How do we make sense of things?

At a meta-level, how do we make sense of the way we make sense of things?

Making Sense of Sense-making is the title of an article by Thompson & Stapleton first published on-line on 20th December 2008. It is subtitled ‘Reflections on Enactive and Extended Mind Theories’.

For my own intellectual amusement, I chose to take it as an object lesson in how I make sense of things: I set out to make sense of the article in whatever way I could, presupposing that what emerged would say something about the way I habitually make ‘sense’ for myself and that this would then feed back into the substance & ‘meaning’ of the article itself to assist my understanding. I expected to be able to look back on the coming rigmarole which fills nearly twenty pages in my current notebook and, having taken it all inside myself, say, “That was a piece of writing worth tussling with…”

Cognitive Dissonance

The first thing that happened to me when I began to read was to experience a rather severe attack of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (Festinger 1959): at the very outset the authors describe their intention as being to explore ‘the difference between the enactive approach to cognitive science and the extended mind thesis… the debate between internalism and externalism… the relation between cognition and emotion…’ amongst other things.

Thompson & Stapleton explain that ‘the enactive approach (à la Francisco Varela) in cognitive science [is concerned with]… the sense-making activity of autonomous agents…’ whereas ‘…in the extended mind thesis the environment constitutes part of the mind when it is coupled to the brain in the right way…’ What this might be is not explained, at least to begin with.

My severe attack of cognitive dissonance (from which, having made some ‘sense’ of the whole piece now, I have recovered) came about because the conceptual oppositions as stated caused me to turn my own clock back fifty years to a time when, in an attempt to apply some kind of theory-based approach to actual chalkboard classroom teaching, I was struggling to understand the apparent opposition of the psychological disputes between behaviourists and field theorists. Whilst feeling pretty sure that they don’t try to get student teachers to engage in such thinking any more, I wondered how anybody in these so-called ‘enlightened’ days could possibly still be lumbered with the dichotomies recorded two paragraphs ago – how could they possibly now argue about internalism and externalism or maintain a distinction between cognition and emotion when such discrepancies had been settled for me long ago when I assimilated Herbert Mowrer’s ‘cybernetic model’ – the application of a synthesis of SR and Gestalt theories – not either/or but both/and – a pattern repeated and enhanced in a practical manner by Miller, Galanter & Pribram in their Plans and the Structure of Behaviour, to the ineffable beauty of whose TOTE model I developed an emotio-cognitive attachment which has never faded in fifty years?


Beautiful systemic process to which I have emotio-cognitive attachment. I notice that others can display an emotio-cognitive attachment to a football team; I can often experience the same thing in relation to an abstract idea or model or even a single word as will be demonstrated.

So that’s the second thing that gave rise to my experiencing an attack of cognitive dissonance – the idea that grown men & women could possibly still take up sides in relation to the assumed dichotomy of intellect and emotion.

As for externalists and internalists continuing to peddle an exclusive line in the modern world… Well, that was the giddy limit!

I have lived with the simple findings of Finesmith (1959) who assessed psycho-galvanic skin responses (whatever that might have consisted of) to the sounding of mere nonsense syllables. Ever since I came across the report of the experiment I have taken it for granted that, if there is, in normal circumstances, a non-articulated emotional response to nonsense syllables, all words and therefore all linguistic statements of any kind carry both intellectual and emotional energy for the sense-maker, irrespective of the actual content of a communication which, of course, in itself, would be more than likely to increase an emotio-cognitive response.

Lewin’s ‘Life Space’ concept (1938) together with the idea that everything in our experience has positive/negative valence for us has been in my bones for fifty years. The different rooms we inhabit carry an emotional tinge for us variously weak or strong, negative or positive; of all the rooms in our house, the room where I work in the way I’m doing now has the strongest pull. On the desk where I’m writing, I keep my mother’s sharp dress-making scissors; whenever I use them to cut paper, I laugh because I hear her long ago voice in my head, “Don’t use my dress-making scissors to cut paper!” Nearby on my desk there’s a saucer of plain glass marbles I nicked from a beloved landlady when she left her premises – I feel sure she’d have forgiven my theft by now though she probably hasn’t noticed it; a twelve-inch wooden ruler here has positive valence for me as does the half empty bottle of black ink. Scissors, marbles, ruler, bottle of black ink – each far more than mere objects on a desk: these things serve to anchor me emotionally and intellectually to my self-history – they constitute a little area of my life-space.

