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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Four of these studies included different parts with distinct methods, and thus resulted in eight different items in our list.

  2. 2.

    Query string: «subject, experiments, trial experience, OR interview, OR reports, OR questionnaire, OR cognitive, OR psychology, OR neuroscience».

  3. 3.

    The median values of both flexibility of the means (axis 8) and flexibility of the goal (axis 7) were significantly higher in the Flexible group of studies (p < 0.001, Wilcoxon signed rank test).

  4. 4.

    A Pearson Rank correlation test showed a significant positive relationship between the flexibility of the means and dimensionality of reports (r = 0.5, p < 0.001, n = 56).

  5. 5.

    Note that the sense in which we here use the phrase “second-person methods” is distinct from the stricter use Varela and Shear (and their followers) give it in (1999b, b). They refer to interview methods in which an expert mediator is required for the subject to be able to notice her own experience and put it into words. We instead use the term “second-person” to label all the reporting methods whereby a subject communicates aspects of her subjective experience to another person. It is also different from the sense in which Andreas Roepstorff speaks of the “second-person perspective”, which pertains to “the fact that so much of human consciousness and perception is directed against and mediated by inputs from other people” (2001, p. 762). However, our account of second-person methods is very close to Jack and Roepstorff’s call for a reconsideration of the “communicative interaction” that is present “both when the experimenter gives the instructions and when the subject describes their experience” (2002, box 1).

  6. 6.

    We are aware there are more radical positions where introspection may be much less involved in metacognition than is commonly assumed. One such position is Peter Carruthers’ theory about the lack of introspective access to judgments, decisions and the like, according to which “our knowledge of our own attitudes results from turning our mindreading capacities upon ourselves” (Carruthers 2009, p. 121). In other words, our knowledge of our beliefs and intentions stems from an unconscious interpretative process based on perceptual or quasi-perceptual cues, rather that on a putative direct access to phenomenal experience. We believe that an assessment of this kind of theory is orthogonal to the scope of the present paper, although we are sympathetic to rival positions, such as Alvin Goldman’s, according to which, even if people sometimes confabulate when the introspective access to their propositional attitudes, for some reason, is defective (e.g. split-brain subjects), the default access method we use to become aware of our mental states in normal situations is still introspection, which should be accepted as a good evidential source, to be used under operational conditions that can be easily identified, allowing us to agree upon a certain “range of introspective reliability” (2004, p. 14). The question some may ask is: what would the consequences be if one were to follow Carruthers’ theory instead? Under his higher-order theory of consciousness, according to which “it is the availability of globally broadcast states to the mindreading faculty that is responsible for their phenomenally conscious status” (p. 124), introspection is a necessary condition for consciousness, which means that the absence of the former would entail the absence of the latter. We are not committed to such theory, though. According to our perspective, consciousness is a precondition for introspection, but the reverse is not true. Even if our cognitive access to a subset of our mental states, such as our propositional attitudes, is not direct nor transparent, there is still something it is like to experience such beliefs, intentions and judgments. The metacognitive access subjects have to their mental states may be the result of some sort of interpretation, but they are still experienced as part of the subject’s phenomenal world. Also, even if part of our mental states are unconscious, that does not invalidate the fact that subjects are able to report on the conscious states they effectively have.

  7. 7.

    LeDoux (2014) has recently alerted us against this “substitution” fallacy (Kahneman 2011, p. 12), claiming that when we do research on fear responses in rats, we are missing confirmation of the most crucial element of fear: the subjective experience of feeling frightened.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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This research was entirely funded by the Champalimaud Foundation.

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Correspondence to Joana Rigato.

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Rigato, J., Rennie, S.M. & Mainen, Z.F. The overlooked ubiquity of first-person experience in the cognitive sciences. Synthese (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02136-6

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Keywords

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