Why do things feel the way they do?

There is ‘something it is like’ to have a particular conscious experience, and the term ‘qualia’ is sometimes used for these properties of mental states. This is considered to be part of the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness because it is not clear why the mere ability to represent something in the brain should be accompanied by awareness and feeling.

We would not expect that it would be in a conventional computer, for example.

If we think what sorts of things we are conscious of, there must be a representation of each of these things in the brain. Furthermore we must be able to generate these representations and use them to affect our future behaviour.

The model in my e-book 'Mechanisms of Consciousness: How consciousness works' seeks to explain how the brain holds such a representation, and how it updates it through a cognitive cycle. The model says that to be conscious of an entity is to hold information about it in persistent storage and to use that information:

• to control transient processing (guiding the selection of action and attention such as to maximise valence),

• to be aware of our holding of that information by being able to attend to the content of persistent storage

• and also to be aware of where we are in brain state space, so that the information is held in the context of our past and future options for attention and action in respect of that entity, and therefore the implications of these for changes in valence.

At the end of each cognitive cycle, the overall state of our brain holds the combination of the entities we have sensed, the actions we have taken or could have taken, the way we feel now and the way we might feel depending on how the world changes next, and what we have done. The extent to which we are conscious of these things is determined by the extent to which they are accessed during the next cognitive cycle and therefore play a part in the state of the brain at the end of the next cognitive cycle.

Therefore far from being static information, the fundamental nature of things we are conscious of is that they provide an understanding of how to ‘wire up’ our transient processing to pay attention and take action to maximise valence. Our current mental state is therefore a rich and enactable representation, embracing sensed entities, our action options and our anticipated outcomes and feelings.

Not only are we engaged in the transient processing that forms our response to the entity, but part of the context of it is the set of actual and hypothetical choices associated with that entity, and how we might feel in the future as a result.

The photo shows a couple of my children swimming in the waterfall at the foot of Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in South Wales. It was as cold as it looks.

Peter Martin

What are your thoughts?


Check out my e-book:

Join our mailing list

Never miss an update