Born in Chile, where he studied medicine and biology, he obtained his PhD in biology from Harvard with a thesis on Insect Retinas: Information processing in the compound eye (1970). It was during this period, that Varela and Maturana developed the concept of autopoiesis. At the same time he became a Tibetan buddhist, believing in the mutual benefits that could be gained from merging Eastern and Western insights - expressed in The
Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1992). Moving between Chile and the USA, he settled in France in 1986, where Varela was based at the Institut des Neurosciences and at CREA (Centre de Recherche en
Epistémologie Appliqué), teaching cognitive science and epistemology at the École Polytechnique, and neuroscience at the University of Paris. From 1988, he led a research group at the CNRS (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique).
A founding member of the Integral Institute, a thinktank dedicated to the cross-fertilization of ideas and disciplines, he wrote and edited at the intersection of biology, neurology, cognitive science, mathematics, and philosophy. Together with his teacher Humberto Maturana, Varela is best known for introducing the concept of autopoiesis to biology - which understands living
systems as autonomous systems. During his French years, he conducted research into experimental studies using multiple electrode recordings and
mathematical analysis of large-scale neuronal integration during
cognitive processes, and philosophical and empirical studies of the neurophenomenology of human consciousness.
Varela was a proponent of the embodied philosophy which argues that human cognition and consciousness
can only be understood in terms of the structures in which
they arise, namely the body (understood both as a biological system and
as personally, phenomenologically experienced) and the physical world
with which the body interacts. He introduced into neuroscience the
concepts of neurophenomenology, based on the phenomenological writings of Edmund Husserl and of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and on first person science, in which observers examine their conscious experience using scientifically verifiable methods. He believed that scientific research
needs to be complemented by detailed phenomenological investigations of
the lived and articulated human experience. To this end, he published a number of original and innovative
phenomenological studies of aspects of human consciousness, including a profound and moving
meditation on his own illness and the phenomenology of organ
In V2_'s 2000 Machine Times, he published The Deep Now.