Micro-phenomenology, a student's view

December 19
Nadia Dimitrova, MIT '21

As an MIT student I thought I knew about micro-phenomenology – every time I get a pset problem right it is a small phenomenon. But the xTalk on Dec 13, 2018 by Prof. Claire Petitmengin illustrated how activities that escape our conscious awareness, such as doing psets, are in fact not out of reach for scientific exploration.

The idea of micro-phenomenology advocates that in order to understand the functioning of the mind, “one cannot rely on cerebral activity but also must include understanding of human experience”. After all, how can one study consciousness when eliminating the point of view of the conscious being? Sensations, emotions, thoughts and actions accompany all activities but remain unnoticed: When doing a math pset I recall memories of the recitations: the cold room, the unclear writing of the TA, how I chew on my pencil while thinking. Yet, we have no introspective access to our cognitive processes.

Or do we? Professor Petitmengin challenged this statement by presenting an experiment during her talk. Imagine a landscape, take your time. Now, is the landscape real or imaginary? Are you within the landscape or see it from aside like a picture? What is the lighting? How does it make you feel? Through guided questions such as these, asking about personal experience rather than distancing and introspect, specialists can guide attention towards specific experiences, thus reducing the separation between abstract thought and body.

It was interesting to hear what can be uncovered and discovered through hours of interviews describing mere seconds of experience. The transmodality, or sensations in different senses (e.g. kinesthetic mixed with sounds), suggest that we perceive intensity, direction, and rhythm (transposable to various senses) as opposed to specific sensations in our skin or specific sounds we hear. The shared experience between mother and child creates a personal bond: the baby does not feel the act of his mother changing its diaper but rather how she does it. Thus, the mother and child attune their inner rhythms (mother replies with a caress to a cry with just the right intensity).

The application of these discoveries was even more interesting. Imagine not having to do psets the way we do now! Teaching is a way of transmitting conceptual contents. Micro-phenomenology can allow for teaching methods that empower students to relate ideas to their source. Since genesis is rooted in bodily experience, strategies can be created to foster this genesis in order that a learner can become in touch with the experience of how ideas of explained. This would make our lives as students so much easier!

Though the talk was only an hour, Ms. Petitmengin covered concepts in psychology that are extremely applicable in a modern context. I will be excited to see whether her study is not the underlying foundation for the future of teaching.

Watch the video of Prof Petitmengin's xTalk

Nadia Dimitrova

Nadia Dimitrova is a first-year MIT student