Michael Barkasi

philosopher and cyclist


As you interact with the environment (including your own body) you come to experience the stuff stimulating your sensory receptors. This stuff shows up in your phenomenal consciousness. I’m interested in fundamental questions about this experience: What is its nature? Do we experience the physical world itself, or merely inner mental “images” or sensations? To what extent do we experience the world as it really is? Is our experience a representation of the world, or a way of being related to it? How does our experience relate to the neural activity in our brains? How does it enable us to think about, and come to know about, the external world?

My work can be divided into five projects:

Neural Representation: To experience an object with which you’re interacting through your sensory systems, is it necessary that the neural activity processing information from that object form a representation of it? It’s widely assumed in psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy that the answer is “yes”. Your experience is just a neural representation constructed by your brain. I’m interested in potential counterexamples to this idea: I think there are cases in which you experience objects not represented by the underlying sensory neural activity.

Dream Phenomenology: Was Descartes right that you could be dreaming right now? Could what it’s like for you to perceptually experience your environment really be duplicated in a dream? Drawing on ideas from sensorimotor enactivists, I argue “no”. What it’s like to dream a pink sofa (for example) is different than what it’s like to see a pink sofa. The things you dream, even if vivid and rich in detail, are things you can take in fully at a glance. In contrast, what you experience as you use your senses you experience as having parts and features which can be uncovered with further exploration, e.g. by shifting your direction of gaze or walking around them. In new work (to be presented at the 2021 APA Eastern) I expand these ideas to investigate the extent to which dreams replicate the “sense of presence” (as Mohan Matthen puts it) normally found in our perceptual experiences; does what we dream feel like it’s really there?

The Objects of Hallucination: If I visually hallucinate my mother, what exactly is it that I experience? Since I’m hallucinating, I’m not actually interacting with my mother through my visual system. Hence, it’s usually inferred that I can’t be experiencing my mother herself. A popular answer is that I’m experiencing a mental image of my mother, although today most philosophers prefer to say that I’m experiencing nothing. I argue that both answers are wrong and that the problem goes back to the original inference: just because I’m not now, as I hallucinate, sensing my mother doesn’t mean that I’m not experiencing her. What I’m experiencing (so I propose) is some past-perceived instance of my mother. I am, in some loose sense, literally seeing back in time. In a related project I’ve done with Melanie Rosen, we apply some of these ideas to the recall experiences involved in episodic memory, arguing that these memory experiences involve genuine awareness of the past. In a blog post, I explain what I take to be the essential insight of this work, and how it goes beyond others who have proposed something similar.

Demonstrative Thought: The things you experience are available as targets of thought in ways that things you aren’t presently experiencing are not. These perception-based thoughts would be exhaustively expressed with demonstrative terms like “that”, e.g. by saying “that is …” and pointing at the thing. An influential tradition in philosophy holds that perceptual experience affords this kind of demonstrative thought by providing an information channel that feeds mental files. I’ve argued that this tradition is wrong, and that perceptual experience affords demonstrative thought even when it fails to provide an information channel that feeds a mental file. What’s important for how perceptual experience makes objects available for thought, on my view, is instead how it reveals them to us through its phenomenal character. I’ve also done some work on how attention and phenomenal consciousness (experience) interact to enable demonstrative thought.

Bodily Awareness in Sport Movements: While expert athletes and performance artists are able to perform their movements (e.g., throwing a football, pedalling a bicycle, pirouette) effortlessly, the process of learning new movements requires deliberate compensatory adjustments. These adjustments in turn require bodily awareness, and many individuals lack this necessary bodily awareness. I’m interested in combining phenomenological (introspective) reflection on what it’s like to experience one’s own body with neurobiological work on proprioception to find ways to help athletes and performance artists improve their bodily awareness. I’m also interested in the use of sonification (proprioceptive-to-auditory sensory substitution) to improve bodily awareness. (For more, see here, here, and these slides.)