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Three laws of qualia: What neurology tells us about the biological functions of consciousness


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Neurological syndromes in which consciousness seems to malfunction, such as temporal lobe epilepsy, visual scotomas, Charles Bonnet syndrome, and synesthesia offer valuable clues about the normal functions of consciousness and ‘qualia’. An investigation into these syndromes reveals, we argue, that qualia are different from other brain states in that they possess three functional characteristics, which we state in the form of ‘three laws of qualia’ based on a loose analogy with Newton's three laws of classical mechanics. First, they are irrevocable: I cannot simply decide to start seeing the sunset as green, or feel pain as if it were an itch; second, qualia do not always produce the same behaviour: given a set of qualia, we can choose from a potentially infinite set of possible behaviours to execute; and third, qualia endure in short-term memory, as opposed to non-conscious brain states involved in the on-line guidance of behaviour in real time. We suggest that qualia have evolved these and other attributes (e.g. they are ‘filled in’) because of their role in facilitating non-automatic, decision-based action. We also suggest that the apparent epistemic barrier to knowing what qualia another person is experiencing can be overcome simply by using a ‘bridge’ of neurons; and we offer a hypothesis about the relation between qualia and one's sense of self.
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V. S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein
Three Laws of Qualia
What Neurology Tells Us about the Biological
Functions of Consciousness, Qualia and the Self
Neurological syndromes in which consciousness seems to malfunction, such as temporal lobe
epilepsy, visual scotomas, Charles Bonnet syndrome, and synesthesia offer valuable clues
about the normal functions of consciousness and ‘qualia’. An investigation into these syn-
dromes reveals, we argue, that qualia are different from other brain states in that they possess
three functional characteristics, which we state in the form of ‘three laws of qualia’ based on a
loose analogy with Newton’s three laws of classical mechanics. First, they are irrevocable: I
cannot simply decide to start seeing the sunset as green, or feel pain as if it were an itch; sec-
ond, qualia do not always produce the same behaviour: given a set of qualia, we can choose
from a potentially infinite set of possible behaviours to execute; and third, qualia endure in
short-term memory, as opposed to non-conscious brain states involved in the on-line guidance
of behaviour in real time. We suggest that qualia have evolved these and other attributes (e.g.
they are ‘filled in’) because of their role in facilitating non-automatic, decision-based action.
We also suggest that the apparent epistemic barrier to knowing what qualia another person is
experiencing can be overcome simply by using a ‘bridge’ of neurons; and we offer a hypothe-
sis about the relation between qualia and one’s sense of self.
Nothing is more chastening to human vanity than the realization that the richness of
our mental life — all our thoughts, feelings, emotions, even what we regard as our
intimate self — arises exclusively from the activity of little wisps of protoplasm in the
brain. The distinction between mind and body, illusion and reality, substance and
spirit has been a major preoccupation of both eastern and western thought for millenia
(Aristotle, 1961; Descartes, 1986; Fodor, 1975; Dennett, 1978; Searle, 1980). And
although these distinctions have generated an endless number of debates among phil-
osophers, little of lasting value seems to have emerged. As Sutherland (1989) has
said, ‘Consciousness is a subject on which much has been written but little is known.’
Our primary goal in this paper is to forge a fresh approach to the problem, by treating
it not as a philosophical, logical, or conceptual issue, but rather as an empirical prob-
lem. Our focus is on showing the form a scientific theory of consciousness might take,
something which is independent of the truth of all of the more detailed claims and
suggestions we will make. Our essay will consist of two sections. In part one, which
copyright © Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4, No. 5-6, 1997, pp. 429–58
philosophers can profitably skip, we describe some thought experiments to illustrate
the problem of qualia, since in our experience, most neuroscientists and even most
psychologists dispute the very existence of the problem. In part two, we offer numer-
ous examples from neurology and perceptual psychology that, together with a new
theoretical framework we offer, will help eventually solve the problem of conscious-
ness. Our theory should be seen as complementing rather than replacing a host of
other recent biological approaches to the problem such as those of Crick and Koch
(1992), Pat Churchland (1986), Baars (1988), Edelman (1989), Llinás (Llinás & Paré,
1991), Plum (Plum & Posner, 1980), Bogen (1995a,b), Gazzaniga (1993), Humphrey
(1993), Damasio (1994) and Kinsbourne (1995).
Much of our discussion will focus on the notion of qualia. It is our contention, how-
ever, that the problem of the self and the problem of qualia are really just two sides of
the same coin. In part, our argument is that the self is indeed something that arises
from brain activity of a certain kind and in certain brain areas, and that this activity is
also closely tied to functions related to qualia. In contrast to the idea that qualia are
private, subjective, and unsharable properties belonging exclusively to a private self,
we suggest two thought experiments to show that there is no insurmountable barrier
to sharing them. We then explore various issues involved in how qualia are generated
and managed by neural systems, and by examining pathological and experimental
cases that clarify these functions, we propose at the same time to clarify the nature of
the self. We conclude that the self, or the thing that leads to the illusion of a unitary,
enduring self, is neither a separable subject of consciousness nor a homunculus, but it
can be mapped anatomically to limbic and other associated structures which ‘drive’
frontal executive processes. This view contrasts sharply with the widely held view
that consciousness is based on the frontal processes themselves.
Part I: Epistemological Prolegomena
The qualia problem
We will illustrate the problem of giving an account of conscious experience, referred
to by philosophers as the problem of qualia,1with two simple thought experiments.
First, imagine that you are a future superscientist with a complete2knowledge of
the workings of the brain. Unfortunately however, you are a rod monochromat: you
don’t have any cone receptors in your eyes to delineate the different colours; you are
colour blind. For the sake of argument, however, let’s also assume that the central
processing mechanisms for colour in your brain are intact, they haven’t withered
away. This is not an illogical assumption; it’s fanciful perhaps, but not illogical.
[1] Qualia are the ‘raw feels’ of conscious experience: the painfulness of pain, the redness of red. Qualia
give human conscious experience the particular character that it has. For instance, imagine a red
square; that conscious experience has (at least) two qualia: a colour quale, responsible for your
sensation of redness, and a shape quale, responsible for the square appearance of the imagined object.
[2] The assumption that anyone could ever have a complete knowledge of the brain is questionable,
depending of course on what one means by ‘complete’. All we mean by this is that the super- scientist’s
theory has no obvious explanatory gaps in it, and that it allows him to predict behaviour with an
extremely high level of accuracy. This example borrows liberally from Jackson’s ingenious ‘Mary’
scenario (Jackson, 1986).
You, the superscientist, study the brain of X, a normal colour perceiver, as he ver-
bally identifies colours he is shown. You’ve become very interested in this curious
phenomenon people call colour; they look at objects and describe them as red or
green or blue, but the objects often all look like shades of grey to you. You point a
spectrometer at the surface of one of the objects and it says that light with a wave-
length of 600nm is emanating from the object, but you have no idea what colour this
might correspond to, or indeed what people mean when they say ‘colour’. Intrigued,
you study the pigments of the eye and so on and eventually you come up with a com-
plete description of the laws of wavelength processing. Your theory allows you to
trace out the entire sequence of neural events starting from the receptors all the way
into the brain until you monitor the neural activity that generates the word ‘red’. Now,
once you have completely understood the laws of colour vision (or more strictly, the
laws of wavelength processing), and you are able to predict correctly which colour
word X will utter when you present him with a certain light stimulus, you have no rea-
son to doubt the completeness of your account.
One day you come up with a complete diagram. You show it to X and say, ‘This is
what’s going on in your brain.’ To which he replies, ‘Sure that’s what’s going on, but
I see red, where is the red in this diagram?’ ‘What is that?’ you ask. ‘That’s part of the
actual experience of the colour which it seems I can never convey to you,’ he says.
This is the alleged epistemological barrier which you confront in trying to understand
X’s experience. Our thought experiment is also useful in that it allows us to put for-
ward a clear definition of qualia: they are that aspect of X’s brain state that seems to
make your scientific description incomplete from X’s point of view.
Second, imagine there is a species of electric fish in the Amazon which is very
intelligent, in fact as intelligent and sophisticated as us. But it has something we lack:
the ability to sense electrical fields, using special organs in its skin. You can study the
neurophysiology of this fish and figure out how the electrical organs on the sides of its
body transduce electrical current, how this is conveyed to the brain, what part of the
brain analyses this information, how it uses this information to dodge predators, find
prey, and so on. If the electric fish could talk, however, it would say, ‘Fine, but you’ll
never know what it feels like to sense electricity.’ These two thought experiments ex-
emplify the problem of qualia. They are vaguely similar to Nagel’s ‘what is it like to
be a bat’ problem (‘You’ll never know what it’s like to be a bat’, Nagel, 1974), except
that our examples are better, for the following reason. In the Nagel version, it’s the
whole bat experience, the qualia produced by the bat’s radar system along with every-
thing else in its conscious mental life, which Nagel claims we cannot know. But this
misses the point. Most people would agree that you couldn’t know what it is like to be
a bat unless you are a bat — after all, the bat’s mental life is so completely, utterly dif-
ferent. In our electric fish example, however, we are deliberately introducing a crea-
ture which is similar to us in every respect, except that it has one type of qualia that we
lack. And the point is, even though your description of the fish is complete scientifi-
cally, it will always be missing something, namely the actual experience of electrical
qualia. This seems to suggest that there is an epistemological barrier between us and
the fish. What we have said so far isn’t new, except that we have come up with a
thought experiment which very clearly states the problem of why qualia are thought
to be essentially private. It also makes it clear that the problem of qualia is not neces-
sarily a scientific problem, because your scientific description is complete. It’s just
that the description is incomplete epistemologically because the experience of elec-
tric current is something you never will know.
This is what philosophers have assumed for centuries, that there is a barrier which
you simply cannot get across. But is this really true? We think not; it’s not as though
there is this great vertical divide in nature between mind and matter, substance and
spirit. We will argue that this barrier is only apparent,3and that it arises due to lan-
guage. In fact, this barrier is the same barrier that emerges when there is any trans-
lation. The language of nerve impulses (which neurons use to communicate among
themselves) is one language; a spoken natural language such as English is a different
language. The problem is that X can tell you about his qualia only by using an inter-
mediate, spoken language (when he says, ‘Yes but there’s still the experience of red
which you are missing’), and the experience itself is lost in the translation. You are
just looking at a bunch of neurons and how they’re firing and how they’re responding
when X says ‘red’, but what X is calling the subjective sensation of qualia is supposed
to be private forever and ever. We would argue, however, that it’s only private so long
as he uses spoken language as an intermediary. If you, the colour blind superscientist,
avoid that and take a cable made of neurons from X’s area V4 (Zeki, 1993) and con-
nect it directly to the same area in your brain, then perhaps you’ll see colour after all
(recall that the higher-level visual processing structures are intact in your brain). The
connection has to bypass your eyes, since you don’t have the right cone cells, and go
straight to the neurons in your brain without an intermediate translation. When X
says ‘red’, it doesn’t make any sense to you, because ‘red’ is a translation, and you
don’t understand colour language, because you never had the relevant physiology and
training which would allow you to understand it. But if you skip the translation and
use a cable of neurons, so that the nerve impulses themselves go directly to the area,
then perhaps you’ll say, ‘Oh my God, I see what you mean.’ The possibility of this de-
molishes the philosophers’ argument (Kripke, 1980; Searle, 1980; 1992) that there is
a barrier which is insurmountable. Notice that the same point applies to any instru-
ments I might use to detect activity in your brain — the instrument’s output is a sort of
translation of the events it is actually detecting.
