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Merleau-Ponty on Embodied Cognition: A Phenomenological Interpretation of Spinal Cord Epidural Stimulation and Paralysis

8 July 2016

Abstract

In a study in Brain (2014), Dr. Susan Harkema and her fellow researchers demonstrated that the input of an electronic epidural stimulator in the lower spinal cord of four completely paralyzed patients allowed them to regain voluntary movement in their toes, defying the longstanding scientific position regarding sensory and motor complete paralysis. Harkema herself admits that she thought this achievement was impossible at the outset, as she believed that the body is incapable of movement without receiving complex signals from the brain. Many cognitive neuroscientists continue to maintain this standpoint of Cartesian dualism. In response, I argue that the insights of Maurice Merleau-Ponty provide a possible explanation of the results of this new research. Merleau-Ponty insisted that I am my body and that the body has its own kind of knowledge about the world. This framework serves as the backdrop for recent phenomenological studies in cognitive neuroscience. In this vein, this essay will consider how Merleau-Ponty’s account of embodiment provides an ample model for explaining the findings of Susan Harkema’s current spinal cord research.


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