So much for the attack of cognitive dissonance; it was fortunately at an optimum level: had it been too devastating the article about sense-making would have developed negative valence for me and I would probably have abandoned it. What kept me at it? Firstly, I warmed to the neutral sense of order conveyed by the authors; it was not their fault that their sources didn’t refer to my pet theoretical reading from long ago, Mowrer, Miller, Galanter & Pribram, Finesmith, Festinger & Lewin; Thompson & Stapleton were doing a really good job in setting out the apparently current state of play in the cognitive theory field. And later on they certainly do point out (the subject of their explorations) Francisco Varela’s roots in ‘cybernetics’!

The Enactive Approach to Making Sense

Secondly I was attracted by their initial description of the ‘Enactive Approach’, a term I hadn’t come across before – I’m always enthusiastic about what might turn out to be productive ways of classifying what William James calls a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’!

The Enactive Approach, which Thompson & Stapleton appear to favour from the outset, is concerned with things for which I think I have a soft spot – autonomy, sense-making, emergence, embodiment and experience in general. Just listing these things gives me a warm tingly feeling. Seriously.

They explain that the Enactive Approach to sense-making ‘…starts from the question of how a system must be organised in order to be autonomous… [generating and sustaining] its own activity and thereby [enacting or bringing forth] its own cognitive domain…’

Scan0053This diagram depicts a system; all systems have emergent properties (EP’s) and when we ponder the EP of this system it could be said to be ‘a cognitive domain’. A transparent one, as we will discover.

A system is self-perpetuating, autonomous, internally & cognitively self-consistent, all elements working together, enabling further productive contact with the outside world (specifically the words on the page and all that they imply in this case).

An autonomous system is defined as one ‘composed of processes that generate and sustain [it] as a unity and thereby also define an environment for the system. Varela (1979, 1997) talks of ‘operational closure’, a term which appeals to me because it resonates with the idea that systems go round & round in circles, vicious or virtuous depending; they feed off themselves. In his arcane way, Gurdjieff refers to something like this process as ‘iraniranumange’.

On the other hand, Thompson & Stapleton point out that for an autonomous system to function effectively the ‘operationally closed network must be… open to…’ exchanges with the environment.
going beyond the words on the page



The systemic circuit goes out into the ‘real world’ having first achieved autonomy by means of autopoiesis, a term borrowed from biological molecular workings but having been taken far beyond its original context by Varela & Maturana and now applicable to other spatially bounded systems – for example, human social groupings.

‘Autopoiesis’ is literally self-generation, a self-perpetuating systemic process that ‘World Leaders’ ought to be educated to understand in the context of systems thinking instead of depending on linear thinking to do their dirty work: “…we just have to bomb them off the map and everything will be fine…” – no thought of a possible systemic backlash. In politics and international affairs the simplistic dependence on linear thinking has dire consequences since in a system of any kind there is no action without reaction. More complex thinking is needed. The Bush-Blair bombing spree on Iraq which was supposed to be a Final Solution gave rise to Al Qaeda in Iraq and then the rise of ISIS.