In principle, then, you can experience another creature’s qualia, for example even
the electric fish’s. It’s not inconceivable that you could find out what that part of the
brain is doing in the fish and that you could somehow graft it onto the relevant parts of
your brain with all the associated connections, and that you would then start experi-
encing the fish’s electrical qualia.4Now we could get into the philosophical debate
over whether you need to be a fish to experience it, or whether as a human being you
could experience it, but we’ve already made the distinction between the entire experi-
ence of being a fish, and the qualia themselves, which are just part of that experience.
Thus qualia are not the private property of a particular self; other selves can experi-
ence a creature’s qualia.
[3] This idea emerged in discussions with F.H.C. Crick. See the acknowledgements at the end of this
[4] The same thought experiment can be performed within a single subject. Anaesthetize the corpus
callosum of a human at birth, expose the right brain alone to colours, then at age twenty-one
de-anaesthetize the callosum, in order to see if the left brain then begins to experience the right brain’s
What are qualia for?
So far we’ve talked about the epistemology of qualia and we’ve suggested that there
is no barrier, and that you can in principle experience someone else’s qualia by using
a bridge of neurons — this problem may simply be a translation problem. We now
want to address the question of why qualia evolved. Many others have raised this
question before and come up with a wide range of different answers. One could also
put on the sceptic’s hat and say, ‘Since you have already shown that the scientific des-
cription is complete without qualia, it is meaningless to ask why it evolved or what its
function is. Doing so would entail converting a closed system — the physical uni-
verse — into an open one, and that would be a logical fallacy.’ We could, however,
temporarily set aside scepticism5and instead search for a reply to the questions ‘Why
did qualia emerge in evolution; or, why did some brain events come to have qualia?’
Is it a particular style of information processing that produces qualia, or is it a particu-
lar neural locus, or perhaps only some types of neurons are associated with qualia?
Crick (1996; Crick & Koch, 1992) has made the ingenious suggestion that the neural
locus of qualia is a set of neurons in the lower layers of the primary sensory areas,
because these are the ones that project to the frontal lobes. His approach has galva-
nized the entire scientific community (cf. Horgan, 1994) and has served as a catalyst
for those seeking biological explanations for qualia. Similarly, people have suggested
that it’s the synchronization of oscillations that leads to conscious awareness (Paré &
Llinás, 1995; Purpura & Schiff, 1997). This seems somewhat ad hoc, however —
why this rather than something else? These approaches are attractive, if only for one
[5] Epiphenomenalism cannot be rejected on strictly logical grounds and can be defended on grounds of
parsimony; we may not need qualia for a complete description of the way the brain works. Since when,
however, has Occam’s razor been useful for scientific discovery? In fact, all of science begins with a
bold conjecture of what might be true. The discovery of relativity, for example, was not the product of
applying Occam’s razor to our knowledge of the universe at that time. The discovery came from
rejecting Occam’s razor and asking what if some deeper generalization were true, which is not required
by the available data, but which makes unexpected predictions (which later turn out to be parsimonious
after all). It is ironic that most scientific discoveries come not from brandishing (or sharpening)
Occam’s razor — despite the view to the contrary held by the great majority of scientists and
philosophers — but from generating seemingly ad hoc and ontologically promiscuous conjectures
which are not called for by the current data.
For the same reason, we are sympathetic to Penrose’s (1994) view that some hitherto undiscovered
physical principles may be required for explaining conscious experience. Although his particular
theory may turn out to be wrong (see, e.g., Grush and Churchland, 1995), we would argue that his idea
should not be rejected on the grounds of parsimony alone. The fact that nothing we know about
consciousness demands the postulation of new physical principles is not a sound argument against
seeking such principles.
In general then, although philosophical scepticism may be logically justified (just as we cannot
prove with complete logical certainty that we are not dreaming, or that your ‘red’ is not my ‘green’), it
is misplaced in the scientific realm, where one is concerned most often with what is likely to be true
‘beyond reasonable doubt’ — rather than with absolute certainty. Unless we set aside such misgivings
one is trapped in an intellectual stalemate. In this respect we are in complete agreement with Crick and
Koch (1992).
Another famous sceptic’s challenge (also known as Molyneux’s question) is ‘Can a person blind
from birth ever experience visual qualia?’ Although this is often posed as a conceptual dilemma, we
believe that it can be solved empirically by simply delivering localized transcranial magnetic
stimulation to visuotopic V1 in blind human volunteers, to see whether it evokes completely novel, yet
visuotopically organized visual qualia. (There is a paper by Ramachandran, Cobb & Hirstein, on this
topic in preparation.)
reason — that reductionism has been the single most successful strategy in science.
Unfortunately however, it is not always easy to know a priori what the appropriate
level of reductionism is for a given scientific problem (Churchland, 1996). Elucida-
tion of the role of the double helix in heredity turned out to be the most important sci-
entific discovery in this century (Medawar, 1969), because Crick and Watson had the
foresight and genius to realize that the molecular level was the appropriate one. Had
they chosen the quantum level, they would have failed! In a similar vein, we wouldn’t
expect an exhaustive description of the molecular structure of a mousetrap to reveal
its function. Nor would a parthenogenetic (asexual) Martian scientist understand how
the testicles worked by simply studying their structure, unless he knew about sex!
And yet this is precisely the strategy adopted by the vast majority of neuroscientists
trying to understand the functions of the brain.
Part II: The Biological Functions and Neural Basis of Qualia
In this essay we would like to try something different. We will deliberately begin at a
‘higher’ level of analysis, and use simple introspection as a strategy for elucidating
the biological functions of consciousness. Toward this end we will first present some
simple demonstrations of the ‘filling in’ of the natural blind spot of the eye
(Ramachandran, 1992) and argue that this can provide some strong hints about the
functions of qualia. Following these demonstrations we will examine a number of
neurological syndromes in which qualia seem to malfunction, which raises the possi-
bility that far from being a holistic property of the entire brain, qualia are indeed asso-
ciated with the activity of a small subset of neural structures, as suggested by Crick
(1994; 1996). We do not claim to have solved the problem of qualia, but at the very
least the examples and thought experiments should provide food for thought.
First, consider the well-known example of the blind spot corresponding to the optic
disc — the place where the optic nerve exits the back of the eyeball. To demonstrate
the blind spot to yourself, shut your right eye and hold Figure 1 about 10 inches away
from your face while looking at the small fixation star on the right. Now move the
page toward or away from your eye very slowly, and you will find that there is a criti-
cal distance at which the spot on the left completely disappears. Notice, however, that
when the spot disappears, it does not leave a gap or a dark hole behind in the visual
field. Indeed, the entire field looks homogeneous, and the region corresponding to the
blind spot is ‘filled in’ with the same texture as the background. Sir David Brewster,
who discovered filling in, believed it was evidence for a benevolent deity (1832):
‘The Divine Artificer has not thus left his works imperfect...thespot, in place of
being black has always the same colour as the ground.’ Curiously, Sir David was not
troubled by the question of why the Divine Artificer should have created an imperfect
eye to begin with!
Now close your right eye and aim the blindspot of your left eye at the middle of
your extended finger. The middle of the finger should disappear, and yet the finger
looks continuous. In other words, the qualia are such that you do not merely deduce
intellectually that the finger is continuous — ‘after all, my blind spot is there’ — you
literally see the missing piece of your finger. A dramatic demonstration of this phe-
nomenon is the following: if you show someone a donut shape so that the donut is
‘around’ the blind spot, say a yellow donut, and if the inner diameter of the donut is
Figure 1. The eye’s natural blind spot
Close your right eye and fixate the star with your left eye. Slowly move the page back and forth
about ten inches from your eye until the dark circle on the left disappears.
Figure 2a. Filling in
Cover your right eye and fixate your left eye on the small white cross. Move the figure back and
forth until your blind spot encompasses the centre of the ring on the left. Visual processes fill in the
centre of the ring so that it looks like a solid disc.
Figure 2b. Salience of filled-in objects
Cover you right eye and fixate your left eye on the small white square. Move the figure back and
forth until your blind spot encompasses the centre of the ring on the left of the square. The solid
filled-in disc will perceptually ‘pop out’ from the other rings.
slightly smaller than the blind spot, the donut will look like a complete, homogeneous
disk. In fact, the size of the donut can be such that you’re actually seeing three times
as much yellow now as you did before (see Figure 2a), which in turn means that your
brain actually ‘filled in’ your blind spot with qualia. The reason we emphasize this is
that there are some who have argued you simply ignore the blind spot and don’t notice
what’s going on (Dennett, 1991), so that there really is no filling in. But this can’t be
right, because if you show someone several rings, one of which alone is concentric
with the blind spot, that single one will look like a disc and will actually ‘pop out’ per-
ceptually (see Figure 2b). How can something you are ignoring pop out at you? This
means that not only does the blindspot have qualia associated with it, but that the
qualia can provide ‘sensory support’and therefore are being filled in preattentively,
so to speak.
As we have emphasized in previous papers (Ramachandran, 1993; 1995a,b;
Churchland and Ramachandran, 1993) we use the phrase ‘filling in’ in a somewhat
metaphorical sense. We certainly do not wish to imply that there is a pixel-by-pixel
rendering of the visual image on some internal neural screen, which would defeat the
whole purpose of vision (and would imply a ‘Cartesian theatre’, an idea which Den-
nett has brilliantly demolished). We disagree, however, with Dennett’s specific claim
that there is no ‘neural machinery’ corresponding to the blind spot. (There is, in fact, a
patch of cortex corresponding to each eye’s blind spot that receives input from the
other eye as well as the region surrounding the blind spot in the same eye; Fiorini et
al., 1992; see below.) What we mean by ‘filling in’ is simply this: that one quite liter-
ally sees visual stimuli (e.g. patterns and colours) as arising from a region of the vis-
ual field where there is actually no visual input. This is a purely descriptive,
theory-neutral definition of filling in and one does not have to invoke — or debunk —
homunculi watching screens to accept it. We would argue that the visual system fills
in not for the benefit of a homunculus but in order to make some aspects of the infor-
mation explicit for the next level of processing (Ramachandran, 1993). In the last sec-
tion we will argue that filling in is just one example of a general coherencing of
consciousness, which perceptual systems undertake in order to prepare representa-
tions to interact with limbic executive structures, an interaction from which both the
experience of qualia and intentionality emerge.
Now consider a related example. Suppose I put one finger in front of another finger
and look at the two fingers. Of course I see the occluded finger as continuous. I know
it’s continuous. I sort of see it as continuous. But if you ask me, do you literally see
the missing piece of finger, I would say ‘no’ — for all I know, someone could have
actually sliced two pieces of finger and put them on either side of the finger in front to
fool me. I don’t literally see that missing part.
Compare these two cases, the blind spot and the occluded finger, which are in fact
quite similar in that they are both cases where there is missing information which the
brain supplies. What is the difference, however? What difference does it make to you,
the conscious person, that the representation of the yellow donut now has qualia in the
middle and that the representation of the occluded finger part does not? The differ-
ence, we suggest, is that you cannot change your mind about the yellow in the middle
of the donut. In other words, you can’t think ‘Maybe it’s yellow, oh well, maybe it’s
pink, maybe it’s blue. You can’t think ‘Well, it’s probably yellow, but who knows, it
may be pink.’ No, it’s shouting at you ‘I am yellow’, with an explicit representation of
yellowness in its centre. In other words, the filled-in yellow is not revocable, not
changeable by you. In the case of the occluded finger, however, you can think ‘there’s
a high probability that there is a finger there, but some malicious scientist could have
pasted two half-fingers on either side of it’, or, ‘there could be a little Martian sitting
there for all I know’. These scenarios are highly improbable, but not inconceivable.
