The Magic Eight Model - The Enactive Approach of Francisco Varela and the Generative Learning Circle
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The Magic Eight Model - The Enactive Approach of Francisco Varela and the Generative Learning Circle

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Through the theory of complexity, we place at the center of our investigation the person as the source of her knowledge. Knowledge is our embodied know-how that we learn to recognize and observe......

Through the theory of complexity, we place at the center of our investigation the person as the source of her knowledge. Knowledge is our embodied know-how that we learn to recognize and observe through the help of others. We consider learning as a process of cooperation and mutual coordination in which the relational aspect becomes the foundation of all knowledge, rather than an adaptive ability to a given context. Through the personal perception of the world in which we take part by acting in it, we enter the context that changes while we transform ourselves.

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  • 1. THE ‘MAGIC EIGHT MODEL’ THE ENACTIVE APPROACH OF FRANCISCO VARELA AND THE GENERATIVE LEARNING CIRCLE* (*to be published in World Scientific, 2011) MARINELLA DE SIMONE SEECO – Scuola di Educazione all’Etica della COmplessità Rapallo (GE) – Italy - DARIO SIMONCINI Faculty of Managerial Sciences – G. D’Annunzio University Pescara – Italy – In our work, we will focus our attention on what we define as personal learning process, trying to answer the following question: how do we build a coherent meaning from our experience? Through the studies of Francisco Varela on the fundamental role played by the sensory-motor coordination in cognition, we propose a model called the „Magic Eight‟, which we use to show recurring patterns in the learning process of the person, focusing on interdependent relationships among perception, emotion and action, which define a self-organizing system that allows the emergence of coherent meanings for the person. These relationships are based on the activity of the entire body, allowing the emergence of both the „inner‟ world of the person and what she considers her „outer‟ world, in a process of generating interrelated and consistent meanings.1 IntroductionStarting from Francisco Varela‟s studies on enaction, our aim is to outline the meaningswe give to our everyday experiences and to our reality as emergent phenomena from thesensory-motor couplings with our context, rather than ready-made information that weextract from a pre-given world.Through the theory of complexity, we place at the center of our investigation the personas the source of her knowledge. Knowledge is our embodied know-how that we learn torecognize and observe through the help of others. We consider learning as a process ofcooperation and mutual coordination in which the relational aspect becomes thefoundation of all knowledge, rather than an adaptive ability to a given context. Throughthe personal perception of the world in which we take part by acting in it, we enter thecontext that changes while we transform ourselves.Therefore we will focus our attention on what we define as personal learning, as theprocess that occurs between the person and her context when they relate to each other,through which the person changes herself - not only at a purely cognitive level, but inevery part of her body – changing her context: it is a form of embodiment of experienceand cognition. 1
  • 2. 2The aim of our work is to try to answer the following question which, in our view,necessarily follows from this premise: how do we build a coherent meaning of ourexperience?Through the studies of Varela on the fundamental role played by the sensory-motorcoordination in cognition, we propose a model called the „Magic Eight‟, which is used toshow recurring patterns in the learning process of the person, focusing on interdependentrelationships among perception, emotion and action, which define a self-organizingsystem that allows the emergence of coherent meanings for the person. Theserelationships are based on the activity of the entire body, allowing the emergence of boththe „inner‟ world of the person and what she considers the „outer‟ world, in a process ofgenerating interrelated and consistent meanings.2 Levels of observationA first important step to be taken is, in our opinion, to define different observation levelsthat specify different contexts. A first level, that we might call the basic level, regardsdirectly the subject as a living being who interacts with its environment, and reflects thelocal effects of its actions and the way they are perceived. At this level, the body is thebiological context that specifies its own activities, and the internal dynamic processes ofcognition define limits and possibilities of the living being [9]. At the same time, we can‟tforget to consider the