Chapter 3 – Qualia, Conscious Awareness, and Conscious Experiences

Important notification: Please note that this is the old 2018 version of Chapter 3. The newest version is available here: Chapter 3 (new version).


Qualia are mental phenomena that have been fascinating and bewildering human minds for a long time. They are the phenomena that make us live not in the dark but in the dazzling world of images, sounds, scents, etc., yet their nature is mysterious. Many questions about them, in particular, the question of what they are physically and ontologically and the questions of why and how they occur—which are widely known as “the hard problem of qualia” or the closely related “hard problem of consciousness” [1–19] and “the explanatory gap” [4,5,6,7,12,13,16,18–29]—are still unresolved. Because of the difficulties in answering these questions, three chapters are dedicated to analyzing them. The first one, this chapter, clarifies what qualia are manifestation-wise, explains their definitions and types, and includes discussions about their closely associated phenomena—conscious awareness and conscious experiences. The second chapter answers the question of whether they are physical phenomena or not. Lastly, the third chapter solves the problems of what they are physically and ontologically, why and how they occur, and other related questions.

3.1 Quale and Qualia: Definition

When one looks at a house, the image of the house appears in one’s mind, and one can be aware of it and experience it in one’s mind (Figure 3.1). When one listens to a song, the sound of the song appears in one’s mind, and one can be aware of it and experience it in one’s mind. When one smells a flower, the odor of the flower appears in one’s mind, and one can be aware of it and experience it in one’s mind.

Qualia as separated entities

Figure 3.1 Image, sound, and odor qualia

In addition, similar phenomena related to other kinds of sensory perceptions (taste, touch, pain, etc.) can appear in one’s mind, and one can also be aware of them and experience them in one’s mind. Moreover, other mental phenomena that are unrelated to sensory perception, such as emotions, thoughts, and recalled memories, can appear in one’s mind, and one can be aware of them and experience them in one’s mind as well.

If we examine how the mind is aware of and experiences these phenomena, we will find one essential characteristic: For each phenomenon, in addition to being aware of its occurrence, the mind is aware of and experiences what the phenomenon is like—what the image of a house is like, what the sound of a song is like, what the odor of a flower is like, etc. In other words, the mind has awareness and an experience of what the phenomenon is like, and awareness and an experience of what the phenomenon is like occur in the mind. In this theory, when a) the mind is aware of and experiences what a mental phenomenon is like or, equivalently, b) awareness and an experience of what the phenomenon is like occur in the mind, the mind is said to be consciously aware of and consciously experience that mental phenomenon. Vice versa, a mental phenomenon is said to be consciously experienceable if a) or, equivalently, b) can be the case.

Definition: A mental phenomenon is consciously experienceable if the mind can be aware of and experience what that phenomenon is like.

Or, equivalently:

Definition: A mental phenomenon is consciously experienceable if awareness and an experience of what that phenomenon is like can occur in the mind.

The essential point regarding the definitions is: How do we know that the mind can be aware of and experience what that phenomenon is like and that awareness and an experience of what that phenomenon is like can occur in the mind? The answer is that there must be behavioral evidence for them. Normally, when a) or b) is the case, the mind can tell that the phenomenon has happened, hold it in the working memory, and share its information globally with other parts of the mind, including the cognition, symbolizing (language), and memory parts.* This global information sharing results in various additional mental activities. For example, the mind can think about, analyze, compare, and intentionally perform other cognitive activities regarding this phenomenon, can represent it with a symbol or sign (such as a written sign, sound, or gesture), thereby being able to report it to the outside world, and can intentionally memorize and recall it. These activities are behaviorally evident and verifiable in normal people. Therefore, we can determine whether condition a) or, equivalently, b) is satisfied by checking whether the person whose mind is being investigated has these activities.

(* This is the current concept about this phenomenon, the notion shared by many scientists and philosophers (for example, see References 30–37) and current leading consciousness theories such as The Global Workspace theory [38–42], The Global Neuronal Workspace hypothesis [43–49], and an extended theory of global workspace of consciousness [50])

However, these assessments may not be possible in people with concentration, language, memory, motor, or other problems that impair the mind’s ability to report what has happened in it. In such cases, we cannot tell whether the phenomenon in question is experienceable because a) and b) are not verifiable. Thus, this theory will not include such cases in the study. More advanced theories are needed to cover them. Nevertheless, we will see that such irregular cases do not prevent us from discovering what a consciously experienceable mental phenomenon is because the regular cases give us enough evidence to do so.

Importantly, not all mental phenomena are consciously experienceable. Those that are not have quite different characteristics. The mind is aware of them in other ways: It is aware of them in the sense that it registers their occurrences and information into its processing systems and subsequently reacts to them, but it is not aware of and does not experience what they are like. Examples of such mental phenomena are those that occur in the perception and control of the blood constituent (sodium, H+, oxygen, sugar, hormones, etc.) levels, of the pressure in the vessels (arterial, venous, and lymphatic), and of the reflexes (myotatic, gastrointestinal, autonomic, etc.), as illustrated in Figure 3.2B.