Another way, then, to capture the difference between the two types of cases is that I
could choose to assume that there is something else behind the occluding finger, but
that I cannot do that with the filled-in region of the blind spot.
Thus the crucial difference between a qualia-laden percept and one that doesn’t
have qualia is that the qualia-laden percept is irrevocable, whereas the one which
lacks qualia is flexible; you can choose any one of a number of different ‘pretend’
inputs using top-down imagery. Once a qualia-laden percept has been created, you’re
stuck with it. A good example of this is that high-contrast photo of the dalmatian dog
(Figure 3). Initially, as you look it, it’s all fragments, then suddenly everything clicks
and you see the dog, you’ve got the dog qualia. The next time you see it, there’s no
way you can avoid it, and not see the dog. Indeed, we have recently shown that neur-
ons in the brain have permanently altered their connections once you have seen the
dog (Tovee et al., 1996).
Three laws of qualia
We now describe three laws of qualia (with apologies to Sir Isaac Newton) which we
hope will serve as guideposts for future inquiry. The examples we have just described
demonstrate an important feature of qualia: if something is revocable, it isn’t a quale
(or has only weak qualia associated with it). To put it less strongly, there is a link
between the strength or vividness of a quale and the degree of its irrevocability, i.e.,
this may be quantitative, rather than a qualitative distinction. However, although
something’s being irrevocable may be necessary, it is certainly not sufficient for the
presence of qualia. Why? Well, imagine that I shine a light into the eye of someone
who is in a coma. If the coma is not too deep, the patient’s pupil will constrict, even
though she will have no subjective awareness of any qualia caused by the light. The
entire reflex arc is irrevocable, and yet there are no qualia associated with it. You
Figure 3
The irrevocability of
shape qualia
Once you see the dalma-
tion dog in the picture on
the left, it is impossible
to go back to the state of
not seeing it.
can’t change your mind about it, you can’t do anything about it, just like you couldn’t
do anything about the yellow filling in your blind spot in the donut example. So why
is it that only the latter has qualia? The key difference, we submit, is that there are no
qualia in the case of the pupil’s constriction because there is only one output avail-
able. But in the case of the yellow, even though the representation which was created
is irrevocable, what you can do with the representation is open-ended; you have the
luxury of choice. This is the second important feature of qualia: sensations which are
qualia-laden afford the luxury of choice. So now we have identified two functional
features of qualia: irrevocability on the input side, and flexibility on the output side.
There is a third important feature of qualia. In order to make decisions on the basis
of a qualia-laden representation, the representation needs to exist long enough for
executive processes to work with it. Your brain needs to hold the representation in an
intermediate buffer, in other words, in ‘working memory’. Again this condition is not
enough in itself, because there could be other reasons why a neural system needs to
hold some information in a buffer where qualia are not involved (e.g. spinal cord
‘memory’). Typically in these cases, however, there is only one output possible, in
which case the second important feature of qualia would be missing, on our scheme.
There is some physiological evidence for such a connection between qualia and mem-
ory. Goodale has reported a certain type of ‘blindsight’ patient who can correctly
rotate an envelope to post it in a horizontal or a vertical slot, even though he does not
consciously perceive the slot’s orientation and cannot tell you whether the slot is ver-
tical or horizontal (Milner & Goodale, 1995). But if the room lights are switched off
just before he puts the letter in, ‘he’ forgets the orientation of the slot almost immedi-
ately and is unable to get the letter in. This suggests that the unconscious ‘dorsal
stream’ visual system which discerns orientation and affects arm movements accord-
ingly is not only devoid of qualia but also does not have memory; it is the ‘ventral
stream’ visual system that is conscious and has memory. We would maintain that the
reason the qualia-laden ventral system has memory is because it is involved in mak-
ing choices based on perceptual representations. In contrast, the system without
qualia engages in continuous real-time processing running in a tightly closed loop
and consequently doesn’t need memory — it is not involved in the making of choices.
This suggests a testable prediction: in patients with blindsight, and in Goodale’s
visual zombie, if you give the patient a choice, the system should go haywire. Not
only should it not have short-term memory as Goodale showed, but also it should be
incapable of making choices. For example if the person is asked to mail a letter and
shown two orthogonal slots simultaneously, he should fail, being unable to choose
between the two (or alternatively, the system might always go for the first one it
detects). This is consistent with the Crick-Koch view that the neurons which project
to the frontal lobes are the qualia neurons because, obviously, the frontal lobes are
important for the execution of choices. We would argue, however, that what we think
of as the choice itself is really the work of a limbic executive system consisting of the
amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and other areas, and that the frontal lobes are
needed only for fully working out the long-range implications and possible alterna-
tives which the decision entails, and for dealing with complications arising as the
decision is executed (more on this in the final section).
Let’s extend the account to the qualia associated with pain. Say you prick some-
body with a pin. It’s well known that there are two components: there is an immediate
withdrawal, involving no qualia, followed a couple of seconds later by the experience
of pain qualia. This dissociation is itself striking evidence for our view because the
non-qualia-laden pathway is irrevocable, but has a fixed output (withdrawal) and
therefore doesn’t have qualia in our scheme. The pain you experience, on the other
hand, is irrevocable, and what you do about it is flexible. You can put some medica-
tion on it, or you can run away from whatever caused it. This is a nice example
because it’s a case of the same stimulus producing two different streams of process-
ing, one involving qualia and the other not.
Bistable percepts
Let’s take bistable figures; how would our account apply to them? Here, the sensory
stimulus can specify two qualia with equal certainty, so the output system can only
choose between those two in creating an intermediate-level representation (Figure 4).
Once you settle on an interpretation, however, it clicks and if it’s revocable it’s only
in favour of a single other percept. You can only see that famous ambiguous figure as
a duck or a rabbit, for instance. But when you finally do see it, the implications are
infinite — this fulfills our criterion about output flexibility. In the spinal cord on the
other hand there are neural circuits that display a type of bistability, but the implica-
tions are finite. So for qualia to exist you need potentially infinite implications, but a
stable, finite, irrevocable representation as a starting point. But if the starting point is
revocable, then the representation will not have strong, vivid qualia. Good examples
of this are something seen behind an occluder, or imagining that there is a monkey sit-
ting on that chair. These do not have strong qualia, for good reason, because if they
did you wouldn’t be able to survive long, given the way your cognitive system is
structured. As Shakespeare said: ‘You cannot cloy the hungry edge of appetite by
bare imagination of a feast.’ Very fortunate, for otherwise you wouldn’t go eat, you
would just generate the qualia associated with satiety in your head. In a similar vein,
one could argue that a mutant creature that could imagine having orgasms is unlikely
Figure 4
Bistable drawings
‘Ambiguous figures’
such as this one are
designed to allow two
possible interpretations.
Such figures offer a sort
of limited revocability:
one set of shape qualia
is revocable only in
favour of the other.
to pass on its genes to the next generation. Therefore (real perceptual) qualia are pro-
tected; they are partially insulated from top-down influences.
At the same time, however, you occasionally need to run a virtual reality simula-
tion using less vivid qualia generated from memory representations in order to make
appropriate decisions in the absence of the objects which normally provoke those
qualia. The memories one normally evokes in this case are not fully laden with qualia;
they have qualia which are just vivid enough to allow you to run the simulation. If
they possessed full-strength qualia, again, that would be dangerous; indeed that’s
called a hallucination. Presumably that’s what happens in temporal lobe seizures;
some mechanism has gone awry, and the virtual reality simulation has now become
like real sensory input. The simulation loses its revocability and generates pathologi-
cal qualia.
Why don’t these internally generated images, or beliefs for that matter, have strong
qualia? We can explain that. Percepts need to have qualia because they are driving
ongoing, decision-laden behaviour. You can’t afford the luxury of hesitating over the
percept itself, however. The stimulus ensemble determines it, and you don’t have
time to say, ‘Maybe it determines something else.’ You need to ‘plant a flag’ and say
‘This is it.’ Beliefs and internal images on the other hand should not be qualia-laden,
because they should not be confused with real perception; you need to be constantly
aware of their tentative nature. And by virtue of their tentative status beliefs lack
strong qualia — they are indefinitely revocable. So you believe — and you can imag-
ine — that under the table there is a cat because you see a tail sticking out, but there
could be a pig under the table with a transplanted cat’s tail. You must be willing to
entertain that hypothesis, however implausible, because every now and then you
might be surprised.
What is the computational advantage to making qualia irrevocable? One answer is
stability. If you constantly change your mind about qualia, then the number of poten-
tial outputs will literally be infinite; there will be nothing constraining your behav-
iour. At some point you need to say ‘this is it’ and plant a flag on it, and it’s that
planting of the flag that we call qualia. The perceptual system follows a rationale
something like this: given the available information, it is 90% certain that the object
perceived is red. Therefore for the sake of argument, I’ll assume that it is red and act
accordingly, because if I keep saying ‘maybe it’s not red’, I won’t be able to take the
next step. In other words, if I treated percepts like beliefs, I would be blind. Qualia
are irrevocable in order to eliminate hesitation and to confer certainty to decisions.
Charles Bonnet syndrome
This system can break down, however. For example, consider the curious neurologi-
cal disorder known as Charles Bonnet syndrome. Patients with this disorder typically
have damage to the retina, to the optic nerve, optic radiations, or sometimes even to
area 17, producing blindness in either a large portion or in the entire visual field. But
remarkably, instead of seeing nothing, they experience vivid visual hallucinations.
Typically these are ‘formed’ hallucinations rather than abstract patterns; i.e., the
patients claim to see little circus animals, or Lilliputian beings walking around. No
adequate explanation of the syndrome has been proposed to date, although the hallu-
cinations are sometimes referred to as ‘release hallucinations’ in the older clinical
We recently had the opportunity to examine two patients with this syndrome, both
of whom present certain novel features, which may help to elucidate the neural
mechanisms underlying this disorder. These patients had a sharply circumscribed
region in the visual field where they were completely blind; i.e., they had a blind spot,
or scotoma. The remarkable thing is that their hallucinations are confined entirely to
the blind region. For example, patient MB had a left paracentral scotoma, about the
size of her palm (held out at arm’s length), caused probably by damage to area 17 and
the optic radiations, as a result of laser surgery to destroy an arteriovenous malforma-
tion. She was of course completely blind in this region, and yet as often as twenty or
thirty times a day she would experience the most vivid hallucinations confined
entirely to the blind spot. Surprisingly, these were static, outline drawings, like car-
toon drawings, filled in with colour, but having no depth or motion.
We suggest that the hallucinations associated with Charles Bonnet syndrome arise
because of the massive feedback projections (Ramachandran, 1993) that are known
to exist from higher cortical areas to visual areas that precede them in the hierarchy;
for example from area 17 to the LGN, or from IT and MT to areas 17 and 18 (Zeki,
1978; van Essen, 1979; Churchland et al., 1994). When a normal person imagines
something, such as a rose, we usually assume that some sort of activity is evoked in
the higher centres such as the temporal lobes, where the memory of this rose is stored
in the form of altered synaptic weights (and perhaps new synaptic connections). So
when you imagine a rose, one expects activity in the temporal lobes. But there is a
great deal of evidence now to suggest that in addition to the expected activity in IT,
there is also activity in area 17, as though somehow this information was being pro-
jected back onto your ‘neural screen’ corresponding to area 17 (Cohen et al., 1996;
Farah, 1989). It’s as though, to enable you to make certain fine spatial discrimina-
tions, your brain needs to run a sort of virtual reality simulation, and for some reason
this requires the participation of area 17. (In particular, discrimination of topological
features of the image, for example, may require that it be represented again in area
However, when a normal person imagines a rose, she does not literally hallucinate
a rose; what she experiences is typically a faint, ghostlike impression of one. Why?