body as a lived, experiential structure: therefore, the living bodyrepresents the milieu of both biological processes and lived experience.A subsequent level, that we might call „level 1‟, can be referred to an observer, who cansee the „global‟ effects of the interaction between the living being and the context; fromthat point of observation, the environment becomes a key factor in understanding theirpossible interaction.This distinction is crucial to outline a „first-person approach‟ and the way in which aperson gives significance to her local reality, her own world, her experience, according toa phenomenological way of analysis [32] or, as the definition of a new field of studiessponsored by Varela himself, namely neurophenomenology [38]: “By first-person eventswe mean the lived experience associated with cognitive and mental events. Sometimesterms such as „phenomenal consciousness‟ and even „qualia‟ are also used, but it isnatural to speak of „conscious experience‟ or simply „experience‟. These terms imply herethat the process being studied (vision, pain, memory, imagination, etc.) appears asrelevant and manifest for a „self‟ or „subject‟ that can provide an account; they have a„subjective‟ side” [39]. This approach focuses its attention on the experience lived by theperson and how it can be expressed. The first-person approach accounts for a review ofthe meaning of that experience to the subject, as an explanation of the subjectiveexperience [15] .This allows us to distinguish it from an analysis of knowledge that we could consider asthird person, carried by an external observer, who in turn gives his meanings to theeffects of mutual interactions between the person and her frame of reference through a
  • 3. 3global vision. It is the observer that relates what happens in the cognitive domain of onewith what happens in the context.A flattening between these two levels, such as finding a cause and effect relation of onelevel to another, is certainly a source of confusion and different simplifications of reality[13]. A widespread approach is to study the brain as a computational system and thecognitive functions that it absolved are closely related to the individual, material neurons[4,7]; consciousness is sought as the result of strictly neuronal activities, and thesubjective experience is considered irrelevant.The linking between these two levels, observing both the local level and the global level,allows to further deepen the analysis through the conceptual tools offered by complexitytheory, such as self-organization, network attractors and the emergence of increasinglycomplex systems [19,17]. This allows the study of cognition as emerging configurationsfor hierarchical levels of increasing complexity, from the local - interactions amongneurons – to the global – cognitive activities. The study of the dynamics of complexsystems can therefore help in understanding cognition without the need to simplify it tomaterial or computational aspects.3 Adaptive and enactive cognitionWe may differentiate the learning process of a living being and, in general, its cognition,in two main ways: the first considers the learning process as an adaptive necessity of theindividual to its environment, the second considers the learning process as a co-generativemodality between the individual and the environment: the enactive approach to cognition.Traditionally, the environment is considered dominant over the living beings; they have toconform to it to survive. Under this approach, subject and environment are separated andthe only relationship that binds them is the direct causal link input / output from one toanother, without any form of interdependence. The relationship between them is thereforean instructive one-way. The frame of reference is the traditional cause and effectrelationship, the behavior of living being appears to be appropriate only if it is able toadapt as best possible to a given context, according to a classical approach of „problemsolving‟ skills of the nervous system [24,1,25]. Learning becomes a process that finds its„raison dêtre‟ outside the person: it is the environment, both natural and social - theexternal reality – that defines and specifies a process of adaptation for the subject. Thisview implies a sort of „cognitive realism‟: cognition is grounded in the representation of apregiven world by a pregiven subject.The learning process can not only be understood as a process that embodies a causalrelationship with the environment; it can also be understood, in our opinion, as aphenomenon that may have its origin in the inter-relationship established between thesubject and its environment. In this case, learning can be considered as an emergingphenomenon that occurs when subject and environment come into relationship in adynamic and recursive process. The learning that emerges from this connection is agenerative phenomenon that influences both the subject and its context.
