This essay contains modified extracts of my work “Proposiciones” (currently only in Spanish language – see in link).
As conscious human beings we have a subjective experience of the things we perceive. Specifically, these subjective sensations, called qualia, refer to the subjective quality of experience, to these sensations and experiences that one subjectively has of things, say, the sensation one experiences of the color red, when one observes something of that color (Blackmore, 2005).
Some have theorized that this subjective experience refers to neuronal activity, others however, argue that this experience cannot be explained by means of brain activity and refers to something other than a purely physical explanation. It can also be stated that while still being something physical, the subjective experience refers to another entity other than the brain and its activity, a product of it, for example.
How is it that there is something like quale from brain activity and processing? This question exemplifies what Chalmers (1995) calls the “hard problem”. The notion of the hard problem, refers to the difficulty that exists for the studies of the brain and cognition to understand how a set of material entities and diverse physical processes (neurons, neurotransmitters, action potentials, etc.) are linked to a mental experience, the very own subjective sensations that the individuals present.
A question of great insight is that if the subjective experience were something totally disconnected from the brain, how does the brain “reflect” on that subjective experience? Well, if we think about it, everything we say or think about these sensations depends on the brain activity, the language we use for example, demonstrates that we recognize that experience and reflect on it, and this is being done by the brain itself. It is as if the brain could perceive or account for that experience, otherwise nothing could be said about it.And yet, the brain cannot “perceive” or account for a certain experience. This is made clear in the developments regarding the “atomic notion of the brain”, which are found in the work “Proposiciones“. Nor is it enough to say that simply the brain or neuronal activity is the subjective experience, this is so in part because of the “atomic notion of the brain” of which I speak, and partly derived from other statements about which we also need to locate ourselves or an identity with such an activity, and consequently even more, we need to solve the “problem of the unitary”, of which is also spoken in aforementioned work.
Neural activity is one thing and the subjective experience is very different, the problem is not easy, but neither is it a non-existent problem, it is a real problem that many authors deny or equate to a linguistic problem, an effect perhaps of being so intricate. In the work “Proposiciones“, an account is given of a theoretical model of how qualia are explained (how we can solve the hard problem and explain subjective experience) and in itself it deals with the phenomenon of consciousness, while at the same time other problems arise, such as the problem of the “unitary” of which is spoken in the work. At the same time, as an author I am developing an academic article about this model (in English language), which will be updated in the following link: article about qualia.
Apart from the latter, in this essay I argue that even though regarding subjective experience as a product of brain activity and not neuronal activity itself, even in this case, the brain can “speak” or “reflect” on that experience, although this reflection has certain limits, which in fact exist, which implies that subjective experience can perfectly be at another level, not directly equivalent to brain activity.
Subjective experience depends on neuronal activity but this does not mean that both are necessarily the same
If the subjective experience at the brain level that we reflect on is primarily based on the activation of neuronal patterns, we must consider how the brain can give rise to such reflection based on neuronal activity without an access to that subjective experience, which it seems to have nothing to do with the flow of electrical charges and neurotransmitters.
A clear and proven fact by science is that our perceptions, thoughts, ideas and what we ultimately say about our subjective experience involve an activity at the brain level comprising certain structures, and this is primary, that is, to be able to say something about our subjective experience, certain brain activity has to be generated (Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessel, 2001).
This could make us think that this subjective experience must be captured in some way by the brain to be able to reflect on it, that there must be a passage from that subjectivity, what we sometimes refer to as the mental, to the cerebral (from the mental to the bio-physical-chemical). But before we elaborate a complex explanation of how that might happen, I will say that this is not possible, such a fact is impeded by what I call the aforementioned “atomic notion of the brain”. Nothing in the brain activity is transmitted in the sense of a passage and capture of what a neuronal pattern refers to, like the perception of an object, but each pattern activates other patterns, each one is a universe in itself, so to speak. This prevents a subjective experience from being captured or perceived as such by the brain, in any case the only thing that experience could do would be to activate neural patterns, and from these the reflection would be carried out, but everything seems to indicate that brain activity is primary, that is, the perception of an object, for example, with the associated subjective experience begins with the neuronal activity generated by the object, and having a determined neuronal pattern, from this, of that said activity, it activates other patterns that refer to the reflection and what we say or reflect on the object.
It is unnecessary to add an entity that represents the subjective experience that has to go back and activate neuronal patterns when these can already and perfectly activate other patterns, so there would be no contradictions with such a notion of consciousness at the cerebral level as if it referred to an activation of a certain pattern, of a certain activity.