One possibility is that the normal person, unlike the Charles Bonnet patient, has real
visual input coming in from the retina and optic nerve. This is true, by the way, even
when the eyes are closed, because there is always spontaneous activity in the retina,
which may function to provide a null signal informing the higher centers that there is
no rose here, and this prevents her from literally hallucinating the rose. (Indeed, this
may be one reason why spontaneous activity in the peripheral receptors and nerves
evolved in the first place.) Again, all this is very fortunate, otherwise your mind
would be constantly flooded with internally generated hallucinations, and if you
begin confusing internal images with reality, you will be quickly led astray.
In the Charles Bonnet patient the visual input is completely missing, therefore the
internally generated images which are sent back to V1, or perhaps V2 (areas 17 and
18), assume a degree of vividness and clarity not seen in normal people. This explains
why the images are confined entirely to the scotoma, why they are so extremely vivid
(one patient told us that the colours ‘look more real than real colours’), and why they
have the irrevocable quality of genuine, stimulus-evoked qualia. In other words, ordi-
narily your top-down imagery will produce only weak images because there is com-
peting real visual input (or spontaneous activity), but when the input goes away, then
you start confusing your internal images with external reality.
It is not clear why in the case of MB the images lacked depth and motion. One pos-
sibility is that for some reason the feedback information arises only from the ventral
stream (the IT-V4 pathway), which is concerned primarily with colour and form, and
there was no feedback from the dorsal stream and MT which would have conferred
the appropriate spatial attributes, such a depth and motion, to the image.
Perhaps a more important general implication of this syndrome which has been
overlooked in the past is that it is strong evidence for the idea that vision is not the
one-way cascade or flow of information which it is often thought to be. For example,
one simple-minded view of vision (Marr, 1982) holds that visual processing is
sequential, modular, and hierarchical: each box computes something and sends it to
the subsequent box, a model proposed frequently by AI researchers. This is clearly
not how human vision works (Edelman, 1989); instead, there seems to be a constant
echo-like back-and-forth reverberation between different sensory areas within the
visual hierarchy and indeed (as we shall see) even across modalities. To deliberately
overstate the case, it’s as though when you look at even the simplest visual scene, you
generate an endless number of hallucinations and pick the one hallucination which
most accurately matches the current input — i.e., the input seems to select from an
endless number of hallucinations.6There may even be several iterations of this going
on, involving the massive back-projections — a sort of constant questioning,asina
game of twenty questions, until you eventually home in on the closest approximation
to reality (a partially constrained hallucination of this sort is, of course, the basis of
the well-known Rorschach ink blot test). Thus what you finally see is the result of a
compromise between top-down processes and bottom-up processes, a very different
view from the conventional one in which vision is seen as involving a hierarchical
upward march of information; a bucket brigade.
A second illustration of breakdown in the functions of qualia is provided by the
extraordinary phenomenon of synesthesia, where sensations evoked through one
modality produce vivid qualia normally associated with another modality. Many of
these cases tend to be a bit dubious — the claims of ‘seeing’ a sound or ‘tasting’ a col-
our turn out to be mere metaphors. However, we recently examined a patient who had
relatively normal vision up until the age of seven, then suffered progressive deteriora-
tion in his sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, until finally at the age of forty he became
[6] This is analogous to the way in which the immune system works. When I inject you with killed or
denatured smallpox virus (antigens), they generate antibodies and lymphocytes that are specific to
smallpox. It was once believed by medical scientists (and is still believed by many laypeople and
philosophers) that upon entering your blood, the smallpox antigens — a protein molecule — instruct
the formation of specific antibodies by acting as a template. We know now that this view, while
intuitively plausible or obvious, is wrong. In fact, your body has antibody-producing cells for every
conceivable antigen; even ‘martian’ antigens, so to speak. What the antigenic challenge (smallpox, for
example) does is simply to select the appropriate clone of cells causing them to multiply and produce
the specific anti-smallpox antibody. This is a useful analogy, but there is of course a difference: the
random gene shuffling that leads to a multiplicity of antibodies has already been accomplished in the
fetus, and no longer goes on in the adult. In the case of perception, on the other hand, the random
combinations are tried out online even as you watch the stimulus.
completely blind. After about two or three years, he began experiencing visual hallu-
cinations similar to those experienced by Charles Bonnet patients. For example, he
would see little spots of red light which initially lacked depth, but which coalesced
over time to form the clear visual impression of a face, including depth and shading.
More interestingly however, this patient began to notice that whenever he palpated
objects while negotiating the visual environment, or held an object in his hand, or
even just read braille, this would conjure up the most vivid visual images, sometimes
in the form of unformed flashes, sometimes a movement or ‘pulsation’ of pre-existing
hallucinations, or sometimes the actual shape of the object he was palpating (e.g. a
corner). These images were highly intrusive, and actually interfered with his braille
reading and object palpation. We suggest that in this patient, as indeed in normal peo-
ple, palpating an object evokes visual memories of that object, as a result of a previ-
ously established Hebbian association.7Of course, when a normal person closes his
eyes and palpates a ruler, he doesn’t hallucinate a ruler, even though he will typically
visualize it. The reason, again, is because of the presence of normal, countermanding
visual input in the form of spontaneous activity from the retina and visual pathways.
But when this information is removed, as with the Charles Bonnet patient, our patient
begins hallucinating. This can be verified by directly recording evoked potentials
from his visual cortex while he is palpating objects (Cobb et al., in preparation).
Finally, this line of speculation is also consistent with what we have observed in
amputees with phantom limbs. After amputation, many of these patients experience a
vivid phantom arm, and while most of them are able to ‘move’ their phantom, a subset
of them find that the phantom is in a fixed position, i.e., their phantom is paralysed.
But what would happen if one were to somehow create the visual illusion that the
phantom had come back, and could move? To do this, we placed a vertical mirror on
the table in front of the patient in the sagittal plane. The patient then puts his normal
(say) right hand on the right side of the mirror and ‘puts’ his phantom left hand on the
left side of the mirror. He then looks at the mirror reflection of his right hand, and
moves his right hand around until its reflection is exactly superimposed on the felt
position of the phantom limb. If he now starts making movements with his right hand,
he gets the distinct visual illusion that his phantom hand is moving. Remarkably, this
also seems to produce vivid sensations seeming to come from joints and muscles in
the phantom limb, i.e., the patient experiences a curious form of synesthesia.
Such effects do not occur in normal individuals, supporting our conjecture that the
presence of real (somatosensory) input somehow prevents such synesthesia. In a nor-
mal person, even though there is a visual impression that their left hand is moving
(when they are actually looking at the mirror image of their right hand) this is contra-
dicted by somatic sensations which inform the brain that the left hand is not in fact
[7] A second possibility is ‘remapping’. We have previously shown that upon amputation of an arm in a
human patient the brain area corresponding to the missing hand gets ‘invaded’ by sensory input from
the face. Consequently, touching the face evokes sensations in the missing phantom hand
(Ramachandran et al., 1995).
In a similar vein, when the visual areas — either cortical or subcortical — are deprived of input it is
not inconceivable that input from the somatosensory area ‘invades’ the vacated territory so that
touching stimuli begins to evoke visual sensations. The two hypotheses, haptically-induced visual
imagery vs ‘remapping’ can be distinguished by measuring the latency of evoked MEG responses
(Cobb et al., in preparation).
moving. The fact that this does not happen in the phantom limb patient may imply that
the visual signals are causing activation to travel back all the way to the primary
somatosensory areas concerned with proprioception. Again, this can be tested using
imaging techniques.
Filling in the blind spot
Is there an absolute, qualitative distinction between qualia-laden percepts and those
which are not; between perception and conception? Let us illustrate this point with
three thought experiments. Consider the obvious phenomenological distinction
between the region corresponding to my blind spot, where I can’t see anything, and
another sort of ‘blind spot’: the region behind my head, where I also can’t see any-
thing. In other words, each of us actually has three blind spots, one in the field of view
of each eye, and a third behind our heads, which is much larger. Now, ordinarily you
don’t walk around experiencing an enormous gap behind your head, and therefore
you might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that you are in some sense filling in
the gap. But obviously, you don’t: there simply is no visual neural representation in
the brain corresponding to this area behind your head. You fill it in only in the trite
sense that, for example if you are standing in a bathroom with wallpaper in front of
you, you assume that the wallpaper continues behind your head. But the important
point to emphasize here is, even though you assume (imagine, believe) that there is
wallpaper behind your head, you don’t literally see it. In other words, any ‘filling in’
is purely metaphorical and does not fulfill our criterion of being irrevocable. In this
fundamental sense there is an important distinction between filling in of the blind
spot, and our failure to notice the presence of a big gap behind your head (even though
it is the conceptual similarity between these two cases that has misled many psycho-
logists and philosophers to conclude that the eye’s blind spot is not filled in). Put very
simply, this means that in the case of the blind spot, as we said earlier, you can’t
change your mind about areas which have been filled in, whereas in the region behind
your head, you are free to think, ‘In all likelihood there is wallpaper there, but who
knows, maybe there is an elephant there.’
It would appear then, that filling in of the blind spot is fundamentally different,
both phenomenologically and in terms of what the neurons are doing, from your fail-
ure to notice the gap behind your head.8But the question remains, is the distinction
between what is going on behind your head and the blind spot qualitative or quantita-
tive, and is the dividing line completely arbitrary (cf. ‘Is a man bald if he has only
three hairs on his head?’)? To answer this, let us consider the following thought
experiment. Imagine we continue evolving in such a way that our eyes migrate
toward the sides of our heads, while at the same time preserving the binocular visual
field. The fields of view of the two eyes encroach further and further behind our heads
[8] Gattass et al. (1992) showed that there is a patch of neurons in area 17 corresponding to the blind spot.
The neurons in this patch fire when there are two bars on either side of the blind spot, creating an
irrevocable representation in area 17. That is about as close as you can get to arguing that there is a
neural mechanism for filling in. To argue otherwise is pedantic.
The converse of qualia-laden filling in would be qualia-less ‘repression’ or inhibition of irrelevant,
confusing, or destabilizing information that would otherwise clutter up consciousness and ‘distract’
executive structures (Ramachandran, 1995b). Analogously, one might leave non-urgent mail sitting in
one’s mailbox lest it clutter up one’s desktop and distract one from more pressing matters.
until they are almost touching. At that point let’s assume you have a blind spot behind
your head (between your eyes) which is identical in size to the blind spot which is in
front of you. The question then arises: Would the completion of objects across the
blind spot behind your head be true filling in of qualia, as with the real blind spot, or
would it still be conceptual, revocable imagery or guesswork of the kind that you and
I experience for the region behind the head? The answer to this question, we suggest,
is that there will be a definite point when the images become irrevocable, and when
representations are created, or at least recreated and fed back to the early visual areas,
and at that point it becomes functionally equivalent to the blind spot. If this account is
true, there is indeed a fundamental qualitative change, both in the phenomenology
and in the corresponding information-processing strategies in the nervous system that
are used to create the representations.
