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The overlooked ubiquity of first-person experience in the cognitive sciences

  • Joana RigatoEmail author
  • Scott M. Rennie
  • Zachary F. Mainen
S.I.: Neuroscience and Its Philosophy


Science aims to transform the subjectivity of individual observations and ideas into more objective and universal knowledge. Yet if there is any area in which first-person experience holds a particularly special and delicate role, it is the sciences of the mind. According to a widespread view, first-person methods were largely discarded from psychology after the fall of introspectionism a century ago and replaced by more objective behavioral measures, a step that some authors have begun to criticize. To examine whether these views are sufficiently informed by actual scientific practice, we conducted a review of methodological approaches in the cognitive science literature. We found that reports of subjective experience are in fact still widely used in a broad variety of different experimental paradigms, both in studies that focus on subjective experience, and in those that make no explicit reference to it. Across these studies, we documented a diverse collection of approaches that leveraged first-person reports, ranging from button presses to unstructured interviews, while continuing to maximise experimental reproducibility. Common to these studies were subjects acting as sensors, intentionally communicating their experience to the experimenter, which we termed “second-person” methods. We conclude that, despite views to the contrary, first-person experience has always been and is still central to investigations of the mind even if it is not recognized as such. We suggest that the conversation ought to be reframed: instead of debating whether to accept subjects’ first-person knowledge we should discuss how best to do so.


First-person experience Second-person methods Subjective reports Cognitive science Epistemology Phenomenology Introspection 



The authors would like to thank Eric Dewitt for suggesting the hierarchical clustering approach and for regular discussion, Gil Costa for designing and producing Fig. 8, Rita Venturini and Gautam Agarwal for shared experiences with second-person methods, the other members of Mainen Lab, as well as Adrian Razvan Sandru, for helpful and insightful comments and Pooja Viswanathan for editing the final draft.


This research was entirely funded by the Champalimaud Foundation.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Champalimaud ResearchChampalimaud Centre for the UnknownLisbonPortugal

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