Qualia and non-qualia

Figure 3.2 Mental phenomena that are (A) and are not (B) consciously experienceable

Again, the mind is aware of these mental phenomena in some ways: it registers them and their information and reacts to them accordingly all the time but is not aware of and does not experience what they are like. For example, it is not aware of and does not experience what the perception and control of the blood constituent levels, of the pressure in the vessels, and of the reflexes are like. Additionally, the mind cannot tell that the phenomena have happened, cannot hold them in the working memory, and cannot share their information with other parts of the mind, including the cognition, symbolizing (language), and memory parts. Thus, it cannot think about, analyze, compare, or intentionally perform other cognitive activities regarding these phenomena, cannot represent them with symbols or signs and report them to the outside world, and cannot intentionally memorize them.

Therefore, some mental phenomena are consciously experienceable (Figure 3.2A), while others are not (Figure 3.2B). In this theory, mental phenomena that are consciously experienceable are called qualia (plural and adjective form) or quale (singular form).

Definition: A mental phenomenon that is consciously experienceable is a quale.

And, in this theory, the term quale will be used to represent only such a mental phenomenon.

Definition: A quale is a mental phenomenon that is consciously experienceable.

Hence, the mental phenomena previously used as examples above, such as the image, sound, odor, emotion, and thought, are qualia because they are consciously experienceable (the mind can be aware of and experience what they are like). In contrast, mental phenomena such as those that occur in the perception and control of the blood constituent levels, of the pressure in the vessels, and of the reflexes are not qualia because they are not consciously experienceable (the mind cannot be aware of or experience what they are like).

Note. Since short terms such as image, sound, and odor, when used in this context—discussing phenomena happening in the mind—refer to image quale, sound quale, and odor quale, respectively, they are used in this manner throughout this theory to maintain conciseness. However, explicit, longer terms such as image quale, sound quale, and odor quale will be used when it is necessary to emphasize that they are qualia. Also, it is worth noting that these short terms can mean something else when used in other contexts, such as an image appearing on a TV screen, sound emitting from a speaker, and odor wafting from a scent bottle, which refer to physical phenomena happening outside the mind, not qualia.

Interestingly, some phenomena can alternate between being and not being consciously experienceable, such as those that occur in binocular rivalry [51–58]. In such a case, only the phenomenon in a consciously experienceable state will be a quale in this theory; the same phenomenon, when it is in a state that is not consciously experienceable, will not be a quale in this theory because, while being in that state, it does not satisfy the definition of quale.

Lastly, regarding their etymology, the terms quale and qualia are derived from the Latin word “quālis” [59–61]—meaning “what sort” or “what kind” [29,59–63]. Although these two terms were first used in philosophy in 1929 by Lewis CI in a discussion of sense-data theory [28,29,64,65], at present, they are used by philosophers, cognitive neuroscientists, and scientists in related fields to refer to the phenomena as defined above or other closely related phenomena [40,62,66–78]. However, since the standard definitions of the two terms have not been settled, some authors use other definitions, and their “quale” and “qualia” may not be “quale” and “qualia” as defined here. To complicate things even more, some use other terms such as consciousness, experience, and phenomenal experience to refer to phenomena that other people call “quale” and “qualia” [8,79]. Therefore, the reader should be careful about their meanings when encountering these terms in the literature. Accordingly, to avoid confusion, the working definitions of the two terms in this theory will specifically be as stated above.

3.2 Phenomenal Characteristic and Phenomenality

Because qualia are consciously experienceable, the mind can be aware of and experience what they are like (what an image of a house, a sound of a song, an odor of a flower, etc. are like), and awareness and experiences of what they are like occur. This means that qualia must manifest what they are like in the mind so that such awareness and experiences can occur [1,2,4,5,13,14,29]. Thus, qualia can also be defined as “mental phenomena that manifest what they are like in the mind.” This characteristic of qualia—manifesting what they are like in the mind—is called phenomenal characteristic [29,78] or, in short, phenomenality.** It is a very important characteristic and is the heart of the hard problem of qualia: why and how qualia manifest what they are like in the mind. When this characteristic is to be emphasized, the terms phenomenal quale/qualia will be used instead of quale/qualia. Similarly, a manifestation of what the quale (of something) is like in the mind will be called a phenomenal manifestation, and qualia can be defined as “mental phenomena that exhibit phenomenal manifestations.”

(** Other similar terms are phenomenal character [4,13,29,65,80–82] or phenomenal properties [4,5,13,16,19,65,80,83].)

Other important characteristics of a quale that are inherent to its phenomenality or its manifesting what it is like in the mind are that each quale is

a) unique in its manifestation—the manifestation of each quale is different from those of other qualia and other phenomena and

b) ineffable# or indescribable—a quale cannot be described based on anything else and must be experienced by a person for that person to know “what the quale is like.”