Note in turn how we can say nothing of a particular quale, but we can only reflect on several qualia, we can not say anything about the color red itself, in the same way that a neuronal pattern that refers to such color only activates, we can associate red with other things, in the same way that such a neuronal pattern of red activates other patterns together and is associated with them. In this way, the subjective experience and our reflection of it is reflecting the brain functioning, and its atomic character, indicating that it is possible to reflect on subjective experience based on brain activity, that is, within this level. So, although the qualia refer in fact to a product of the electrical activity, we would still continue talking in the terms we speak and we would continue to reflect on the subjective experience and how it is explained, even if we are located at another level, or better said, with something else, regarding our identity (and that qualia are not neuronal activity). This last aspect about our identity in relation to qualia and consciousness is also developed in the book “Proposiciones“, which is one of the fundamental bases for explaining consciousness as qualia, such as it is developed in the book.
In this way, taking into account the atomic notion of the brain, if one nucleus (neuronal group) activates another, there is no perception of it, so to speak, which would impede the brain’s ability to account for the experience in the brain in itself, that is, that the brain accounts of the experience by analyzing or processing its subjective character, what rally happens is that one thing activates another. We have the ability to associate a perception with other things and this would allow reflection, which ultimately translates into that question of why we experience something in a certain way, but it does not seem that an identity with neuronal activity is required to explain our reflection about the subjective experience, without getting into the fact of whether this identity is possible (the problem of the unitary of which is mentioned in “Proposiciones“).
Subjective experience maintains the relationships that the brain presents based on its perception of reality
The atomic notion of the brain is very important to take into account in the sense of what we mentioned above. One could question to what extent the human being would be what it is, in terms of its functioning, if the brain were stripped of sensations or subjective moods, things like reward or sadness. That is, the subjective dimension of the experience was irrelevant to the brain. As we have just indicated, how then do we reflect on subjective experience, bearing in mind that this reflection depends on the brain? What does the brain think about then? As I mentioned, this seems to be a good point to say that the subjective experience and the brain have to be the same or even more, that the mental and cerebral experience had points of interconnection and transference if they were not the same. However, I repeat, the brain does not reflect on the subjective experience, it can only say something in the form of language about associations of things that refer to that subjective experience, but about the unit of experience, about a particular quale, there is nothing that the brain can say. We can not say anything about the color red itself, in terms of experience, and so with the rest of the sensations, we can only talk about associations, groups of things, that is, things associated with red color for example. This exemplifies in a certain way the brain functioning and the aforementioned atomic notion, what happens is activation of brain patterns, one pattern actives another, but it does not perceive it or receives something from it, so to speak, each one is a universe in itself, independent. This makes it impossible for brain regions to “experience” or account for the subjective experience manifested by other patterns, that is, that such a type of brain reflection we are talking about is carried out.
As we see in this way, even though the mental was the neuronal patterns themselves, and not another type of entity in parallel and produced by brain activity, the dimension of subjective experience, the qualia, would be irrelevant to the functioning of the brain, there are just patterns that activate others.
Perhaps when we think of states such as reward or sadness, it is hard for us to see how that is not relevant at the brain level, that is, as the sensations themselves, the mental itself, is not what is regulating or modulating brain functioning instead of activation of patterns detached from subjective experience, from qualia. But we can easily imagine how auditory sensations, which remain as qualia in particular, can modulate a response, because it seems simpler than these other more complex sensations. Let’s think that we can build a system that emits a response to an auditory stimulus. Many times we exalt ourselves in front of a sudden loud sound automatically, almost without noticing at first. Sensations such as reward or sadness do not stop being qualia, which involve perhaps more elements, but which, like a sound, generate activation of other patterns and modulate behavior. What is important at the cerebral level is that the patterns that represent that type of sensations activate other patterns that modulate behavior and perceptions. It could be argued, however, that when we exalt ourselves in front of such a sound, it does not exist as qualia but the reaction is totally detached from subjective experience at first. But that does not justly remove, but even demonstrates, that something that we know as a sensation, can exist in the form of patterns without quale and that it activates other patterns producing responses. The difference between that and the rest of the behavior that the brain can emit lies in the complexity and flexibility of the system. The flexibility of the system would depend on maintaining such representations and that they could activate different patterns in different ways depending on other patterns or perceptions, but the subjective experience, the qualia, does not seem to imply a difference or contribute to the behavior in this brain level.
We should not ignore, and this is key, that qualia mimic brain patterns. When at the subjective mental level, thoughts of how or why we have subjective experience are manifested, why these sensations and not others for example, at the brain level, the neural patterns give account (activate patterns related to similarity or difference) that a pattern is not another (when we think why these sensations and not others for example), or why a pattern is one way and not another can be translated into how or why we have subjective experience, and also that a particular pattern exists can be translate in that there is mental experience. The brain can ask these questions and inferences about the brain patterns themselves, that is, at the level of the neuronal activity, and as the mental mimics the neuronal, so to speak, is that we experience subjective questions at the mental level about why I have this mental experience, and how it occurs, we are definitely capable of such reflection, without the need for the brain to “experience” or be “conscious” of the subjective, of the qualia.
