Out of my mind: Embodied Cognition, Mechanistic Explanation and Mental Disorder

The latest research in cognitive science is revealing that phenomena such as spatial navigation, action perception and emotional understanding depend not only the body’s morphological, biological and physiological make-up, but also on how it actively engages with a structured natural, technological or social environment. Meanwhile, an increasing number of neuroscientific studies suggest that brains are ‘protean’, continuously adjusting their functions in response to physiological and environmental changes. In a very profound way, it appears that human cognition is shaped and structured by the body and features of our socio-cultural environment. What impact does this have on our understanding of cognitive function and mental disorder?

Session 2
18 July to 1 August 2020
Course levelAdvanced Bachelor/Master, open to PhD staff and professionals
Co-ordinating lecturers         
Dr. Leon de Bruin
Other lecturersLinda Douw, Roy Dings, Jolien Francken, Jeroen Geurts, Gerrit Glas, Hanneke Hulst, Julian Kiverstein, Dorien Nieman, Linde van Schuppen, Derek Strijbos
Forms of tuitionLectures, interactive seminars, group sessions
Forms of assessmentPresentation, research report
Credits3 ECTS
Contact hours45 hours
Tuition fee€1150, read more about what's included
Accommodation and social programme
How to apply
Find our application form here
Students and professionals in philosophy, psychology or neuroscience with an interest in psychiatry and mental disorder. If you have doubts about your eligibility for the course, please let us know. Our courses are multi-disciplinary and therefore are open to students and professionals with a wide variety of backgrounds.

This three-part summer course focuses on recent debates about the nature of human cognition and our efforts to explain it. How do these debates impact our understanding of mental disorder? 

In Part 1: Embodied and Extended Cognition, you will study the role of body and environment in the explanation of cognitive phenomena. Take the cognitive processes involved in solving a multiplication problem. Are these processes constituted by neuronal processes alone? Or can eye movement, posture and the use of a calculator be seen as part of the cognitive system that solves the problem? You will consider philosophical arguments and empirical evidence for the hypothesis that cognitive systems are dynamically constituted by brain, body and environment.

Part 2: Mechanistic Explanation looks at the increasingly prevalent idea that cognitive neuroscientists provide mechanistic explanations of cognitive phenomena. We will discuss this idea in the light of recent research on multilayer networks, in which variables are connected to each other via multiple types of connections. Multilayer networks are promising because they accommodate very different kinds of information – not just brain-based information, but also information from patient questionnaires and symptoms of mental disorders and social interaction patterns.

Part 3 looks at Psychiatry and Mental Disorder. You will investigate the various issues associated with the DSM-ICD psychiatric classification framework, and examine the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) initiative, which aims to transform the DSM-ICD into an objective biological system that conceptualizes mental disorders as brain dysfunctions. You will assess the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, utilizing the insights and ideas you acquired in the first week, and discuss how scientific theories and concepts should be translated into psychiatric practice.

The course centres on questions about the nature of human cognition, how we explain it and the impact on psychiatry and the concept of mental disorder. These are key themes in the Philosophy of Neuroscience track, a joint initiative by the VU University Medical Center Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam’s Department of Philosophy.

At the end of this course you: 

•    Are familiar with the state-of-the-art literature on embodied extended cognition, mechanistic explanation and multilayer network approaches, and mental disorder
•    Can explain the philosophical implications of embodied extended cognition, mechanistic explanation and multilayer networks in debates on the concept of mental disorder
•    Can reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the DSM-ICD and the RDoC frameworks of psychiatric classification.
•    Have learned to critically engage with the literature and the lectures in your area of specialization.
•    Are able to analyse, present and discuss the central issues of this course both verbally and in writing.

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