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  • Writer's picturemattfaw

01 Defining Neurotypical Subjective Experience

Updated: Apr 3

(from our 2016 published paper)

We want to be careful with how we use the term ‘subjective experience,’ because it can have various slightly different meanings. The brain could be said to be experiencing even when it is in deep sleep because neurons are active and processing. However, NSE is a particular kind of experiencing that only takes place during waking and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

In this article, we use NSE specifically to mean a neurologically intact person’s typical internal unified three-dimensional (3D) virtual-reality movie-like experience of being a mind and body in the world. It is virtual-reality-like in that there is full-surround immersion into the experience, and movie-like in that there is continuity from moment to moment. However, unlike an audio/visual virtual-reality movie, NSE also includes body sensations, motor feedback, emotions, and even qualities of the mind, like thought and the products of our imagination. The mind subjectively feels like a different kind of thing than the body and the world, but that is an assumption we will avoid. We will instead argue in this article that all elements of perception, including the perception of mind, arise from one unified piece of neural information that is output from the HC.

The three main constituent elements of experience (mind, body, and world) do not need to be equally represented in all activities. In many nonphysical activities, like reading or watching television, the experience of body tends to fade. In deeply immersive mental tasks, like memory recall, social rehearsal, or daydreaming, the outside world fades from awareness, and in flow states or tasks that require strong focus on interacting with the world, the awareness of mind may fade instead. We will argue that the HC organizes, binds and broadcasts the informational output, which gives rise to NSE, but NSE’s contents are due to structures upstream of the HC, based on the needs of the moment.

There are two additional elements that add context to NSE: emotions and what William James called ‘fringe’ senses, which are usually subtle and are shaped by our previous experiences. These are contextual feelings, like familiarity, certainty, and novelty. Along with emotions, fringe senses flavor our other perceptions.

We also need to distinguish between the neural information that activates experiencing and the experiencing itself. In this article, the neural-coded information that activates the experiencing will be called the episodic memory engram, whereas we will use NSE to mean the event of experiencing. Thus, the theta wave HC output is the episodic memory engram and that engram’s activation of relevant target brain structures is NSE.

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