Often my own chosen way of making sugary sense of the world is to transform complex ideas into poetry – which for me stands for the inevitably bitty way in which we accommodate ourselves to the nature of things. So I take Thompson & Stapleton’s explanation of the origin in biology of Maturana & Varela’s ideas and transform its inevitably inert ideas into something that becomes my own possession which is, as I’ve so often said, what ANWhitehead defines as the purpose of education and the end of learning. My poem goes like this:-


the uphill struggle to make sense
of an intellectual idea: concepts
(and images if you’re lucky)
tumble about until they hit upon
an orientation that increases
the possibility of defining (say)
some central organising principle
(orientation as it might be to sugar
in the case of a microbiological organism)
at which point they gather
individual momentum and begin
to coalesce about a flame
in much the same way as a moth might
but there are dangers in a flame –
all things remain precarious & perilous
and it is advisable not to go for
too early closure…

nevertheless for a time at least
the world and all its varied circumstances
can be transformed into a place of meaning
and intelligence… identity is maintained
and perspectival interactions
become normative – certain things
ought to follow after autonomy
& equilibrium are achieved
through autopoiesis which cannot
in itself (on it own) sustain
the necessary momentum –
what further is required is that
the intellectual idea neatly disposed
around a central organising principle
rub shoulders with the world outside it
and thereby develop adaptive autonomy
for itself – a kind of rich picture acceptance
in consciousness and a sense of ‘the real’
which are emergent properties of
this Being in the World

Thompson & Stapleton pursue the metaphor of autopoiesis by means of its original biological context – the example they choose relates to the fondness of certain bacteria, as autonomous systems, for sugar resulting in a self-organisation and sense-making that ‘transforms the world into an environment’ for themselves – one which is less precarious for their survival.

I feel on much less precarious ground myself when Thompson & Stapleton proceed to demolish the dichotomy of internalism & externalism.

The grounding of cognition in sense-making and sense-making in adaptive autonomy do not imply either internalism or externalism about the processes of cognition. The internalism/externalism debate rests on assumptions that are foreign to the enactive approach…

That it is still argued by some that internal processes alone could possibly give rise to cognitive processes seems absurd: failing to take externalities into account would be sure to result in a warped interpretation of things as they might be assumed to be.

Further the act of cognition is not an event happening inside the system; it is a relational process of sense-making that takes place between the system and its environment. The internal/external dichotomy probably arises from the difficulty humankind experiences when it tries to understand abstractions – the impulse is to reify whatever seems hard to understand: if you conceptualise ‘consciousness’ as a box, say, then it has to have an inside and an outside. We imagine that consciousness & cognition (and other sensations) are spatially located inside the cranium or somewhere else inside us, something we carry about with us, commanding the same status as objects of extension like a hockey stick or a compass.

Cognition has no Location

How else to conceptualise ‘consciousness’ then? It really does take a great effort of imagination to understand the profound idea that COGNITION HAS NO LOCATION. It is an emergent something-or-other (to use Gurdjieff’s provocative phrase to describe the unfleshiness of something that does not warrant it) that derives from ‘Being-in-the-world’ (Heidegger) and shifts around pretty much uncontrollably from moment to moment depending on attention and intention – some kind of energy propelling it forward.

I am home and dry when Thompson & Stapleton proceed to demolish the all too easy dichotomy cognition/emotion. To anybody committed to the enactive approach cognition and emotion are ‘thoroughly integrated at biological, psychological and phenomenological levels…’ As Lewin pointed out in the year after I was born, all things have valence, positive or negative, for the human system; sense-making depends upon the choices we make in embodying preferences for positive valences and avoiding the negative ones. On the face of it abstract problem-solving always rests heavily on such emotional discrimination. Neuroscience backs this up.

Complex cognitive-emotional behaviours have their basis in dynamic coalitions of networks of brain areas none of which should be conceptualised as specifically affective or cognitive. (Pessoa 2008)

There is no such thing as ‘body neutrality’ nor can ‘envattment’ (the assumption that there is a clearly definable interface between body & mind) be sustained.