  • 4. 4Francisco Varela has repeatedly stressed in his studies that the process of cognition isstrongly related to the possibility that we, as living beings, have to cope with our milieuthrough our bodies. The context in which we interact is something we take part in:touching, seeing, tasting, moving in it.The term „enaction emphasizes precisely this possibility of emergence: to make active,to bring forth something that through our manipulation appears real in itself [37].4 The ‘embodied cognition’ as a natural transformationAccording to enaction, essential elements of cognition are the dynamic sensory-motorskills of the person: it is through the ability to perceive and act in one‟s own context thatcan trigger a process of learning, a close relationship between agent and environment inthe cognitive process. By environment we mean broadly any external „disturbances‟ tothe person, including other people who are part of that context.Maturana and Varela write in this sense of „structural couplings‟ between living beingsand their milieu to emphasize reciprocity and consistency that is established between oneanother, without any prevalence of one over the other [23].Each of them - living being and environment - is only a trigger for the other that can giverise to reciprocal structural changes, in their material manifestation. Once those changesoccur, we can speak of structural coupling between a living being and its environment andvice versa. We are therefore at the observer‟s level of analysis.It is through these repeated structural couplings that one can speak of cognitive process,since every action becomes in itself a cognitive act, an experience that is embodied in theperson. The body becomes a central tool - an ontological machine - to take part in one‟sown reality by defining the boundaries and possibilities of understanding. According toenaction, it is therefore relevant to study how the human being acts in its local situationsand how these local situations change constantly as a result of its activity: “knowledgedepends on being in a world that is inseparable from our bodies, our language, and oursocial history – in short, from our embodiment” [36].This is a fundamental circularity between action and experience that allows both theembodiment of these changes in the living being, and the emergence, through theseactions, of the context within it operates. Intelligence is no longer the ability to solveproblems already given, but rather the ability to access a common world [35].The living system is able to maintain its identity through a circular process of interactionwith the environment and of self-reproduction; all interactions operating within thenetwork of cognitive acts are coordinated between perceiver and perceived.The cognitive process becomes the evolution of living organisms along a path chosen bythem in the course of time in their structural couplings. Time thus becomes a key aspect inthe analysis of cognition and learning, in which the personal history of a being becomesan embodied know-how: skills learned and experiences are full of all those aspects thatmake its history unique, defining it as a specific identity [22].
  • 5. 5The closed circular organization of the lived body defines a field of dynamic interactions,creating a boundary which defines the unit system as a specific identity, according to theprinciples of self-organization. The focus is therefore on the nexus among the componentsthat define the organization of the living system and not on individual, materialcomponents, which define the structure instead.While the structure actually occurs while changing, the underlying network organizationalstructure and its dynamics seem more diaphanous, having no substantial and materialexistence. However, it is the continuity of these connections that allows the life of theunity: "The key point is that such systems do not operate by representation. Instead ofrepresenting an independent world, they enact a world as a domain of distinctions that isinseparable from the structure embodied by the cognitive system" [36].5 ‘I see if I act, I act if I see’: recurrent sensory-motor patternsThe living being comes into contact with the surrounding environment through structuralcouplings which generate its own inner world related to the environment, as a dynamicprocess of mutual co-definition. Perception, unlike what we are led to believe, isaccomplished with the body and through the body, becoming a global experience thatinvolves the whole person together with her context. The brain participates in the processof perception as an active configuration of interactions between the environment and thebody: the structure of the perceiver is closely interrelated with the perceived reality [2].Perception is an active process involving not only our senses but also our nervous system,including the brain, our body in general and the environment in which we are immersed[5].Enactive perception emphasizes two fundamental and interrelated aspects: first, thatperception consists of perceptually guided actions. This aspect shifts attention from thesignals coming from the outer world to the way the person guides her actions in her localsituation, through her sensory-motor system. Second, that cognitive structures emergefrom recurrent sensory-motor patterns that enable perceptually guided actions. It is nolonger the outer world that specifies a perception, but rather the inner world, theembodied sensory-motor patterns, that guides actions while changing the externalenvironment as a result of its activity [31,20,6]. This is what is meant by the inseparabilityof the perceiver from its reality. This is also the relevance of repeated interactions as anevolutionary path of the system over time, and the importance of complex dynamicsystems studies to understand this evolution.There is therefore a strong interdependence between what we call reality and the sensory-motor structure of a person: each of us creates his own perceived reality and each of usperceives the world differently, depending on our own lived experience. There is thus avisual control of action, and vice versa; objects become „hypotheses of action‟ for ourbody, transforming them into a life experience [28].This sensory-motor experience is embodied in us as a habit of which we are unaware:perception is a phenomenon that can be determined only if there is a relationship between
