Francisco Varela

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Francisco Varela

Francisco Javier Varela Garcia (Santiago, September 7, 1946 – Paris, May 28, 2001) was a Chilean biologist, researcher in the field of neuroscience and cognitive science. Together with his professor Humberto Maturana, he is known for introducing the concept of autopoiesis in biology, and for co-founding the Mind and Life Institute, an institution charged with promoting the dialogue between science and Buddhism.

Francisco Varela’s Biography


He studied basic education at the College of the Divine Word and began his studies in Chile at the School of Medicine of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (1964-1966) where, after having completed the first years of his medical career , obtained his degree in Biology in the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Chile (1965-1967) of which he was a founding student. At the end of the year 1967, Varela received a doctoral fellowship with which he did postgraduate studies at Harvard University, obtaining his doctorate at the age of 24 with the Insect Retinas thesis: Information processing in the compound eye, under the direction of Keith R. Porter and Torsten Wiesel, who in 1981 would be awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology for his studies on the visual system.

As part of his initial training he studied a degree in philosophy at the Pedagogical Institute of the University of Chile; there, he tells us, he received the influence of the Chilean-Spanish philosopher Francisco Soler Grima (See his book El fenómeno de la vida, Ed. Dolmen, Santiago de Chile, 2000, pp. 423 f.). In addition, he conducted guided readings by Roberto Torretti at the Center for Humanistic Studies of the School of Engineering of the University of Chile in 1965. [citation & nbsp; required]


Humberto Maturana, supervisor of Francisco Varela and with whom he worked on the concept of autopoiesis.

His fundamental interest was to study the biological basis of knowledge, which led him to investigate cognitive phenomena and to be mainly interested in the phenomenon of consciousness.

In 1970, Dr. Varela joins the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Chile, with the position of full professor. During this period and in collaboration with Humberto Maturana, he advanced in the theoretical development of the concepts of self-organization and networks of neurons. In December 1973, he accepted a teaching position at the School of Medicine of the University of Colorado, working on sensorial-motor integration. Publishes a first book about its theoretical developments “Principles of Biological Autonomy”

One of his main contributions is the work done with Humberto Maturana, from which the theory of autopoiesis was born, which defines living beings as autonomous organisms, in the sense that they are capable of producing their own components and that they are determined primarily by their internal relationships. This theory has had great relevance in a wide range of fields, from systems theory to sociology or psychology.

Later, in his interest in the phenomenon of consciousness, Varela begins the study of the neural mechanisms associated with conscious phenomena, in which he investigates the synchrony of neuronal activity and its relation to perception and states of consciousness. conscience.

Varela was interested in developing a methodology for the investigation of these phenomena, which he calls neurophenomenology, in which he tries to reconcile the scientific view with the life experience. On this way of approaching the study of consciousness, influences can be found in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, continued by his disciple Maurice Merleau-Ponty. However, more important is the approach made by Varela to disciplines of oriental knowledge, such as Buddhism, which he practiced in the course of his life, and with which he tried to generate a scientific dialogue.

The neurophenomenology of Varela states that the sensations that the human being experiences in daily life do not activate a certain zone x in the brain as a single region, which corresponds to the type of sensation that is experienced, but, at the moment to have a certain experience, different areas of the brain are stimulated forming a unique pattern that corresponds to the unrepeatable experience. This radically changes the traditional conception of regionality, with points and unique intersections of the spatial plane. This in the neurophenomenology of Varela is known as “blockage in phase” and is the way in which here is conceived the cerebral regionality and its simultaneous relationship of spatial coordinates in a unique and fleeting temporal coordinate that lasts only as long as the brain needs to process the print you’re facing.

At his death, he was Director of Research at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the Cognitive Neuroscience and Brain Imaging Laboratory (abbreviated LENA in French) in Paris.

His ashes rest in the town of Montegrande in the Elqui Valley on the farm of his grandfather Luis Varela Pinto.

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