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

Debates About the Nature of Human Cognition
The latest research in cognitive science is revealing that cognitive phenomena such as spatial navigation, action perception and emotional understanding all depend on the human body: not only the body’s morphological, biological and physiological make-up, but also how it actively engages with a structured natural, technological or social environment. Meanwhile, an increasing number of studies in cognitive neuroscience 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 dysfunction?
Course levelAdvanced Bachelor/Master (PhD students may also apply)
Recommended course combinationSession 1: Buddhism and Psychology
Session 2: The Beautiful Mind: Global Perceptions of Mental Health
Session 3 
28 July to 11 August 2018 
Co-ordinating lecturerDr Leon de Bruin / Prof. Gerrit Glas
Other lecturersProf. Jeroen Geurts, Dr Sanneke de Haan, Dr Julian Kiverstein, Prof. Gerben Meynen, Prof. Marc Slors, Dr Derek Strijbos, Dr Markus Eronen, Dr Alan Ralston, Dr Victor Gijsbers
Form(s) of tuitionLectures, interactive seminars, group sessions
Form(s) of assessmentPresentation, research report
ECTS        3 credits
Contact hours45
Tuition fee€1150
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 home in on the cognitive processes involved in solving a multiplication problem. Is this down to neuronal processes alone? 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. This sparks a discussion of the mechanistic explanatory strategy and whether it can be applied to extended cognitive systems. 

Part 3 looks at Psychiatry and Mental Disorder. You will assess the DSM-ICD psychiatric classification framework and the many issues associated with it before going on to examine the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) initiative, launched by the National Institute of Mental Health and aimed at transforming the DSM-ICD into an objective biological system that conceptualizes mental disorders as brain dysfunctions. You will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, utilizing the insights and ideas you acquired in the first week. 

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.

Visit to the Outsider Art Museum

At the end of this course you:

  • Are familiar with the state-of-the-art literature on embodied cognition, mechanistic explanation and mental disorder.
  • Can explain the philosophical implications of embodied cognition and mechanistic explanation 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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