(# This word comes from the Latin word “ineffabilis,” which means “cannot be described” or “unutterable.” [84–86].)

For example, an image quale of a house and a sound quale of a song are unique in their manifestations (both are unique and drastically different from each other and from other qualia, such as odor qualia, thought qualia, and emotion qualia) and are ineffable (one cannot describe to a congenitally blind person what an image quale of a house is like based on what sound, odor, touch, and other qualia are like, nor can one describe to a congenitally deaf person what a sound quale of a song is like based on what image, odor, touch, and other qualia are like—they must be experienced by a person for that person to understand “what an image quale of a house” is like and “what a sound quale of a song” is like).

3.3 Types of Qualia

Many mental phenomena are qualia [87]. Let us examine them in detail because the examination will provide clues regarding their nature.

Based on what kind of information they are, qualia can be classified into two types:

  1. Sensory perception qualia – External-sensory perception qualia – Internal-sensory perception qualia
  2. Emotion-cognition-execution qualia
  1. Sensory perception qualia are qualia that occur as the products of sensory perception. They can be subdivided into external- and internal-sensory perception qualia. External-sensory perception qualia are qualia that occur as the products of external-sensory perceptions, which perceive stimuli occurring outside the body. In humans, there are several kinds of them: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and somatosensory perception qualia.## Internal-sensory perception qualia are qualia that occur as the products of internal-sensory perceptions, which perceive stimuli occurring inside the body. In humans, there are several kinds of them: vestibular, proprioceptive, and visceral sensory (i.e., visceral pain, distension, cramp, etc.) perception qualia. It is possible that some animals that have sensory modalities humans do not have (such as magnetoreception in birds, bats, bees, and sharks [88–90], electroreception in electric fish [91–96], and hygroreception in insects [97–100]) have other kinds of qualia for these sensory perceptions as well [101]. Each kind of sensory perception quale has unique manifestations, cannot be described based on any other qualia or anything else, and must be experienced to understand what it is like (e.g., what a visual quale is like, what a proprioceptive quale is like, or what a magnetoreception quale is like). Furthermore, each kind of sensory perception quale consists of several components that are basic qualia. For example, visual qualia consist of several basic qualia—color, brightness, shape, and other basic visual qualia; while auditory qualia consist of several other basic qualia—pitch, timbre, loudness, and other basic auditory qualia. Each component or basic quale has a unique manifestation, cannot be described based on any other basic qualia or anything else, and must be consciously experienced to understand what it is like (e.g., for visual qualia: what a color quale is like, what a brightness quale is like, or what a shape quale is like). Sensory perception qualia, both external and internal, are information about something in the outside world (which can be either outside or inside one’s physical body). They are usually vivid in their manifestations.

(## In this theory, visual, auditory, and olfactory qualia are the same as image, sound, and odor qualia, respectively. The former terms will be used most of the time, while the latter terms will be used sometimes when simplicity is appropriate. Also, the term “mental image” will be used instead of “image” when it is to be emphasized that it is an image in the mind.)

It is important to note that not all perceptions of stimuli that occur inside the body have products or other components that are consciously experienceable or are qualia. In fact, perceptions of most internal stimuli, which convey information from various organs, tissues, or cells inside the body, such as perceptions of the blood constituent (sodium, H+, oxygen, sugar, hormones, etc.) levels, of the pressure in the vessels (arterial, venous, and lymphatic), and of various reflexes (myotatic, gastro-intestinal, autonomic, etc.), do not have qualia in their processes. We never know what their products or other components are like (such as what the products or other components of the perceptions of various blood constituent levels, pressure in our vessels, and various reflexes are like). Similarly, it is important to note that sensory perception qualia do not occur in all sensory-perception processing processes but only in the final-stage ones, such as the final-stage visual-perception processing processes (which create visual qualia of color, brightness, shape, etc.) and the final-stage auditory-perception processing processes (which create auditory qualia of pitch, timbre, loudness, etc.). All the earlier stages of sensory perception, such as the first stage of processing raw sensory signals arriving at each primary sensory perception area, do not have products or other components that are consciously experienceable or are qualia. We never know what the products or other components of these earlier-stage perceptions are like. The fact that some perceptions have qualia, whereas others do not, and the fact that qualia occur only in the final-stage sensory-perception processing processes can provide clues to why and how qualia and consciousness occur. This point will be discussed in more detail in the following chapters.