  • 6. 6what we usually call subject - the perceiver - and what we commonly call the object -what is perceived through action. The sensory-motor patterns of the body are recursiveand capable of self-organizing and self-generating, according to a circuit that generatesnot only itself but also the meaning of action and the reality with which it interferes: The cognitive system as a virtuous circle: circle: the sensory-motor pattern of Varela sensory- motor system sensor systemAt the basic level, that directly concerns the inner dynamic processes, these appear asoperationally closed systems: the nervous system, which includes the brain, functions as aclosed, self-organizing network of interactions, rather than as a system which - followinga stream of reception and transmission - receives information (input) from an outer,objective reality, turning them into specific behaviors (outputs): "The cognitive system isnot a computer, it is a dynamical system. It is not the brain, inner and encapsulated;rather, it is comprised of the whole system nervous system, body, and environment" [27].Self-organization of simple elements, such as neuronal cells, makes possible theemergence of complex phenomena that show overall consistency, such as specific humancognitive abilities. Entering in relation among themselves, these local elements canspontaneously coordinate themselves and cooperate so as to move from a purely chaoticstate to a state that is configured as a coherent attractor of the entire network allowing theemergence of a consistent configuration that we call cognitive ability and intelligence[30,14,21], which, in turn, has downward effects on the elements from which it hasemerged [33]. However, what enables the emergence of a common sense is the recurrentevent, we could say its redundancy, so that the living being is able to recognize it amongothers. Here is the embodied history, the experience of repeated contacts with theenvironment that allows the emergence of consistent configurations.
  • 7. 76 The generative role of emotions: interdependent relationship between perceptions, emotions and actionsOur question now is: when may we consider a perception as effective, since it is notobjectively determined?We have seen that perception is not merely the representation of a given reality, but rathera process of organization between inner and outer world, in which they change throughrepeated sensory-motor processes; therefore the validity of a perception depends on itsability to keep alive a being appropriately [16]: to procure food, shelter and everything itneeds to live, providing a sense of inner satisfaction.It is a process of action and feedback between the environment and human being througha continuous trial and error: if the signal is interpreted as contrary to expectations, it leadsto a negative feedback that modifies the perceptual process, if the signal is interpreted ascorresponding to expectations, the process of perception is reinforced by a positivefeedback. To achieve an inner satisfaction, and conversely, an unpleasant feeling ofdiscomfort means to give an emotional content to the experiences made: emotion is themoment of recognition of the received signal [8]. It is clear that the two moments,perception and emotion, are closely related [29]; a perception is retained in memory if ithas an emotional content [18].Motivation is closely linked to emotion: they share the same etymological root;motivation means "what drives, inspires to do; impulse”, while the etymological meaningof the word emotion is “to take out, to put in motion, to give birth." The motivation to actis closely related to instinct, because it often surpasses and dominates our higher cognitivefaculties; this is, for example, the case of immediate and strong emotions like fear; itcauses a structural change of the person who receives the signal and is highlighted by theaction: From sensor to motor system: Emotion as motivation to action -Motion Emotion -E- as feed-forward feed- Perception-
  • 8. 8Perception of an external signal can trigger a process of internal self-generation of theexternal world, which forms a hypothesis of reality, through an emotion that we coulddefine as a yes or a „no‟, as a fear or a desire. It is an emotion that accepts and confirmswhat the system has perceived or, on the contrary, denies it, rejects it as dangerous orunpleasant. It is this permanent sense of „being-there through the emotions that we canunderstand, in spite of all and first of all. It is a process that transforms the environmentin our body, our self. The inner experience, in fact, participates in the generative processbringing out - as in the etymological meaning of the word - the construction of itsperceived world.Emotions, in turn, define and structure the perception that we experience in a closed circlein which the perception fires the emotion, and the emotion, in turn, defines what we canperceive as our reality and that is interpreted as the outer world, leading us to interactwith it. The strong correlation between perception and emotion creates the outer world:the identity of the other emerges. The meaning of reality: the emergence of the Outer World M Outer World E PEmotion is the moment of transformation of the world that we consider outside of us,regardless of whether the cognitive process that generated the emotion is conscious orunconscious; it is a moment of transformation of what we consider our outer world in afeeling inside our body that we are capable of recognizing.The action done activates a feedback into the subject on an emotional level, bringing intoits cognitive system the outside world transformed by its verbal and nonverbal actions.The emotions reinforce behaviors which provide a feeling of pleasure, and changebehaviors which provide a feeling of discomfort; emotions, in turn, activate a feedback tothe perceptual level, determining those lenses through which we interpret the surroundingenvironment. The action is a communication of the perceived reality, generating in turn aninternal emotion which is a confirmation or a disconfirmation of our behavior, in a circleof co-definition of our intentions and in a manner consistent with our feelings.