Thus, even though blind-spot completion and completion behind the head can be
regarded as two ends of a continuum, evolution has seen fit to partition this contin-
uum in order to adequately ‘prepare’ the completed data for subsequent processing in
the case of blind spot completion. We suspect that the motive behind the partition has
to do with balancing the need to reduce the workload of higher-level processes by
passing them definite, perspicuous, gap-free representations on the one hand, with the
need to avoid error on the other. In the case of the eye’s blind spot, the chance that
something significant is lurking there is small enough that it pays simply to treat the
chance as zero. In the case of the blind area behind my head, however, the odds of
something important being there are high enough that it would be dangerous to fill in
this area with wallpaper or whatever pattern is in front of the eyes.
The second experiment might again be used to undermine the case for a strong
qualitative distinction between qualia-laden percepts and conceptual representations,
however. Let us go back to the example of the finger occluded by another finger. We
argued there that the region behind the occluder is at least partially revocable. How-
ever, consider the following intermediate case: a cat behind a picket fence. Or even
better, a cube hidden by three slats (Figure 5). It is very hard not to see a cube in this
figure. Here you have an intermediate case where the representation seems to be filled
Figure 5
Intermediate case
There is a strong impression
that there is a complete cube
underneath the three slates,
but is this due to genuine
filling-in, or to conceptual
‘amodal completion’?
(After Kanizsa, 1979, and
Bregman, 1981.)
in and yet not filled in. However, the existence of such intermediate cases should not
forbid us from arguing that there may be separate neural mechanisms at the two ends
of the spectrum.
It is very unlikely that the visual system has evolved dedicated neural machinery
for the specific purpose of filling in the blind spot. What we are seeing here, instead,
may be a manifestation of a very general visual process — one that we may call sur-
face interpolation (Ramachandran, 1992; 1993; 1995b). It is very likely that the pro-
cess may have much in common with — and may involve some of the same neural
machinery as — the sort of filling in one sees in the example of the occluded finger
(which Kanizsa (1979) termed ‘amodal completion’). There are nevertheless impor-
tant differences between completion across the blind spot and amodal completion
(e.g. the occluded finger example), which implies that, although the two processes are
similar, they are not identical (contrary to the views of Durgin et al., 1995). The most
important difference, of course, is that filling in across the blind spot is modal,
whereas filling in behind occluders is amodal. What this means is simply that in one
case you literally see the filled-in sections, in the other case you don’t. (This distinc-
tion will not appeal to behaviourists but should be obvious to anyone who has care-
fully observed such stimuli and is not wholly devoid of common sense.)
A second difference between genuine filling in and conceptual or amodal comple-
tion is that the corner of a square or the arc of a circle will get completed amodally
behind an occluder but will not get completed modally across the blind spot
(Ramachandran, 1992; 1993). In fact, subjects sometimes report the corner or arc
being completed amodally behind an ‘imaginary’ occluder corresponding to the blind
spot; the occluder is usually reported to resemble an opaque smudged ‘cloud’.
In spite of the differences, it is very likely that the two completion processes share
some neural activity up to a certain stage in visual processing. Evidence for this
comes from the work of Gattass et al. (1992). They found that neurons in the patch of
area 17 corresponding to (say) the left eye’s blind spot respond not only to the right
eye (as expected) but also to two collinear line segments lying on either side of the left
eye’s blind spot — as though they were filling in this segment. Intriguingly, they also
noted that similar effects could sometimes be seen in the rest of the normal visual
field if a small occluder was used instead of the blind spot. The implication is that, at
least in the early stages of processing, both modal completion across the blind spot
(i.e. the filling in of qualia) and amodal completion behind occluders may be based on
similar neural mechanisms. But if so, why is there such a compelling phenomenologi-
cal difference between the two? One possibility is that the presence of the occluder
itself might be signalled by a different set of neurons which vetoes the modal comple-
tion process. This makes good functional sense, for if you were to hallucinate some-
thing in front of the occluder you might be tempted to grab it!
Consider a third example: the peculiar mental diplopia or ‘multilayer’ qualia asso-
ciated with locating objects in a mirror. Assume you’re looking into the rearview mir-
ror of your car, when suddenly you see the reflection of a red car zooming towards
you from behind. You accelerate rather than brake, even though, optically, the image
is in front of you and expanding. It is as if, when you look at the rearview mirror, you
are dealing with bilayered qualia. There is a sense in which you continue to localize
the image in front of you, and there is a sense in which you localize it behind you. This
raises an interesting question, namely, does the ‘location quale’ represent the object
as being in front of you or behind you? (Qualia represent an object as being red or
square, but they also represent it as being in a certain location, egocentrically
Now imagine that, instead of a rearview mirror, there is a small window in front of
you, and through that window you see a missile being hurled at you. Now of course,
you duck backwards. Even though the two situations are exactly equivalent optically
— there is an expanding retinal image — in the former case you accelerate forward
because somehow, at some level, your visual system performs the appropriate
Another possibility is that when you look into the mirror you accelerate forward,
not because the location qualia are now actually behind you, but because you’ve
learned a reflex avoidance manoeuver, using the dorsal stream system alone. (So, in
this situation, the input is irrevocable, and the output is also not open-ended, i.e. it’s a
single behaviour.) On the other hand, the high-level revocable aspect of the experi-
ence — where you think, ‘Hey this is a mirror, so the object must be behind me,’
doesn’t have qualia either — it is more conceptual in nature. But at the critical inter-
mediate level, which is still qualia-laden, the object is still represented as being in
front of you. You look at the red object, and it’s clearly in front of you, and if a fly
appears on the mirror, it is right next to the red object. You certainly don’t experience
it behind your head. So what initially seems to be a disturbing borderline case, in fact
can be readily explained in terms of our overall conceptual scheme. But even so, the
example is thought-provoking and it leads to experimental questions,9such as: If
someone were to hurl a missile at you from behind, as you watched in a mirror, would
you duck forward or backward?
A fourth example of ‘bilayered’ (or bistable, really) qualia is shown in Figure 6
(below). What you see initially is a grey rectangle occluded partially by an opaque
white square with Swiss-cheese like holes in it. Obviously the grey of the rectangle is
not seen where it is occluded, but with a bit of practice you can get yourself to see this
as a transparent grey film stuck in front of the white square with holes. When you see
it this way, the film does have qualia because you ‘choose’ to see it in front and to flag
it with the appropriate qualia — preparing it for further processing, as it were.
Anosognosia, schizophrenia, and other delusional states
Notice that in the ‘cognitive’ realm this sort of completion or filling in is not unlike
the confabulations that right hemisphere stroke patients generate to ‘deny’ that they
are paralysed — an anomaly is simply explained away (Ramachandran, 1995c).
Some process located in the left hemisphere fills in gaps and smooths over contradic-
tions in the patient’s belief system (e.g., the contradiction between ‘I can use both
arms’ and ‘I can’t see my left arm moving’). We have suggested elsewhere that such
psychological defences evolved mainly to stabilize behaviour (they prevent your hav-
ing to orient to every kind of anomaly that threatened the status quo) and should be
seen as part of a general strategy for the ‘coherencing’ of consciousness: they help
[9] Intriguingly, we have recently described a new neurological sign of right hemisphere disease, which
we call the looking glass syndrome, in which patients, while looking at a mirror, will reach for objects
‘inside’ the mirror, and assert that the object is inside or behind the mirror, even though they realize
they are looking into a mirror (Ramachandran et al., 1997).
avoid indecisive vacillation and serve to optimize resource allocation, and to facili-
tate rapid, effective action. Similarly, perceptual filling in occurs to keep conscious
qualia coherent, perspicuous, and distraction-free — it is another example of a gen-
eral strategy of coherencing consciousness.
The cognitive styles of the two hemispheres might be fundamentally different;
when faced with an ‘anomaly’ or discrepancy in sensory input, the left hemisphere
tries to ‘smooth over’ the discrepancy (employing denial, repression, or confabula-
tion) in the interest of preserving stability, whereas an ‘anomaly detector’ in the right
hemisphere tends to orient to the discrepancy and generate a paradigm shift in the
brain’s representation of the situation (Ramachandran, 1995c).
The dialectic between the opposing tendencies of the two hemispheres that we are
proposing also bears a tantalizing resemblance to what physicists refer to as the ‘edge
of chaos’ in dynamical systems: the emergence of ‘complexity’ at the boundary
between stability and chaos. Chaos arises in deterministic systems that show a highly
sensitive dependence on initial conditions. This is not unlike the sensitivity to pertur-
bation (or ‘anomalies’) that we have postulated for the cognitive style of the right
hemisphere. In marked contrast, the left hemisphere is relatively insensitive to change
and tries to preserve stability. Interesting or complex types of behaviour, on the other
hand, seem to emerge spontaneously at the boundary between the two — a place
where there is just enough novelty to keep things interesting and predictable but also
just enough stability to avoid complete anarchy and instability. And it is precisely
these little eddies of complexity at the border zone that may correspond roughly to
what we call human caprice, innovation and creativity.
There is a similarity between anosognosics and schizophrenics who have ‘positive’
symptoms. In the former, we have argued, there is a failure to register a mismatch
between expectation and current sensory input — leading to hallucinations (e.g. ‘I
can see my arm moving’) as well as delusions (‘My left arm is fine’) and memory dis-
Figure 6. Bilayered qualia
Look at the figure and try to see the grey areas as part of a single translucent rectangle. This repre-
sents a higher level of filling in located somewhere between the filling in of the blind spot and amo-
dal filling in. (After Kanizsa, 1979)
tortions (‘I know that I am paralysed now; therefore I never denied that I was para-
lysed’). We suggest that such a failure results from damage to an anomaly or
mismatch detector in the right frontoparietal cortex of anosognosics but it is entirely
possible that some similar pathology may also underlie schizophrenia. Indeed, Frith
& Dolan (1997) have recently performed an ingenious experiment using the same
mirror box we use on our phantom limb patients (Ramachandran & Rogers-
Ramachandran, 1996) to demonstrate that a mismatch between vision and proprio-
ception results in right frontal activation (during a PET scan), independently of
whether the mismatch occurred on the right or left side of the body!
Surprisingly, there is no neurological syndrome in which one sees exactly the same
types of ‘positive symptoms’ — i.e. combinations of hallucinations and delusions —
that occur in schizophrenia (Frith & Dolan, 1997). We would venture to predict, how-
ever, that if someone developed Charles Bonnet syndrome (from ocular pathology)
combined with a right frontoparietal lesion (causing a failure to register a mismatch
between fantasy and reality) then you would come pretty close to a neurological
equivalent of schizophrenia, for such a patient would take his hallucinations quite lit-
erally — not recognizing them to be illusory. Surprisingly, we have recently seen a
phantom limb patient who precisely fits this general description. He lost his left arm
in a car accident in which he also suffered bilateral frontal damage. While most peo-
ple who lose an arm experience the illusion of a persisting arm, i.e., a phantom limb,
they obviously do not literally see the arm or believe that the arm still exists. Our
patient (DS), on the other hand, insisted that his arm was still there and had not been
lost, even though he was quite lucid mentally in other domains (Hirstein and
Ramachandran, 1997).
Qualia of percepts vs. qualia of beliefs
Beliefs are also associated with ‘partial qualia’ and conscious awareness, once they
are made explicit in ‘working memory’. In the absence of sensory support, however,
the qualia associated with beliefs are fleeting and less robust than the real qualia-
laden percepts associated with sensory stimuli. Therefore the distinction between
qualia associated with percepts and those associated with explicit (or occurrent)
beliefs may be quantitative rather than qualitative. Tacit beliefs, on the other hand, are
completely qualia-free.