  1. Emotion-cognition-execution qualia are qualia that occur as the products of the processes that process emotion, cognition, and execution. They occur as the products of emotion-generation processes (such as a happy, sad, or angry feeling), cognitive perception processes (such as perception of time, existence, or self and non-self), and cognition-execution processes (such as a thought of one’s self, a relived past event, or a mental plan). Similar to sensory perception qualia, each kind of these qualia has unique manifestations, cannot be described based on any other qualia or anything else, and must be consciously experienced to understand what it is like (e.g., what the emotion quale of happiness is like, what the perception quale of time is like, or what the thought quale of one’s self is like). Emotion-cognition-execution qualia are information about emotion, cognition, or execution, all of which are inside the mind, not in the external world. They are usually not as vivid in their manifestations as sensory perception qualia.

Similar to the case of sensory perception qualia, it is important to note the selectivity of qualia occurrences in this case. All emotion-cognition-execution qualia occur exclusively in the final-stage processing processes of these highest-level mental processes. All earlier stages of these mental processes and all lower-level mental processes, which constitute the vast majority of mental processes, such as the mental processes of the basal ganglia, brainstem nuclei, and cerebellum, do not have products or anything that are consciously experienceable or are qualia. We never know what their activities, products, and other components are like, such as what the early-stage processing of emotion, cognition, and execution are like and what the processing of the extrapyramidal motor control, cerebellar motor control, and autonomic control of body temperature, heart rate, and various blood constituents are like. Again, the fact that some mental processes have qualia, whereas others do not, and the fact that qualia occur only in the final-stage processing processes of the highest-level mental processes can provide clues to why and how qualia and consciousness occur. This point will be discussed in more detail in the following chapters.

3.4 Conscious Awareness and Conscious Experience

Next, let us examine the principal phenomena that always occur with qualia: conscious awareness and conscious experiences. As discussed in Section 3.1, when the mind is aware of and experiences a quale, not only awareness and an experience of the quale’s existence occur, but awareness and an experience of what the quale is like also occur. On the other hand, when the mind is aware of and experiences something that is not a quale, some kind of awareness and experience of that thing’s existence occurs, and the mind responds to them accordingly, but awareness and an experience of what that thing is like do not occur. Therefore, awareness and an experience of what something is like (such as awareness and an experience of what an image of a house, a sound of a song, or an odor of a flower is like) are special because they are additional awareness and experience and occur only when we are conscious in the usual sense. When we are unconscious in the usual sense (such as when our minds are aware of and experience something that is not a quale, such as those in Figure 3.2B, or when we are under general anesthesia or in a coma), we do not and cannot have this kind of awareness and experience. Therefore, such special awareness and such a special experience will be specifically called conscious awareness and a conscious experience, respectively. They can be defined as follow:

Definition: Conscious awareness is awareness of what something is like.

Definition: A conscious experience is an experience of what something is like.

These are the general definitions of conscious awareness and a conscious experience. However, frequently, we have to discuss these phenomena in a specific situation, such as in the awareness and experience of an image of a house, a sound of song, or an odor of a flower. In such situations, we will use the phrases “conscious awareness of” and “a conscious experience of” to be specific. These phrases have identical definitions to their general definitions. That is, conscious awareness of something is awareness of what that something is like, and a conscious experience of something is an experience of what that something is like. For example, conscious awareness of an image of a house is awareness of what an image of a house is like, and a conscious experience of a sound of a song is an experience of what a sound of a song is like.

There are several points to be noted about conscious awareness and a conscious experience. They are as follows:

First, since awareness and an experience of what something is like occur only in the case of a quale, conscious awareness and a conscious experience of something equally are conscious awareness and a conscious experience of a quale—conscious awareness and a conscious experience of something that is not a quale are not possible. Similarly, awareness of what something is like equally is awareness of what a quale is like, and an experience of what something is like equally is an experience of what a quale is like. Awareness and an experience of what something is like are not possible if that something is not a quale.

Second, it should be noted that awareness and an experience of what something is like always occur with awareness and an experience of that thing’s existence because it is not possible to be aware of and experience what something is like without simultaneously being aware of and experiencing the existence of that thing. Therefore, conscious awareness of something or awareness of what that thing is like always implies that there is concurrent awareness of that thing’s existence; this is similarly true for a conscious experience.

Third, because conscious awareness and a conscious experience always occur together and because we often discuss them together, to be concise, the term conscious awareness and experience will be used instead of conscious awareness and a conscious experience to refer to these two phenomena. Likewise, conscious awareness and experiences will be used instead of conscious awareness and conscious experiences, when discussing awareness and experiences of several things. However, when emphasizing that they are two distinct phenomena or when discussing each specific phenomenon, individual terms will be used separately.