  • 9. 9 From motor to sensor system: Emotion as meaning of the action Motion- Emotion as -E- feed-back feed- -PerceptionOn the other hand, the action taken and the result obtained in relation to our expectationsand predictions generate an internal emotion, by which emerges our inner world: ouridentity or self-consciousness. Through the emotional analysis of our behavior in ourenvironment, we report as a feed-back return that realigns our cognitive system in relationto our experience of the world, redefining ourselves, our identities. The way back: the emergence of the Inner World M Inner world E PThis circuit defines, in turn, the perceptive modality of the whole cognitive system: ittransforms what is perceived in relation to the effects of its actions and the achievement oftheir expectations, that brings us back to the starting point by linking the entire process. Aprocess takes place that explores the outside world by acting on it and by transforming it,which leads to a continuous interior realignment compared to expectations and results.7 The ‘Magic Eight Model’: the generative circle of personal learningAction and perception are the moments through which one builds both own‟s externalreality and own‟s inner world, through the embodied simulation of what is perceived asother, and through the actions of what is perceived as self.
  • 10. 10Emotions are the immediate meaning that is given to what is experienced and that exceedsand precedes the rational-logical meaning, representing the feedback loops of thecognitive system. Every cognitive act is modulated by emotions; they function as a systemof self-regulation, defining the cognitive process as a self-organized system.In this process emotions become the feedback loops that amplify and reinforce (positivefeedbacks) or that self-regulate (negative feedbacks) the belief system and the thoughtpatterns through which we perceive the external reality and the whole experience: “Thebasic emotional systems may act as “strange attractors” within widespread neuralnetworks that exert a certain type of “neurogravitational force” on many ongoingactivities of the brain, from physiological to cognitive” [26]. The ‘Magic Eight Model’: Model’ the generative Circle of personal Learning M Inner World Outer World (the Self) (the Other) E PThis circular process defines the evolutionary history of one‟s cognitive system, defininga unique memory in a process that determines the historical memory itself as irreversible.The cognitive process involves continuous changes of the system: perception, emotion,and behavior, in a continuous transformation and generation of the self, without everreturning to previous states. This process is what we call personal learning circle alongan evolutionary path that is quite unique [10,12]. Each time there is a different experiencethat is stratified, as if this model is theoretically infinite, while maintaining the same typeof movement, represented schematically as a strange attractor. The experience isstratified, becoming a long-term memory by changing the structure of the attractor andcontinuously transformed into embodied knowledge.This double loop determines within it a coherent world, with a sense and meaning, whoseboundary becomes its own cognitive domain: the system itself produces its own world,according to a recursive process constantly changing, just like a fractal or a strangeattractor. It is a pattern that represents the principle of self-organization of internalcognitive processes, closed with respect to its surroundings.The cognitive process is therefore the individual learning process, in the context of itsevolutionary process. We use the Magic Eight Model as a pattern representing a double-closed circle of learning when the person enters into a relationship with her own
  • 11. 11environment, highlighting how the recurrence of interrelationships between perceptions,emotions and actions become incarnate in her personal experience.This organizational pattern takes the form of a strange attractor, in which the emotionalaspect is the central point of activity, the diaphragm, between perceiving and acting,between the emergence of the inner world and the emergence of contextual outer world,between the self and the other, along a circle that repeats itself endlessly, and yet isfinished, closing the space of possibilities - the phase space.The learning process structures a knowledge embodied in the person that is expressed inher behavior, her language, her emotions, her perceptions, and that defines