Gurdjieff and ‘Centres’

In his resolutely ‘pre-scientific’ way, Gurdjieff had it about right when he offered the simple model of ‘Centres’ and their interaction. It is, in a practical sense, obvious that human beings function broadly intellectually, emotionally and by actively fixing things. The issue comes to a head when it’s clear that by general programming people like us function lop-sidedly; we tend to operate exclusively in one or other of the ‘Centres’ – corresponding more or less to the Triune brain model formulated by Paul MacLean ten years or so after Gurdijieff’s death. Some people are locked into their neocortex – ‘thinkers’ – while others are predominantly emotional about things, happy in their limbic system; for reptilians, it’s all action & survival. One of the objectives of the activity called ‘Self-remembering’ in the Fourth Way system is for the individual to gain a balance of modes of functioning, intellect-emotion-action. Had he been able to accept the lingo I’m convinced that Mr G would have been charmed by the idea of ‘coalitions of networks of brain areas none of which should be conceptualised as specifically affective or cognitive…’ Thoroughly resourceful human operation in the world results from contriving a balance in the networks.

Maintaining balance is a constant process in autonomous function. The man on the tightrope crossing Niagara Falls is moment by moment maintaining ‘operational closure’ within his system in order to relate effectively to pretty precarious circumstances in order to get safely to the other side. The funambulist’s balancing pole is literally ‘incorporated’ into the balancing act; its incorporation extends his being into the world; for him the balancing pole is no longer an object – it is assimilated into his Being-in-the-world.

Fountain Pen & Notebook & Transparency

Thompson & Stapleton point to the very valuable distinction between body-as-object and body-as-subject. Writing this originally with my fountain pen I could say, “This is my hand with the smooth-running pen held by thumb & forefinger, as it has been thus for seventy bloomin’ years…” – an opaque event which never fails to impress me in contrast to my being able to shift my attention to the idea of the pen being an extension of my cognitive apparatus; then the process of making marks on paper becomes entirely transparent to me; pen & page are no longer objects to me but integral to a mode of apprehension.

Thompson & Stapleton propose that

For anything external to the body’s boundary to count as part of the cognitive system it must function transparently in the body’s sense-making interactions with the environment…

This has to be a deliberately felt part of ‘experience’. Now, while I’m writing at my desk I ‘see right through my self’ – my being is so transparent that Observing-I has no idea what it might be or what it might once have been; it’s all – desk & pen & so forth – some kind of transparent extension of my being with distinctly positive valence; the notebook is part of my general transparency. By contrast, when I file it neatly away on the nearby shelf with all its fellows it becomes an object in the world again just as it was in the shop when I bought it. I know that I can re-vivify it, or any of the other fifty years’ worth of notebooks, simply by taking it down and opening it to read or write – when I do that it resumes its transparency.

To get a sense of what ‘transparency’ signifies existentially one has to ponder how the objects we choose to transform into parts of Being-in-the-world work for us.

It is only when I get to the very last sentence of Thompson & Stapleton’s article that I breathe a sigh of relief and get the feeling that the tussle has been worthwhile: the enactive approach pays off. They conclude that it is the sort of questions they’ve raised in the reader’s mind that ‘…enactive and extended mind theorists should be trying to answer, not the questions posed in the dichotomous and inappropriate categories of inside versus outside…’ and so on.

I am back where I started from!


We never ever see the world ‘as it really is’ – that’s just an hopeless invention, invisible pie in the sky – we construct reality-for-ourselves and make it into a more or less rich picture. Settling for something less than rich is simply a half-hearted accommodation to the external stresses induced by other people’s realities; keeping at it in-spite-of fulfils what JGBennett says can only be a ‘progressive approximation to truth’. That needs a lot of work.

It’s not far off the concept of ‘neurophenomenology’ (Varela 1996) which is concerned with ‘…a pragmatic will to progressively & systematically reduce the distance between subjective and objective… a way of narrowing the gap between the mental and the physical.



I am left with seeking to understand the notion of ‘embodiment’ – literally the process of taking experience and making it into a psychophysical distributed transparent whole within Being. I can’t touch it, see it or say where it is precisely (unless by gut reaction) but I sense that I ‘embodied’, for example, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sixty years ago – it has literally been part of the fabric of my being in all those years: even when I’m not whistling to or conducting a recording, I can switch into hearing it as an accompaniment to life. It’s the same with certain poems & olfactory stimuli.