Fourth, when conscious awareness and experience occur, additional awareness and experience occur, which are awareness and an experience of the conscious awareness and experience that have occurred—we know that conscious awareness and experience have occurred and know what they are like. Hence, conscious awareness and experience themselves are consciously experienceable; they thus are qualia. Furthermore, because the mind can be aware of and experience what conscious awareness and experience are like, conscious awareness and experience, like other qualia, manifest what they are like in the mind, with manifestation uniqueness and ineffability. Thus, like other qualia, they have phenomenal characteristics or phenomenality

Fifth, as any particular conscious experience, such as the conscious experience of an image quale of a house, occurs only in the mind of the subject who is having that experience, that experience is limited to that subject, and only that subject knows what that experience is like, such as what his or her conscious experience of an image quale a house is like. Although another subject can have a similar conscious experience, such as a similar conscious experience of an image quale of the same house, and know what it is like for himself or herself, he or she can never have the conscious experience of another subject and can never know exactly what the conscious experience in another subject is like, such as what another subject’s conscious experience of an image quale of the same house of is like. Therefore, the conscious experience in each subject is exclusively limited to the subject who has the experience. Hence, in this sense, it is subjective. Consequently, a conscious experience may be called a subjective experience or a subjective conscious experience [6,7,13,51,103,104,111,112]. However, the author of this theory considers that the conscious part is essential for the experience to occur as a conscious experience instead of an unconscious experience, while the subjective part may exist in an unconscious experience as well (i.e., like a conscious experience, an unconscious experience is likely to be exclusively limited to the subject who has it—no one else will ever have access to the subject’s unconscious experience) and thus may not help differentiate between a conscious experience and an unconscious experience. Therefore, in this theory, this kind of experience will be simply called a conscious experience.

Sixth, another important issue related to the term conscious experience is that, in the literature, the terms quale and conscious experience may be used interchangeably to mean a mental phenomenon that is consciously experienceable (such as an image quale of a house) or a conscious experience of such a mental phenomenon (such as a conscious experience of an image quale of a house). That is, in some literature, there is no distinction between the two terms and between the two phenomena, which can be confusing. Thus, the reader has to be careful in assessing which phenomenon is being discussed in the literature and which meaning is being used for that term.

However, current knowledge in neurophysiology indicates that, although the two phenomena—a quale and conscious experience—are functionally closely related and sometimes overlap (as in the case of conscious awareness and experience, because both of them are also qualia, as discussed before), they are different phenomena [2]. All qualia except conscious awareness and experience occur with neural processes that are different from those of conscious awareness and experience, and these two kinds of phenomena can change independently of each other. For example, a visual quale of a house occurs with the visual perception neural processes in various visual perception areas, whereas the conscious experience of this visual quale (the experience of what the visual quale is like) occurs with the synchronization between the consciousness neural process and the visual perception neural processes that the visual quale occurs with [66,113–115]. Separate disturbances in the neural process that a quale occurs with without disturbances in the consciousness neural process, which a conscious experience occurs with, can occur, and vice versa. For example, when a person is consciously experiencing the visual, auditory, and olfactory qualia of the surroundings, if there is an acute stroke affecting the right occipital lobe, resulting in left hemianopia, the visual qualia will correspondingly be affected, but his or her overall conscious experience will still be intact, as evidenced by the fact that he or she can still consciously experience the auditory, olfactory, and remaining visual qualia normally. On the other hand, if the person becomes drowsy, his or her conscious experience will become less and less and fade away, while the qualia themselves remain undisturbed; that is, the manifestations of the visual, auditory, and olfactory qualia are not disturbed. For example, no focal deficit or distortion in the visual, auditory, or olfactory qualia occurs. Therefore, in this theory, the two phenomena—qualia and conscious experiences—are two different phenomena and will be referred to by different terms:

– Only quale, no other term, will be used for a mental phenomenon that is consciously experienceable, and quale will be used to refer to only this phenomenon, nothing else. (Qualia will be used in plural cases.)

– Only a conscious experience, no other term, will be used for an experience of what a quale is like, and a conscious experience will be used to refer to only this experience, nothing else.

Lastly, one of the most important facts about conscious awareness and experience is that they do not occur with all mental processes. For example, they do not occur with any mental process in the basal ganglia, the brainstem, the cerebellum, and the autonomic nervous system. We never have conscious awareness and experience of what happens there. For instance, we never know that we are sensing and controlling various blood constituent (sodium, H+, oxygen, sugar, hormones, etc.) levels at all times to maintain homeostasis, and we never know what it is like to sense these blood levels and operate their control; we never know that we are constantly sensing pressure in our vessels (arterial, venous, and lymphatic) and controlling the contraction of these vessels and the heart to maintain appropriate vascular pressure, and we never know what it is like to sense these vessels’ pressure and operate their control; we never know that we are sensing and controlling various reflexes (autonomic, gastrointestinal, myotatic, etc.) all over the body all the time to quickly and appropriately respond to various stimuli, and we never know what it is like to sense these reflex stimuli and operate reflex control. Only when something is wrong with these parts of the nervous system and abnormal symptoms occur do we know that something has been going on in them that we were not conscious of before.

Because conscious awareness and experiences are awareness and experiences of what qualia are like, they must occur with qualia. This means that they must occur with mental processes that have qualia as their products, which are the following:

C1. Mental processes in the final stages of all external sensory perception processes and of some internal sensory perception processes, such as those in the final-stage visual, auditory, olfactory, vestibular, and visceral-pain perception processes, which have mental images, sounds, smells, equilibrioception (sense of balance), and visceral pain as their qualia, respectively.

