sensation in one more specific area, like the chest/heart.
Bess: Thus, Fig. 6 is a result of the micro-phenomenological analysis.
Kat: Yes, you could say that, taking into account that this is an analysis of only part of the data of a small pilot study.
Bess: Shall we then sum up and discuss? What do we think about these data now? And how do we plan to work with this in the future? Kat: Let´s do that.