More recently I came to understand the way a ‘Word Processor’ as an extension of my being could intervene there with the beneficial result of making whatever I write flow more easily: I suddenly realised that the systemic hand-eye-body-brain circuit was spectacularly improved by practice at noticing what happens when you see what you tap out on the keyboard appearing on the screen as a physical manifestation of what your neurons etc were dictating to you. The facility thus embodied transferred itself, I’m pleased to say, to the act of writing with my favourite fountain pen.

The process of embodiment is perhaps related to the concept of ‘identification’; it could be another way of describing it: when we identify with something we are taking it into ourselves, making it part of us. For instance, I am well aware that I identify thoroughly with the fountain pen and notebook I originally used for writing this rigmarole – they are part of who I am.

But there is a great danger in identification: it can easily lead to loss of self, self-forgetting. One should constantly practise the art of disidentification.

Anybody who sits in front of a computer all day runs the risk, through embodiment and identification, of losing self in machine, or abandoning autonomy. Dependency on the machine for information & knowledge slackens the process of autopoiesis. It’s difficult to grasp that one is simply imagining that the power and instantaneity (50 million examples in a split second!) is something of one’s own; the lack of understanding of this results either in loss of autonomy or, what’s significantly worse, in false autonomy, leading to pride & vanity.

I am inclined to think on.

Thinking On – an Intellectual Way of Thinking
about the Idea of Consciousness Having No Location


I feel kind of comfortable (= ‘identified’) with this analysis… If I looked at it again I’d probably change things…


  1. I’d love to read more of your thoughts on “consciousness has no location”, Colin. Very relevant to one of the core Buddhist concepts, that of “not self” – something I intuitively accept, but which intellectually and emotionally I often struggle with.



  2. Thank you. Tom. It’s ultimately a gut thing with me too. In the past I’ve made several attempts to intellectualise the idea – process really. I think we shift the point of focus around depending on attention & intention. Words like ‘consciousness’, ‘interface’ etc get in the way. The very notion of ‘interface’ creates ‘internality’ & ‘externaility’. Metaphorical ‘reality’.

    I have to do with them but I think words are a confounded nuisance really – they suggest a reality which isn’t necessarily there at all. It’s the medieval Nominalist/Realist argument that hardly anybody still can be bothered to think about: words are just the names of things & have no reality / we have a word therefore it’s ‘real’.

    Just now, without referring to anything, I’ve written before I scrawled the above addition to my Glob. It just flowed – none of my normal scribblings out! Pure thought as I kid myself! The diagrams do away with the words.

    Would love to have your thoughts.


    1. I wish my thoughts on this topic had more coherence, Colin!. But unfortunately they are still in the nascent period of development, sorry! Here goes anyhow ….

      Buddhism (as I understand it) teaches that what we think of as “self” is really nothing more than the arising and passing away of a continuous series of impermanent thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Hence, the concept of “not-self” is a corrective to the delusion of believing that “self” is something fixed and permanent.

      Current neuroscience research seems to support this Buddhist concept, by verifying that what we call the “mind” – or consciousness – is just a continuous stream of neuronal firings, arising and passing away one after another, thus impermanent.

      Hence my interest in your “consciousness has no location” assertion.

      Many years ago, I read a fascinating book by Daniel Dennett titled “Consciousness Explained” which I think anticipated current theory by about 20 years. I intend to re-read it sometime soon. Perhaps I will have more cogent thoughts to express after revisiting his book.