C2. Mental processes in the final stages of certain highest-level emotion-cognition-execution processes, such as those in the final stages of emotion-generating, thinking, planning, decision-making, and memory-recalling processes, which have emotions, thoughts, mental plans, decisions, and recalled memories as their qualia, respectively.

Therefore, conscious awareness and experiences occur with these mental processes only. Conscious awareness and experiences do not occur with other mental processes, which will be discussed next.

3.5 Unconscious Awareness

For mental phenomena that are not consciously experienceable (or are not qualia), such as those occurring in the mental processes for perception and control of blood constituent levels, vessel pressure, and reflexes, as discussed in the previous section, even though the mind is aware of them in some ways and constantly responds to them accordingly, it is not aware of and does not experience what they are like, and conscious awareness and experiences of these phenomena do not occur. In this theory, when the mind is aware of a mental phenomenon in this way, the mind is said to be unconsciously aware of that mental phenomenon, and this kind of awareness will be called unconscious awareness. Regarding experiences, whether unconscious experiences (as the counterpart of conscious experiences) occurs with unconscious awareness is debatable [13,116,117], and it certainly depends on how “unconscious experience” is defined. However, this potentially existing “unconscious experience” is not necessary for discussing the matter in this theory; thus, it will not be discussed further.

There are innumerable mental phenomena that the mind is unconsciously aware of, and unconscious awareness occurs for them. They make up the great majority of all mental phenomena and occur in the following mental processes:

UC1. Mental processes in a) the early stages of all sensory perceptions, b) all stages of non-sensory stimulus perceptions, and c) some special situations. Some examples are a) mental processes in the early stages of visual, auditory, and somatosensory perceptions, b) those in all stages of perceptions of blood constituent levels, vessel pressure, and reflex stimuli, and c) those that function for unconscious processes in the cases of binocular rivalry [51–58], subliminal perception [118–121], attentional blink [122–125], inattentional blindness [126–132], and blindsight [133–136]. We are not aware of and do not experience what something is like in these mental processes.

UC2. Mental processes in a) the cerebral hemispheres except those specified in C1 and C2 and b) in all the other structures of the nervous system (the brainstem, cerebellum, peripheral nervous system, and enteric nervous system). Mental processes in this group are numerous. Some examples of them are those that function for unconscious attention, unconscious thinking, unconscious reading, unconscious visual perception and face recognition, unconscious mathematical operation, unconscious decision making, unconscious control of muscle tone and motor coordination, unconscious control of spontaneous breathing, unconscious control of cardiac functions and vessel contraction, unconscious control of blood constituent levels, unconscious control of gastrointestinal tract secretions and movements, and unconscious control of all reflexes [137–168]. We are not aware of and do not experience what something is like in these mental processes.

3.6 Conscious Awareness vs. Unconscious Awareness

It can be noted that conscious awareness and unconscious awareness of something are different because the mind in the former but not in the latter case can report that something has happened and that it is aware of what that something is like. Thus, if a person has no condition that prevents him or her from giving correct reports (such as a language disability or paralysis of muscles for vocalization, eye movement, and gesturing), we can verify whether the person is having conscious awareness or unconscious awareness of something by asking the person whether he or she knows that something has occurred in his or her mind and whether he or she is aware of what that something is like. The answer to both questions will be “yes” if the person has conscious awareness of that thing (such as a visual quale of a house, an auditory quale of a song, or an olfactory quale of a flower) but will be “no” if the person has unconscious awareness of that thing (such as a perception of a blood sodium level, arterial wall pressure, or reflex stimulus). However, if the person has conditions that prevent him or her from giving reliable reports, this kind of verification will not be possible or reliable.

Nevertheless, despite the above constraints, there is a special case in which an assessment of whether conscious awareness occurs or not is possible, even though the person has conditions that prevent him or her from giving reliable reports. This special case occurs when an episodic stimulus, such as a flash of letters, pictures, or symbols, gains access into the mind. Neurophysiologic experiments have revealed that, when an episodic stimulus has gained access into the mind and conscious awareness of that stimulus occurs, the following neural phenomena occur [40,45,47,66,68,70,73,75,113, 115,174–188].

  1. A sudden, intense ignition of widespread neural activities, especially those of bilateral prefrontal and parietal regions.
  2. An appearance of a slow wave about 300–500 milliseconds (ms) after the stimulus onset, a P300 wave, over the vertex with bilateral spread over the prefrontal cortex.
  3. A massive increase in high-frequency gamma-band oscillation, starting around 150–300 ms after the stimulus onset, with later amplification of the activity.
  4. A massive synchronization of electromagnetic signals across distant cortical regions, occurring late in the 300–500 ms time window.

