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  • Writer's picturemattfaw

04 What is the purpose of Qualia?

Updated: Apr 3

Qualia is a fancy word for the perceived qualities of the self-in-the-world, within Experience. Qualia include all the perceived aspects of all the sensory inputs, as well as the perceived aspects of our imagination, like the sound of our own inner thoughts, or the feeling of being in whatever mood I'm in.


Qualia are first and foremost mnemonics. They help the brain remember how things felt, smelled, tasted, sounded like, or appeared.


My favorite example is a rat that encounters a novel berry. This rat does not yet have any prior experience/memory with that berry, so it does not yet have a concept for it, nor any heuristics as to whether it's safe. The rat's brain goes into exploratory mode, in which the rat begins to sniff the berry and take small bites, in order to sample the other sensory inputs to the berry. During this time, the rat's hippocampus is at full throttle, encoding these perceptual details for the future.


Let's say that this novel berry happens to be poisonous; not enough to kill the rat, but enough to make it sick. New perceptual details arise, of nausea and disorder. The rat's hippocampus links these new nauseous perceptions to the smell and taste perceptions from the exploratory phase, so that in the future, similar berries will trigger the nauseous memories, and drive the rat to avoid those berries.


Let's say that the next time the same rat encounters the same kind of berry, that berry is now in a different part of its ripeness, and so looks different than the original poison berry. Once again, the rat approaches with caution, sniffing and tasting, its hippocampus on full, to explore this novel berry. But now, through the various combined qualia (the sight, smell, and taste), the rat pattern-matches this new berry to the nauseating memory of the old berry, and thereafter spits out the new berry and avoids it.


The rat uses the memory of these two berry encounters to help create a concept of that berry, so it can be recognized, and immediately avoided, in the future.


We can think of qualia, in some ways as a memory language. In the same way that color, texture, tone, volume, movement, etc. are all part of our cinematic language, and allow filmmakers to tell their stories, likewise those attributes are part of our memory language, and allows our brain to tell its future self stories about the past. Qualia are how the brain maps external sensation upon its internal simulation.


Every brain is its own island, self-organizing without direct contact with any other brain. Therefore, each brain has its own unique qualia language, even though they are built upon the same rough architecture. Color, for example, is a function that the brain is born with, but then self-organizes that function to its environment, sculpting its internal simulation to map onto the external reality.

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