  3. Hi Tom. I think a lot of the ‘problem’ is to do with the words we find ourselves using. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says roughly that the words we have at our disposal create the world we imagine we live in. ‘Consciousness’ – we have the word and imagine that there has to be a referent. ‘Self’ – we have the word and imagine that there has to be a referent. So your statement ‘“self” is really nothing more than the arising and passing away of a continuous series of impermanent thoughts, feelings, and sensations…’ makes perfect sense to me. I might tweak it a bit to end as ‘a continuous series of impermanent’ something-or-others since, for me, ‘thoughts’, ‘feelings’, and ‘sensations’ are also reifications; when I ask myself what the difference is I have no real answer: what I sometimes call a ‘thought’ becomes what I might call a ‘feeling’ and often winds up as mere ‘sensation’. Thing is that it’s all just excitation of the neurons – they all connect up together somehow, ‘arising and passing away’… So ‘…what we call the “mind” – or consciousness – is just a continuous stream of neuronal firings…’ Absolutely!

    I suppose my diagram was predicated on the assumption that ‘consciousness’ should be defined as mere excitation of the neurons – then it depends on where one conceptualises its location; most, I suppose place it inside the brainbox. As a manifestation deriving from neuronic activity it’s nowhere. It then ceases to be an intellectual idea and requires some kind of experiential thrust to get it going: I take myself through my diagram quite often referring it to wherever I find myself – on the Underground, on the top of a hill, doing 90mph on the motorbike…

    When I first read Benjamin Lee Whorf (back in the 1960’s!) my own universe shifted substantially: words create reality – or rather they help to create multiple realities. What if we were to exercise systematic doubt over the reliability (what does that mean) of the words we use? And leave the concepts floating out there somewhere…

    For a crude example, currently the word ‘deficit’ is being used globally as though it meant something when it’s just a con.

    I’m afraid that all this turns out to be pretty incoherent. I’ve just woken up from a series of extraordinary dreams! That may account for it!

    I have the Dennett book on my table ready to be re-read!



    1. A tentative answer to your question “what if we were to exercise systemic doubt over the reliability of the words we use?” – it would sound the death knell for cable news network programming, and consequently civilization might yet have a chance to survive!!

      Looking forward to your comments on Dennett.



      1. Dennett’s at the bottom of quite a pile, Tom!

        Yes, the ‘News’ providers & politicians would find themselves stumbling over their words like the millipede who began to think about the movement of its 763rd leg.

        I suppose what really excites me is the question of how to combine thorough-going scepticism with passion & commitment…


  4. Wonderful glob Colin, and thanks Tom for the comments. I often look out at a sea of faces and ask my students, “does that make sense?” But they don’t need to answer, it’s all in their eyes. Most of the time I have to try TOTE different approaches, and then stick with it until something clicks. As I read this glob I noticed all sorts of activities going on inside, and most of it was building one thing on top of another, or next to another. I suppose each of us possesses differences in our cognitive abilities, we do create multiple worlds based on ideas, with each idea containing an emotional positive/negative reinforcement. And all this moving very fast. If I were to put together a critic of this glob I would have to do some real work, throw a bunch of things into the air, sort them all out, and then put them in a reasonable order. This reminds me of the law of 7 and how things go along quite nicely and then slow down and eventually stop altogether, until we move to the next octave.

    I just began a new paragraph with no idea what I am going to add to this comment, pause… Subject/object, internal/external, without a sufficient amount of attention given over to the sensations of the body there will emerge a cognitive dissonance, a predilection of haste instead of the enjoyment in the task at hand. “The uphill struggle to make sense” may need to relax the tension in ones legs, so I will often give my students a lesson in how to breathe. There is in me now a swarm of tiny particles swimming around each other, they are drawn together by the magnetic pull of the ideas in this glob, but they are nascent like Tom said, and will probably fly off into some unknown area of the mind and become a memory, or they could emerge as part of a poem I haven’t written yet.

    Thank you Colin and Tom. Patrick


    1. Always glad to read your thoughtful comments, Patrick. I’m particularly drawn to your description of the “swarm of tiny particles swimming around each other” that you became aware of. A most poetic portrayal of Colin’s assertion that “consciousness has no location.”



    2. Throwing things up in the air is just what I like to do! That’s perhaps where the emergent something-or-the-other which we call ‘consciousness’ lives OK.

      I always forget the breathing!

      Thanks Patrick!


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