There are also other neural phenomena that are found to correlate with conscious awareness, such as the firing of specific neurons (concept cells) in the medial temporal cortex [189,190], anterior temporal cortex, and prefrontal cortex [179]. In the future, as research about conscious awareness progresses more and more, additional neural phenomena may be found to occur with it. However, at present, it is not settled which combination of the reported neural phenomena is necessary and sufficient to indicate that this episodic kind of conscious awareness, which is usually called access consciousness or a-consciousness [9,13,16,31,106–109,191–193], has occurred. Nevertheless, this kind of conscious awareness is very likely associated with some specific combination of the reported neural phenomena, which will most probably be identified in the future. Finally, because episodic qualia induce occurrences of conscious awareness with appearances of the reported phenomena, a quale of an episodic stimulus should ultimately be able to be defined objectively as a mental phenomenon that can induce some specific combination of the reported neural phenomena.

Still, it must be emphasized that these neurophysiological findings mostly come from various kinds of studies in which subjects are assessed for responses to a small piece of episodic, external stimulus (a target in the experiment), which is presented to the subject in an experimental, non-natural setting. Hence, the findings and conclusions are only for the specific cases of such episodic stimuli in such settings. What happens in daily life situations, in which a conscious person is bombarded with a myriad of external and internal stimuli of diverse kinds, sizes, and strengths concurrently and continuously, remains unknown. Do all the reported neural phenomena (in items 1 to 4) occur together all the time? For example, when a person is walking in a bustling city center, do the P300 and other reported phenomena occur together all the time for all the stimuli (visual, sound, smell, etc.) that are bombarding the person simultaneously and constantly? Alternatively, are other neurophysiologic phenomena such as rich functional dynamics of brain networks [194] better electrophysiological markers of conscious awareness in this daily life setting?

Finally, despite the exciting prospect of objectively identifying qualia and conscious awareness, it should always be remembered that, basically, a quale is a mental phenomenon that is consciously experienceable and that conscious awareness is awareness of what the qualia are like because these basic facts alone can help us identify their nature, as we will see in the following chapters.

3.7 Sensory Perception Qualia

Before we end this introductory chapter of qualia, let us examine qualia of a specific type that are very important because they make us live not in the dark but in the world of fascinating phenomenality—the sensory perception qualia—to see what they do and are functionally.

A sensory perception quale of the outside world, such as a visual quale of a house, an auditory quale of a song, or an olfactory quale of a flower, may seem real, but it is not that physical thing. It is just a mental phenomenon of a sensory perception mental process, which occurs with a sensory perception neural process (Theorem I), to represent that thing [11,18,65,74,195,196]. However, the process of neural perception of the outside world depends on many factors, such as in the case of a visual perception of a house: a) the external physical factors (the light that illuminates the house, the medium through which the light passes, the distance between the house and the eyes, etc.), b) the internal anatomical factors (from the corneas to the retinae to the visual perception areas in the brain), and c) the internal physiologic factors (from the generation of visual signals in the retinae through several steps of signal processing in various visual perception neural processes to the final steps of signal processing in the final visual perception neural processes). Therefore, the final neural perception of the outside world and the associated mental perception and quale usually do not identically represent the outside world in detail but are just approximate and modified representations of it. Since the details of the neural perception and quale are the information about the outside world, the final information that is contained in the neural perception and the quale is not identical with that of the outside world. Sometimes, the inaccuracies produced in the perception may be so significant that they result in an illusion, or there may be a perception system anomaly that causes a second, different perception to occur with the primary perception, resulting in a condition called synesthesia [197–201].

Some examples of qualia with inaccuracies in representing the outside world are as follows:

– The image quale of a house, when one looks at the house from a distance, does not contain the complete visual details of the house, such as the nails in the house walls, a patch of dirt on the door, or a small crack in a window. These inaccuracies occur because of an external physical factor (the distance) combined with an internal physiologic property (the limited spatial resolution of the retina). Thus, the image quale of a house is neither the physical house itself nor an exact representation of it.

– Various visual illusions occur physiologically in healthy people, such as the finger-sausage illusion in Figure 3.3.

Finger-suasage illusion

A—The fingers as they appear when looked at directly B—The fingers as they appear when one looks at the background behind the fingers Figure 3.3 Finger sausage illusion

It can be seen that the image quale of the fingers (or the fingers as we see them in our mind) changes when the sight’s focus is changed. However, the fingers themselves cannot physically change just by changing the sight’s focus. This proves that the image quale of the fingers (or the fingers as we see them in our mind) is neither the fingers we see nor an exact representation of them.

– An auditory illusion quale of a third tone, a binaural beat, can be heard when two different pure-tone sine waves that have frequencies lower than 1,500 Hz and less than 40 Hz difference between them are presented separately through each ear. This illusion is created physiologically in the auditory perception system [202–206]. Thus, the binaural beat quale is not a representation of anything that exists in the outside world.