On the other hand, a mental experiment is usually made to think about changing the colors to which the brain patterns would refer, and if we do the same for the feelings of well-being or sadness, we can think what would happen if for something pleasant we feel sadness or pain in the subjective dimension, and for the sad we feel pleasure. As everything we reflect refers to the activity of brain patterns in the first place, nothing would change, we would still think the same, but the question persists, why the sensations that refer to the reward are as they are and are not pain or sadness? That cannot be coincidental and could make us think again that the mental has to be perceived by the brain. But we must not forget, as I mentioned, that the mental does not arise in a vacuum but rather replicates in a certain way what happens at the brain level. As the brain also replicates structures of reality (not just anything, but relationships of reality, such as it is developed in “Proposiciones“), it is enough to realize a scale of notes from more acute to more low sounds or vice versa, this can be encoded in the particular structure of the pattern that is activated, which has small variations according to the felt note. Something similar would happen with light, as the wavelength also changes the activated neuronal pattern. Therefore, a bodily sensation of soft touch is one thing, which can increase as the pressure becomes painful, in that sense the subjective experience is not purely mental in the sense that it follows a structure based on the activity of the neuronal pattern, like other structures, such as visual perceptions. And the neural patterns vary according to the patterns of reality. In this sense we can imagine what would have happened if for such tactile sensation the neuronal pattern to which it refers would have been the opposite, I do not believe that the organism had survived, because the structure of the brain pattern configures that structure of sensations and is how the brain is made and codifies things. So the pleasurable and painful sensations are those that as such are manifested, without being able to be others by how the brain is organized. We can think of other sensations that do not make so much reference to a structure in reality in an evident way, like flavors or smells, but they do refer to the structure of the basic discrete neuronal pattern that codes for these, in the same way as red is distinguished from green.
This negatively responds to a question that can be posed, that if the subjective experience is not anchored in the brain activity to say it in one way, if it were not possible that there was neuronal activity adaptive to the environment but that the subjective experience was different. Put another way, our brain could process the perception of an object in a certain place according to reality, but our subjective experience would be of a different object in another place. That is, there would be a disconnection between what the neuronal activity processes and the conscious experience itself, even being the behavior adaptive, because it is the brain that processes properly. This does not happen, however, because what matters for having a subjective experience according to the relationships observed in reality, is that the relationships are maintained at the brain or neuronal level regardless of how the brain executes or maintains that relationship. That is, the perception of an object (which has certain relationships in reality) may be configured through certain relationships at the brain level, and this has a subjective experience associated that maintains that relationship, as it is a product of it. The fact that the processing cores of that perception are changed at a spatial level for example does not change the subjective experience as long as the relationship is maintained in these new nuclei, the subjective experience does not change, so that no such thing as a mismatch between the cerebral and the subjective is generated. If there is such a thing, first of all there is a change at the level of the relation in the brain by transduction, so to speak, that would directly change the subjective perception, but this would imply a perception not in accordance with reality, that is, a failure at the level of what we capture of the world, and it is above all an adaptive problem. An analogy can be seen in art in a certain way, a painting is not the same as a photograph, and within painting there are different ways of representing something, changing materials or the way in which something is exposed, a thing is an impressionist portrait, another an art deco or renaissance one, but as long as the relationship is more or less maintained about what is being expressed, these changes do not matter, for the purposes that we are seeing the portrait of the same in each work, this also happens for the neuronal activity and subjective experience.
So when reflecting on subjective experience, this reflection has a certain expression in the plane of neuronal activity. To think about the subjective experience of a color is simply to activate certain neural patterns that are activated when we perceive that color, which results in the subjective experience of color. Speaking about the subjective experience of the color red, it is at the brain level to talk about the manifestation of neuronal activity that refers to red. And if “we ask the brain” if it has a subjective experience of red, it has to have an association that this refers to the manifestation of red, which in the brain refers to a certain neuronal pattern, and in fact when we talk about subjective experience (as it is spoken in “Proposiciones“) we refer to manifestations of qualia, the fact of having a subjective experience of red, manifesting the quale red, refers to a certain neuronal activity, the brain associates the question with the manifestation of the neuronal activity of red, which refers to the spectrum of light of such color, and would say that it does have such experience.
If this is not the case, if such reflection is not possible, if thinking about the red in terms of the subjective aspect, the mental experience (referring to that specifically), if it is not possible if the qualia are a result of neuronal activity, then we should consider that the qualia represent neuronal activity but there should be something that I call “unitary” at the level of neuronal activity and that this would refer to the qualia, because we must solve the “problem of the unitary” as developed in my aforementioned work, which is another aspect of the theoretical development that I make about the phenomenon of consciousness.
Castelluccio, L. (2017). Proposiciones. Independently published.
Chalmers, D. J. (1995). Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2, 200-219
Blackmore, S. (2005) Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press Inc
Kandel, E. R, Schwartz, J. H. & Jessel, T. M.(2001). Principios de Neurociencia. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.