As an analogy, consider the distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘remembering’ or
between ‘procedural’ and ‘episodic’ memory in humans. We know that episodic
memories are partially qualia-laden, whereas skills are not (Tulving, 1983). How-
ever, when a bee does a waggle dance, it is communicating an episodic memory. Why
does this not qualify as an episodic memory analogous to human episodic memory?
To argue that the bee is not conscious, and true episodic memories are conscious,
would be circular, and does not answer the question. The problem is readily solved in
our scheme, however, since in the bee, the alleged episodic memory is available for
the production of only one (or two) outputs, and hence the bee lacks the second of our
defining features of consciousness: flexibility of output.10
[10] One prediction here is that a non-conscious zombie, such as Milner’s visual zombie, or perhaps certain
sleepwalkers should not have episodic memories.
This is one advantage that our scheme has over other theories of consciousness: it
allows us to unambiguously answer such questions as, Is a sleepwalker conscious? Is
the spinal cord of a paraplegic conscious? Is a bee conscious? Is an ant conscious
when it detects pheromones? In each of these cases, instead of the vague assertion that
one is dealing with various degrees of consciousness, which is the standard answer,
one should simply apply the three criteria we have specified. For example, Can a
sleepwalker make choices? Does he have short-term memory? Does a patient with
akinetic mutism have short-term memory? Can the bee use its waggle dance for more
than one output?, etc., thereby avoiding endless semantic quibbles over the exact
meaning of the word ‘consciousness’.
The importance of the temporal lobes for consciousness and qualia
‘Does any of this yield clues as to where in the brain might qualia might be?’, you ask.
It is ironic that people have often thought that the seat of consciousness is the frontal
lobes, because nothing dramatic happens to consciousness if you damage the frontal
lobes. We suggest instead that most of the action is in the temporal lobes. Admittedly
this allows us only a fourfold reduction in the problem space, since the brain has only
four lobes; but at the very least it may help us narrow down the problem by allowing
us to focus on specific neural structures and their functions. In particular, we suggest,
one needs the amygdala and other parts of the temporal lobes for seeing the signifi-
cance of things to the organism. Without this structure you are like Searle’s Chinese
room (Searle, 1980): capable of giving a single correct output in response to a
demand, but with no ability to sense the meaning of what you are doing or saying.11
Our claim that qualia are based primarily in the temporal lobes is consistent with
the idea put forward by Jackendoff (1987) and Crick (1996) that qualia and con-
sciousness are associated not with the early stages of perceptual processing (at the
level of the retina, for instance), where (in our scheme) obviously multiple choices
are not possible. Nor are they associated with the final stages of perceptual processing
and behaviour planning, where behavioural programs are executed. Rather, they are
associated with the intermediate stages of processing. The temporal lobes are in fact
the interface between perception and action.
Another piece of evidence for the idea that the temporal lobes are the neural locus
of consciousness and qualia is that the brain lesions which produce the most profound
disturbances in consciousness are those which generate temporal lobe seizures.
Researchers who electrically stimulate the temporal lobes of epileptics prior to per-
forming lobectomies have found the temporal lobes to be the best place for producing
conscious experiences in their subjects (Penfield & Perot, 1963; Gloor et al., 1982;
Gloor, 1992; Bancaud et al., 1976). Stimulating primary sensory areas, such as the
visual cortex, can produce strange, unformed qualia, such as phosphene flashes, but
only, we suspect because the events set in place by the stimulation eventually follow
the natural course of processing into the temporal lobes, and produce (weak) effects
there. Stimulating the amygdala is the surest way to ‘replay’ a full, vivid experience,
such as an autobiographical memory complete with intense emotions, or a vivid hal-
[11] This reminds one of the old quip in which one behaviourist zombie turns to his mate after passionate
lovemaking and says, ‘I know it was good for you, but was it good for me?’, a question which
encapsulates the entire Searle/Dennett debate.
lucination (Gloor, 1992). The seizures which temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) sufferers
endure are associated not only with alterations in consciousness in the sense of per-
sonal identity, personal destiny, and personality, but also with vivid, qualia-laden hal-
lucinations such as smells and sounds (MacLean, 1990; Bear, 1979; Waxman &
Geschwind, 1975; Gloor, 1992; Bancaud et al., 1994). If these are mere memories as
they are sometimes claimed to be, why would the person say ‘I literally feel like I’m
reliving it’? What characterizes these seizures is the vividness of the qualia they pro-
duce. So the smells, the pains, the tastes and the emotional feelings, all of which are
generated in the temporal lobes, suggest that they are in fact the seat of consciousness.
Another reason for choosing the temporal lobes — especially the left temporal lobe
— as the main player in generating conscious experience is that this is where much of
language — especially semantics — is represented. If I see an apple, it is the activity
in the temporal lobes that allows me to apprehend all its implications almost simulta-
neously. Recognition of it as a fruit of a certain type occurs in IT (infero- temporal
cortex), the amygdala gauges its significance for my well-being, and Wernicke’s and
other areas alert me to all the nuances of meaning that the mental image — including
the word ‘apple’ — evokes; I can eat the apple, I can smell it, I can bake a pie, remove
its pith, plant its seeds, use it to ‘keep the Doctor away’, tempt Eve, and on and on.
If one enumerates all of the attributes that we usually associate with the words
‘consciousness’ or ‘awareness’, each of them, you will notice, has a correlate in tem-
poral lobe seizures:
(1) Sensory Qualia — the raw feel of sensations, such as colour or pain. TLE: Vivid
visual and auditory hallucinations; the patient always notices that these look and
feel like the real thing — they do not merely have the fleeting qualia of memories
(Penfield & Jasper, 1954).
(2) The attachment of emotional significance and value labels to objects and events.
TLE (especially seizures involving the amygdala): The patient may see cosmic
significance in everything around him (Waxman and Geschwind, 1975), or feel
intense fear (Strauss et al., 1982). Conversely, bilateral damage to the amygdala
may lead to a loss of emotion and empathy, or to the ‘psychic blindness’ and
unthinking, automatic behaviour characteristic of the Kluver-Bucy syndrome
(Lilly et al., 1983). It is a moot point whether such a person would have any vis-
ual qualia. (One could regard the zombie-like behaviour of Goodale’s patient as
an extreme example of this.)
(3) Body image — the sense of being corporeal and of occupying a specific location
in space.TLE: Autoscopic hallucinations (Devinsky et al., 1989), ‘out of body’
experiences. Also, the temporal lobes and the limbic system receive a more mas-
sive projection form the viscera than any other part of the brain. The construction
of a body image is one of the foundations of our sense of self but, as we will show
in the next section, the body image is a merely a temporary construct, and in the
next section we will describe experiments that clearly demonstrate its transitory
(4) Convictions of truth or falsehood. TLE: An absolute sense of omnipotence or
omniscience (Bear, 1979; Trimble, 1992). It seems ironic that our convictions
about the absolute truth or falsity of a thought should depend not so much on the
propositional language system but on much more primitive limbic structures
which add a form of emotional qualia to thoughts, giving them a ‘ring of truth’.
This would explain why the more dogmatic assertions of priests as well as scien-
tists are so notoriously resistant to correction through intellectual reasoning!
(5) Unity — the sense of being a single person despite experiencing a lifetime of
diverse sensory impressions. TLE: Synesthesia; doubling of consciousness; mul-
tiplication of personal identity, e.g. in Capgras syndrome (which we have argued
is due primarily to a temporal lobe lesion, see Hirstein & Ramachandran, 1997)
and other reduplicative paramnesias, the patient may come to regard himself as
more than one person. Similarly, multiple personality disorder (MPD) is often
seen in association with TLE (Schenk & Bear, 1981; Ahern et al., 1993).
(6) Free will — the sense of being able to make a decision or control one’s move-
ments. TLE: Even though the ability to engage in long range-planning is lost
mainly in frontal disease, it is damage to the cingulate (which is part of the limbic
system) that often results in something like ‘disorders of the will‘ (e.g. the alien
hand syndrome (Goldberg et al., 1981), akinetic mutism: ‘loss of will’ (Nielson
and Jacobs, 1951). Zombie-like automatisms are a frequent concomitant of TLE
seizures, and also result from stimulation of the anterior cingulate gyrus (Ban-
caud et al., 1976). It would be interesting to find out whether the patient can make
actual choices during such states (we would argue that they cannot).
Furthermore, one frequently sees profound alterations in conscious experience —
such as loss of contact with reality (de-realizations) and dream-like trance states dur-
ing TLE seizures. While each of the disorders listed above can also be seen when
other brain areas are damaged (e.g. body image distortions in parietal lobe syn-
dromes), almost all of them can be seen in various combinations when the temporal
lobes are damaged. Thus if there is a single brain region that can be regarded as criti-
cal for generating conscious experience, it would be the temporal lobes and various
interconnected parts of the amygdala, the inferotemporal cortex, Wernicke’s area and
other associated structures (e.g. the cingulate gyrus). Remove these and you have the
prototypical zombie of philosophers’ thought experiments.
A new illusion of decapitation
We will now describe an illusion which demonstrates how the body image — despite
its apparent durability and permanence — is an entirely transitory internal construct
that can be profoundly altered by the stimulus contingencies and correlations that one
encounters. Consider the following two illusions, the ‘phantom nose’ and the ‘phan-
tom head’ that we recently discovered in our laboratory. In the first experiment, the
subject sits in a chair blindfolded, with an accomplice sitting at his right side, or in
front of him, facing the same direction. The experimenter then stands near the sub-
ject, and with his left hand takes hold of the subject’s left index finger and uses it to
repeatedly and randomly tap and stroke the nose of the accomplice, while at the same
time, using his right hand, he taps and strokes the subject’s nose in precisely the same
manner, and in perfect synchrony. After a few seconds of this procedure, the subject
develops the uncanny illusion that his nose has either been dislocated, or has been
stretched out several feet forwards or off to the side, demonstrating the striking plas-
ticity or malleability of our body image. The more random and unpredictable the tap-
ping sequence the more striking the illusion. We suggest that the subject’s brain
regards it as highly improbable that the tapping sequence on his finger and the one on
his nose are identical simply by chance and therefore ‘assumes’ that the nose has been
displaced — applying a universal Bayesian logic that is common to all sensory sys-
tems. Interestingly, once the illusion is in place, if a drop of ice-cold water is now ap-
plied to the subject’s nose, the cold is sometimes felt in the new location of the nose.
The phantom nose illusion is a very striking one, and we were able to replicate it on
twelve out of eighteen naive subjects.12 Rather surprisingly, the illusion sometimes
works even if the accomplice sits facing the subject; the logical absurdity of the situa-
tion seems not to veto the effect. This simple experiment demonstrates the single
most important principle underlying the mechanisms of perception and conscious
experience: that they may have evolved exclusively for extracting statistical regulari-
ties from the natural world.
In the second experiment we had a naive subject looking at his own reflection in a
half-silvered mirror, and placed a dummy’s head on the other side of the mirror, opti-
cally superimposed in exact registration on the subject’s own reflection. The lights
are switched off and the upper half of the dummy’s face, including the nose, is illumi-
nated with one spotlight and the lips alone of the subject are illuminated separately
with a different light source. When the subject looks at the mask, he sees a combina-
tion of the top of the mask and, reflected in the glass, the bottom of his face. If the sub-
ject is asked to make large lip and tongue movements (and baring of the teeth), he
develops the uncanny experience of being in direct control of the dummy’s facial
movements, as though his ‘will’ was manifesting itself through the dummy’s mouth.