– A color quale occurs with a sound quale when a person who has sound-to-color synesthesia hears a musical sound. This additional visual quale occurs because there is a neural connection anomaly between the auditory and the visual perception systems [207–209]. Thus, this visual quale is not a representation of anything that physically exists.

In representing the outside world, the inaccuracy of a neural process’s perception and that of its associated quale involve all details of the outside world, including the temporal details, not only the non-temporal details, which have just been discussed. For example, in the case of a visual perception of a house, it takes time from the moment the house reflects the light to the moment the visual neural process creates a perception and the visual quale of the house occurs. As a result, the visual quale of the house or the house that we see in our minds does not represent the house in real time but the house about 300–400 ms in the past [66,113,176]. This can be more obvious in cases of very distant objects. For example, when we look at the sun (safely by using some solar filters), the sun we see in our minds does not represent a real-time sun but an 8-minute-ago sun at an 8-minute-ago location in the sky. This is similarly true for all other celestial objects: planets, stars, supernovas, etc.—some of them have even vanished already when we see them. Also, a temporal inaccuracy in qualia may arise physiologically from the work of neural processes themselves. An example is the prolongation of time that we feel in the stopped-clock illusion [210–213].

Moreover, we normally see, hear, taste, touch, etc. only in a limited spectral range and with a limited resolution. If we could perceive a certain sensation in a wider spectral range and with a finer resolution, the neural representation and the quale of that sensation would be different from what they are now. For example, if we could see things in almost the full spectral range of electromagnetic waves and with a resolution at the sub-atomic level, the visual neural representations and the associated visual qualia of those things would be drastically different from what we normally experience, and the world would appear radically different from how it does now. Evidently, even though our current powerful electron microscopes and telescopes have not reached their maximal potential yet, things around us and the sky above us, when seen through them, have already appeared very different from when seen through our eyes alone. Thus, an interesting philosophical question regarding this matter is: Which spectral range and which resolution would yield the most correct representation, or does such a perfect representation exist?

In summary, a sensory perception quale occurs with the function of a sensory perception neural process to represent a physical thing in the outside world, but it is not the physical thing itself [11,18,65,74,195,196,214–216]. As various factors affect the process of neural perception of the outside world, the details of the resulting neural perception and its associated quale are not identical with the details of the outside world. Thus, a sensory perception quale is just an approximate, modified representation of something in the outside world; illusion qualia and synesthetic qualia, which represent nothing real in the outside world, may also occur.

If qualia are just representations of things in the external world, what are those things really like by themselves?

By themselves, things in the external world do not have color, shape, sound, smell, hardness, etc. as they appear in our minds. They just have properties that can create mental phenomena that are consciously experienceable, or qualia, in a being’s nervous system and mind via the being’s sensory perception systems. These qualia represent those things in colors, shapes, sounds, smell, hardness, etc. Qualia of something in the outside world may be different for different beings perceiving the same thing, but none of the qualia is that thing or can be claimed to be the only correct representation of that thing.

In Figure 3.4, neither the man, the woman, the dog, nor the bee can claim that his or her or its image quale of the house is the house or that his or her or its image quale of the house is the only one that is the correct representation of the house and that the others’ image qualia are incorrect representations. Also, it should be noted that, because it is not known what the correct visual representation of the house is or even whether it exists, it cannot be illustrated in the figure but can only be represented by the word “House.”

Qualia among different subjects

Figure 3.4 Qualia among different subjects

Similarly, perceptions of space, time, and existence are not what space, time, and existence are either. The former entities are just mental phenomena that are created to represent the latter entities, but they are not the same things. Thus, fascinatingly, our space, time, and even our existence as we feel them are not what they really are. So, what are they really? The answer is that we will probably never know because we can know what things are only through our neural processing systems, but we can get only representations of those things through them. Our minds do not have the ability to directly know things in the outside world by themselves.

Lastly, what things in the outside world, space, time, and existence are like by themselves is an unanswerable question because what those things are like is not absolute but observer-dependent. When there is no observer to judge what they are like (i.e., in the question of what they are like by themselves), the question of what they are like is meaningless.

3.8 Remarks

This is a long chapter that involves many definitions of specific terms. The most important of them are the definitions of a consciously experienceable mental phenomenon, quale/qualia, conscious awareness, and a conscious experience. These definitions are very crucial because they establish what exact phenomena this theory investigates, which is indispensable for correct understanding, future applications, and comparisons with other theories.

The next chapter (Chapter 4: Theorem III) will examine and determine whether qualia are physical phenomena, and the subsequent chapter (Chapter 5: Theorem IV) will investigate and find the nature of qualia and answer the hard problem of qualia, the explanatory gap, and other related questions.

⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓ ⁓

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Keywords: qualia, phenomenal qualia, conscious awareness, conscious experience, consciousness, phenomenal consciousness, phenomenal manifestation, phenomenality