her history andmemory. The recurrent experience becomes a know how of the person, which manifestsitself in the naturalness of everyday life [11]. It is a dynamic and evolving process, a reallearning process: the process of learning is a process of signification, in which any action,any interaction, has a meaning within a coherent network of meanings. It is this body ofskills ready to be activated automatically without the need to think up that we can define,together with Francisco Varela, as the know-how embodied in the person: it is the abilityto immediately cope with the surrounding world, that readiness for action that allows theemergence of micro-worlds within which a person can easily move [37].Therefore, the structure of the living being embodies the history of its continual changes;this process of ongoing structural changes keeps firm the identity of the subject. Throughthis cognitive process we define our own identity, with reference to our environment, as aform of differentiation of ourselves from the environment. The Self-Other Relationship Self- as generative circle of reality The Other The Self (Outer World) (Inner World)The emergence of our inner world, according to this analysis, is something intangible andnot concretely defined. This is in fact a process that can emerge from the intertwinedelements and their iteration, namely the continuous repetition of similar phenomena,although never identical, giving rise to a seemingly constant reality, as something stable,although always in motion and always co-determining in a seamless flow.
  • 12. 128 Concluding remarkesIn the generative „Magic Eight Model‟, cognition is represented as a process oftransformation of the person, both inside and outside herself, changing her internal worldand, simultaneously, changing her own context.The emergence of what we call our „identity‟ is therefore a circular relationship with theemergence of what we call our „reality‟; the self is a continuous process of realignment, inwhich our identity can not be defined separately as something with an actual existence,but rather as a process of continual transformation, a co-definition of the self mutuallywith the co-definition of the other. Our outer world - the other - and our inner world - theself - move in a mutual becoming, in a process of co-determination, that only an attemptto objectify it can try forcibly to separate.The other does not exist per se, but for what we perceive as another identity; it isgenerated by a cognitive act giving it a meaning, a description as another identity.Through our cognitive acts – touching, speaking, perceiving – we communicate our innerworld generating the outer world, and vice versa, in a mutual specification. This processis generative only if we acknowledge the other with whom we dependently co-generate.It becomes an infinite and indefinite iteration at the same time, that does not begin andend anywhere, with the emergence of coherent meanings in a common cognitive domain.Learning can thus be seen as a process of cooperation and mutual coordination, in whichthe relational aspect becomes the foundation of all knowledge. Through the personalperception of the world in which we take part with an action, the domains of self andother are intertwined making it impossible to remain outside.References 1. H. J. Barkow, L. Cosmides and J. Tooby, The adaptive mind: evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, (1995) 2. V. Bonnardel and J.F. Varela, in Biological Research (1) 36, (2003) 3. M. Cappuccio, Neurofenomenologia. Le scienze della mente e la sfida dell’esperienza cosciente, (Bruno Mondadori, Milano, 2006) 4. S.P. Churchland and J.T. Sejnowski, The computational brain, (MIT Press, 1994) 5. A. Clark, Being there: putting brain, body, and world together again, (MIT Press, 1998) 6. A. Clark, in Trends in Cognitive Sciences (3) 9, (1999) 7. F. Crick and C. Koch, in Seminars in the Neurosciences 2, 263:275, (1990) 8. A. Damasio, L’errore di Cartesio. Emozione, ragione e cervello umano, (Adelphi, Milano, 2005) 9. N. Depraz, J.F. Varela and P. Vermersch, On Becoming Aware, (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2003)10. M. De Simone and D. Simoncini, Il Mago e Il Matto, (MacGraw Hill, Milano, 2008)11. M. De Simone and D. Simoncini, in Etica, Economia, Società. Sistemi sociali ed economici in transizione, 115:165, (Edizioni Universitarie Romane, Roma, 2010)12. M. De Simone and D. Simoncini, in Persone e Conoscenze 59, 55:59, (2010)
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