It is as though the brain regards it highly improbable that the lips of the dummy should
be so perfectly synchronized with his own motor speech commands, and therefore
assumes that the subject’s own free will has taken over the dummy.13
To test this objectively, we pinched the dummy’s face and found that this evoked a
striking increase in the subject’s skin conductance response, whereas simply pinch-
ing the dummy without the initial lip movements evoked a much smaller response
(Ramachandran et al., in preparation). The extraordinary implication is that, using
this relatively simple procedure, we had successfully ‘decapitated’ the subject, induc-
ing the self to temporarily cast off its mortal coil to inhabit the dummy. The subject
comes to experience the dummy’s head as being his own to such an extent that it is
now hooked up to his own limbic system and autonomic output. Even intermittent,
unpredictable tactile stimulation (touch, cold, pain) delivered to the subject’s face
were occasionally referred to the dummy in a modality-specific manner (in a manner
analogous to the referral of tactile stimulation to visually resurrected phantom limbs;
[12] It has not escaped our notice that if a willing accomplice were available, the effect could also be
produced using other body parts.
[13] The sceptic could ask, How is this situation fundamentally different from ordering another human
being — such as a valet — to perform an elaborate series of actions, or controlling a marionette on
strings with one’s fingers? The answer is that in the former case there is no perfect temporal synchrony
between the orders issued and the actions performed by your subordinate; and in the latter case, even
though there is some degree of synchrony, the movement trajectories and the body parts involved in the
marionette are different from those of the puppeteer. This explains why the transfer of free will
requires an experimental setup similar to the one we describe.
Ramachandran and Rogers-Ramachandran, 1996). The observation also lends credi-
bility to the reports of the self temporarily deserting the body: out of the body experi-
ences and ‘autoscopic hallucinations’ in parietal lobe syndrome and ketamine
Qualia and ‘the self’
We have discussed qualia and the body image,14 but what about the self? Even though
the notion of a unitary, enduring self may turn out to be a form of adaptive self- decep-
tion or delusion (Ramachandran, 1995b) we must consider why the illusion arises.
We also need to consider the question of who the so-called observer is in the two
thought experiments we began with. Since qualia-laden percepts are generated for
someone or something — presumably ‘the self’ — the problem of the self and the
problem of qualia are really just two sides of the same coin.
One way to approach the question of how our account of qualia relates to the ques-
tion of the self is to ask from a scientific point of view why something like filling in of
the blind spot with qualia-laden representations occurs. The original motive many
had for arguing that the blind spot is not filled in was that there is no one there to fill
them in for — that no homunculus is there looking at them (Dennett, 1991). This is an
argument against the following line of reasoning: ‘If qualia are filled in, they must be
filled in for some viewer, i.e., a homunculus.’
There is reason to think that the conclusion is false (i.e., there is no homunculus), it
was argued, and hence reason to think that the antecedent is also false: qualia are not
in fact filled in, and that the appearance that they are is an illusion (Dennett, 1991).
Now, since we have argued that qualia are in fact filled in (Ramachandran, 1992;
1993; 1995a; Ramachandran & Gregory, 1991), does this mean that we believe they
are filled in for a homunculus? Of course not, but the fallacy may not be in the form of
the reasoning, just in the illegitimate specificity with which the conclusion is stated.
The above argument is really a ‘straw man’; the line of reasoning should run: ‘If
qualia are filled in, they are filled in for something.’
Now, what is the ‘something’ here? There exists in certain branches of psychology
the notion of an executive, or a control process (McKay, 1969). These processes are
generally taken to be frontal, or prefrontal, but we would like to suggest that the
something which qualia are filled in for is a sort of executive process, but a limbic15
[14] Our ‘phantom nose’ effect is quite similar to one reported by Lackner (1988) except that the underlying
principle is different. In Lackner’s experiment, the subject sits blindfolded at a table, with his arm
flexed at the elbow, holding the tip of his own nose. If the experimenter now applies a vibrator to the
tendon of the biceps, the subject not only feels that his arm is extended — because of spurious signals
from muscle stretch receptors — but also that his nose has actually lengthened. Lackner invokes
Helmholtzian ‘unconscious inference’ as an explanation for this effect (I am holding my nose; my arm
is extended; therefore my nose must be long). The illustration we have described, on the other hand,
does not require a vibrator and seems to depend entirely on a Bayesian principle — the sheer statistical
improbability of two tactile sequences being identical. (Indeed, our illusion cannot be produced if the
subject simply holds the accomplice’s nose.) Not all subjects experience this effect, but that it happens
at all is astonishing: that a lifetime’s evidence concerning your nose can be negated by just a few
seconds of intermittent tactile imput.
[15] The limbic system includes the hypothalamic nucleii, amygdala insula, interstitial nuclei of the striae
terminalis, fornix and fimbria, septum, mamillary bodies and cingulate gyrus, but the exact definition
is not critical to our argument. The cholinergic lateral dorsal tegmental and pedunculopontine nuclei
and the intralaminar thalamic nucleii that project to limbic structures may be an integral part of the
one, rather than a frontal one. This would be a process involved in connecting motiva-
tion and emotion with the choice of actions to perform, based on a certain definite
incoming set of qualia — very much the sort of thing which the self was traditionally
supposed to do. A control process is not something which has all the properties of a
full human being, of course — it is not at all a homunculus. All the notion of a control
process entails, as we are employing it, is that control processes are guided by some
brain areas (i.e. perceptual areas and motivational areas) as they control the activities
of other brain areas (i.e. motor and planning areas).
Seen this way, filling in is a kind of treating and preparing of qualia in order for
them to interact properly with limbic executive structures. Qualia may need to be
filled in before they causally interact with these structures because gaps interfere with
the proper working of these executive structures. To speak metaphorically, perhaps
the control structures are prone to be distracted by gaps in a way which greatly
reduces their efficiency and their ability to select appropriate output. The processes
involved in generating qualia smooth over anomalies in their product in the same way
in which the president’s advisers might remove any little confusions or fill in any
gaps in the data they give him, inconsequential confusions and gaps which might u-
nnecessarily distract his attention from the main message of the data, causing him to
take longer to make a decision, or worse, to make the wrong decision.
Where in the limbic system are these control processes? Perhaps a system involv-
ing the amygdala and the anterior cingulate, given the amygdala’s central role in emo-
tion (LeDoux, 1992; Halgren, 1992), and the anterior cingulate’s apparent executive
role (Posner & Raichle, 1994; Devinsky et al., 1995), and the connection between its
damage and disorders of the will, such as akinetic mutism and alien hand syndrome. It
is not difficult to see how such processes could give rise to the mythology of a self as
an active presence in the brain — a ‘ghost in the machine’.
Acknowledgments: We thank P.S. Churchland, F.H.C. Crick, R.L. Gregory, D.C. Dennett,
M. Kinsbourne and J. Smythies for stimulating discussions, and the NIMH for support. The idea
that the Charles Bonnet syndrome might arise from the activity of feedback pathways projecting
back to areas 17 and 18 was first suggested by one of us (VSR) in two interviews (Grady, 1993;
Nash, 1995). The notion that the epistemic barrier to sensing another person’s qualia results entirely
from a translation problem emerged from conversations (and correspondence) with F.H.C. Crick in
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... This type of activity cascades across brain regions through the limbic system and up to the neo cortex mostly unconsciously, then subconsciously, until conscious experience arises. Waves of brain activity access the whole brain as required in order to put together the different components of stored information (such as images, sounds, sensations, etc.), which make up all the associations with that word, within the background context in which it is placed (the sentence etc.) (Damasio 2010, Pinker 1997, Ramachandran & Hirstein 1997. All this is taking place in an individual brain, based on its previously acquired and stored (in long term memory) associations (Pinker 2017, Swaab 2014, along different hierarchies, and structures, which are activated unconsciously and subconsciously to finally create or arrive at the meaning of the particular word or concept. ...
... The brain changes its structure when learning takes place. Ramachandran and Hirstein (1997) state that the absence of qualia-rich structures is what they regard as the distinguishing criterion between words repeated without deep meaning (in rote fashion), and actual knowledge. Words repeated in such a (rote) fashion are by definition not associated with deep structure components and therefore are qualia-poor. ...
... This form of NLP elicitation reveals information, which is consistent with Ramachandran and Hirstein's (1997) qualia criterion and Kandel's criterion of synaptic connectivity (as the two go together) (Damasio 2010, Doidge 2007, Pinker 1997, Swaab 2014, of long term memory embedded information. The presence of long term memory representations in a student's mind can be revealed in this way, and this is the evidence of what was defined above as actual learning. ...
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Only about 40% of South African first-time entering Engineering cohorts graduate within five years. An argument has been made that selection mechanisms will be needed to identify students who have the prior knowledge and ability needed to succeed in regular programmes and that selection tools such as Grade 12 results and other nationally or locally designed placement tests, such as the National Benchmark Tests (NBTs), be used for this purpose. The NBTs are a set of optional standardised tests that assess whether first-time applicants to South African universities are ready for the academic demands of tertiary education. The contribution of the NBTs to admission and placement has been investigated by a number of authors who have examined their effectiveness at forecasting success and for determining the need for additional academic support. None of these studies have focussed on Engineering or used dominance analysis as a method. This study focusses on cohorts from the Engineering and the Built Environment Faculty at a South African University. It uses linear regression and dominance analysis as well as categorical methods to investigate the contributions made by the national assessments in explaining higher education performance to inform Engineering admission, especially placement, policies as well as curriculum practices. The value of this information has significant potential to enhance retention and graduation if used appropriately. If South African universities are to continue to provide access, redress and success, particularly to students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, they should consider not …
... A different illusion of self-touch while touching others, named the phantom nose illusion [80], occurs when one repetitively strokes another person's nose while one's own nose is also being stroked (12/18 naïve participants experienced this illusion, [80] pp. 452-3). ...
... A different illusion of self-touch while touching others, named the phantom nose illusion [80], occurs when one repetitively strokes another person's nose while one's own nose is also being stroked (12/18 naïve participants experienced this illusion, [80] pp. 452-3). ...
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Illusions arouse interest in the layperson and researcher alike. The layperson learns that perception is fallible, and the researcher wants to better understand mechanisms of perception and implement illusions in various applications. We are accustomed to visual illusions, but less so to their somatosensory sisters, some of which summon fresh amazement bordering on disbelief. What can possibly make us feel that our tongue is split in two, or that a brush touching an artificial hand touches us? How do we study such experiences? This chapter directs the reader to sources describing a variety of somatosensory illusions. We also outline methodological issues in studying them, and describe methods used to study the well-known rubber hand illusion, and the recently described whose hand illusion.Key wordsHaptic illusions Tactile illusions Illusions of touch Somatosensory illusions Bodily illusions Rubber hand illusion Whose hand illusion Proprioceptive illusions Kinesthetic illusions
... Qualia are one of those constructs that have many conflicting definitions. While there are many different points of view on what qualia are [64], we will briefly outline one from [65]) to help explain what it is the above paragraph describes. Ramachandran and Hirstein provide three criteria that must be satisfied for things to qualify as qualia. ...
For consciousness to exist, an entity must have prerequisite characteristics and attributes to give rise to it. We explore these “building blocks” of consciousness in detail in this paper, which range from perceptive to computational to higher-order characteristics of an entity’s cognitive architecture. We show how each cognitive attribute is strictly necessary for the emergence of consciousness, and how the building blocks are collectively sufficient for any entity to be classified as being conscious. The list of building blocks is not limited to human or organic consciousness and may be used to classify artificial and organisational conscious entities. We further explore a list of attributes that seem intuitively necessary for consciousness, but on further investigation, are neither required nor sufficient. The building blocks do not represent a theory of consciousness but rather a meta-theory on the emergence and classification of consciousness.
... Deafferentation does not always cause pain or perceptual disturbances (e.g., not every amputee reports a phantom limb, and not every phantom limb is painful). Perceptual disturbances can occur in the absence of pain, and in the absence of deafferentation (e.g., with bodily illusions such as the phantom-nose illusion; Ramachandran and Hirstein, 1997). Changes to cortical body representations occur in the absence of deafferentation, pain, and perceptual alterations (e.g., with intense skills-based practice; Elbert et al., 1995). ...
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... С точки зрения современной философской феноменологии и многих отраслей психологии (особенно психоанализа) утверждение о том, что разум обладает абсолютной властью в огромном внутреннем мире человека, не является бесспорным. В качестве примера приведем бессознательное [29,30] а также Qualia [31,32] Философия традиционно использует cogito в эпистемологическом анализе. Вопрос, на который философы отвечают самым коротким и простым способом, можно сформулировать следующим образом. ...
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... (Nutter, 2010). 14 Les qualia correspondent à un ensemble d'expériences subjectives accessibles de manière introspective (Jackson, 1982 faites consciemment (Ramachandran et Hirstein, 1997 L'apport majeur de la CLT est de suggérer que la distance psychologique influence systématiquement l'activation du haut niveau ou du bas niveau de représentation. ...
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La distance psychologique est omniprésente dans l’esprit du consommateur et influence ses attitudes et son comportement envers les produits hédoniques. Cependant, des contradictions sont présentes dans la littérature quant à la direction (positive ou négative) des effets de la distance psychologique sur les réponses du consommateur envers les produits hédoniques. En effet, certaines recherches avancent que l’augmentation de la distance psychologique influence positivement les réponses du consommateur envers les produits hédoniques. Alors que d’autres suggèrent l’effet inverse, à savoir une influence négative de l’augmentation de la distance psychologique sur les réponses du consommateur envers les produits hédoniques. L’objectif de cette recherche est de réconcilier ces contradictions en examinant sous quelles conditions la distance peut avoir un effet positif ou négatif. Sur la base d’un état de l’art de la littérature et d’une étude qualitative, nous proposons que le degré de proéminence du besoin de justification (non saillant vs saillant) du consommateur au moment où il évalue le produit hédonique modère ses effets et constitue une condition sous laquelle la distance psychologique peut avoir un effet positif ou négatif sur les réponses du consommateur envers les produits hédoniques. Trois expérimentations ont été conduites pour le test de nos hypothèses. Les deux premières suggèrent qu’en condition de besoin de justification non saillant, l’augmentation de la distance psychologique a une influence négative sur les réponses attitudinales et comportementales du consommateur envers les produits hédoniques. La troisième expérimentation, quant à elle, propose qu’en condition de besoin de justification saillant, l’augmentation de la distance psychologique a un effet positif sur la réponse comportementale du consommateur envers le produit hédonique. Cette recherche contribue à la littérature sur le concept de distance psychologique en précisant sous quelles conditions (c.-à-d. besoin de justification saillant vs non saillant) la distance peut avoir un effet positif ou négatif sur les réponses des consommateurs envers les produits hédoniques.
Information, the measure of order in a complex system, is the opposite of entropy, the measure of chaos and disorder. We can distinguish several levels at which information is processed in the brain. The first one is the level of serial molecular genetic processes, similar in some aspects to digital computations (DC). At the same time, higher cognitive activity is probably based on parallel neural network computations (NNC). The advantage of neural networks is their intrinsic ability to learn, adapting their parameters to specific tasks and to external data. However, there seems to be a third level of information processing as well, which involves subjective consciousness and its units, so called qualia. They are difficult to study experimentally, and the very fact of their existence is hard to explain within the framework of modern physical theory. Here I propose a way to consider consciousness as the extension of basic physical laws - namely, total entropy dissipation leading to a system simplification. At the level of subjective consciousness, the brain seems to convert information embodied by neural activity to a more simple and compact form, internally observed as qualia. Whereas physical implementations of both DC and NNC are essentially approximate and probabilistic, qualia-associated computations (QAC) make the brain capable of recognizing general laws and relationships. While elaborating a behavioral program, the conscious brain does not act blindly or gropingly but according to the very meaning of such general laws, which gives it an advantage compared to any artificial intelligence system.
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This thesis investigates how time structures consciousness and consequently how consciousness structures time. This broad question will be examined across three sections and three experiments. I. The first section introduces phenomenological methods and includes an experiment using a standardized task to compare two of the most established methods—Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES) and micro-phenomenology. DES involves interviewing participants about experience that occurs directly preceding random beeps. Micro-phenomenology involves interviewing participants by creating an evocation state of a past experience. Here we examine both methods using a mental imagery elicitation task. As a result, DES and micro-phenomenology reveal different aspects of experience. Temporal scope is a major factor for these differing aspects. How then can altering temporal scope reveal new facets of experience? II. The second section establishes a new method: dynamic Descriptive Experience Sampling (dDES). This method adds a more direct temporal dimension to DES. Instead of asking about just one moment before the beep, here we ask about two moments, as well as the temporal relation between these moments. Results include a variety of such temporal relations, which can then be grouped into categories (e.g. transformation, overlapping). Temporal experience is different for each participant. For example, for some participants, experiential elements carry across multiple moments. For others, elements most often switch from moment to moment. Results often buck phenomenological assumptions, like the continuity hypothesis, that our streams of thought are unbroken and without gaps. How can this method be useful to the rest of cognitive science? III. The third section applies our findings to broader philosophical concerns and in- includes an experiment testing dDES with an established psychological study—the Libet task, investigating free will. This task involves participants freely choosing when to press a button. Neuroactivation precedes the reported time of free decision. What are participants’ experiences like over time courses that correspond to this neural activity? Results include findings that may challenge phenomenological assumptions of the Libet setup, for example the assumption that there is nothing leading up to a decision before its reporting. The first section surveys the scope of existing methods. The second section introduces a new method to investigate temporal experience. The third section shows the applicability of our new method and helps assess its validity. We then address further philosophical concerns, including existing models of temporal consciousness. The data presented here cement the need for new models.
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En este artículo se abordarán operaciones mentales poéticas que tratan de ligar lo sensible a lo inteligible en el seno de la poesía. Para ello, se partirá de la experiencia subjetiva –que es la que interesa al poeta– resistente al concepto y por tanto también al lenguaje previamente disponible. A continuación se propondrá un modo de categorización referido al lenguaje y sus representaciones mentales con capacidad de flexibilizar la rigidez conceptual que impide la intelección de la experiencia subjetiva de lo sensible. Un texto poético de Philippe Jaccottet permitirá demostrar la pertinencia de esta propuesta teórica.
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We briefly review the anatomy and function properties of the intralaminar nuclei (ILN) of the thalamus and the neurological disorders associated with their dysfunction. The ILN project over a wide range of cortical territories and are connected to several subcortical structures that place the ILN within the distributed networks underlying arousal attention, working memory and gaze control. The temporal structure of the spike discharges of ILN neurons can be controlled by levels of arousal and visuomotor behavior. Taken together, the anatomy, cellular physiology, and clinical data suggest that in the state of wakefulness, the ILN neurons promote the formation of "event-holding" functions in the cortex. In the prefrontal cortex, this function facilitates the storage of target location in working memory. In the frontal eye fields, the function produces sustained activation that anticipates the onset of intended eye movements. In the posterior parietal cortex, the sustained activation can be boosted at the start of the intersaccadic interval and can operate as an attentional gate regulating the flow of information back to the prefrontal cortex. The attentional gate is of limited capacity, as is working memory, and is best utilized during the intersaccadic interval. The ILN may help to synchronize the eye movement commands of the frontal eye fields with the episodic dynamics of the attentional gate and working memory.
the amygdala has all of the right connections with the cognitive neocortex and visceral brain stem to provide the link between them that is central to emotion / this role has been confirmed by the dramatic effects on emotional behavior of amygdala lesions in animals / in humans, the case reports of Klüver-Bucy syndromes after lesions that include the amygdala (Terzian and Ore, 1955), or of uncontrolled rage after electrical stimulation of the amygdala (Mark et al., 1975), seem to imply that it plays the same critical role in our species important issues regarding the temporal and causal relationship of cognition versus visceral activation in emotion, raised and defined by psychological analysis, remain unsolved by psychological experiments does the additional complexity of human motivational structure . . . make the amygdala relatively even more important than in mammals, or does it make the amygdala superfluous / I argue here that the effects of lesioning or stimulating the human amygdala suggests that it has a less crucial role in behavior than in lower animals / while the human amygdala may thus play a key role in relating biologically motivated emotions to cognition, its role in humans is limited by the development of alternate pathways (involving especially the prefrontal cortex), and possibly of motivations that are not biological in origin / finally, the evidence reviewed below clearly indicates that the amygdala is involved in the evaluation of complex stimuli long before they are completely analyzed cognitively (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
In this chapter we address the dynamic properties of single neurons in primary visual cortex (V1) that can be related to the completion phenomenon. This phenomenon accounts for the perceptual filling in of blind regions in the visual field, such as the optic disk, small retinal lesions (Bender and Teuber, 1946; Sergent, 1988), or lesions in the geniculo-striatal projection system (Pöppel, 1985, 1986). We propose that completion is achieved by dynamic changes in receptive field size of cells in V1.
That the cerebral hemispheres are requisite for the spontaneous, directed activities of terrestrial vertebrates has been well known since the last century. As Ferrier (1876) noted, if a decerebrated animal “be left to itself, undisturbed by any form of external stimulus, it remains fixed and immovable on the same spot, and unless artificially fed, dies of starvation....” As has since been repeatedly confirmed, the neuraxis below the level of the hemispheres contains the neural apparatus required for posture and locomotion and the integrated performance of bodily actions involved in self-preservation and procreation. Since the cerebral hemispheres are essential for psychological functions, they may appropriately be referred to as the psychencephalon.
This article can be viewed as an attempt to explore the consequences of two propositions. (I) Intentionality in human beings (and animals) is a product of causal features of the brain. I assume this is an empirical fact about the actual causal relations between mental processes and brains. It says simply that certain bran processes are sufficient for intentionality. (2) Instantiating a computer program is never by itself a sufficient condition of intentionality. The main argument of this paper is directed at establishing this claim. The form of the argument is to show how a human agent could instantiate the program and still not have the relevant intentionality. These two propositions have the following consequences: (3) The explanation of how the brain produces intentionality cannot be that it does it by instantiating a computer program. This is a strict logical consequence of 1 and 2. (4) Any mechanism capable of producing intentionality must have causal powers equal to those of the brain. This is meant to be a trivial consequence of 1. (5) Any attempt literally to create intentionality artificially (strong AI) could not succeed just by designing programs but would have to duplicate the causal powers of the human brain. This follows from 2 and 4. 'Could a machine think?' On the argument advanced here only a machine could think, and only very special kinds of machines, namely brains and machines with internal causal powers equivalent to those of brains. And that is why strong AI has little to tell us about thinking, since it is not about machines but about programs, and no program by itself is sufficient for thinking.