Chapter 9. Multi-object Visual Qualia

Chapter 8 introduced intentional visual qualia. This post is going to back up a little and discuss visual qualia that are random, but not quite anomalous, or at least not unrecognizable partial objects. Before discussing the results of introspective sessions investigating multi-object visual qualia, I want to take a moment to discuss what an object, and thus a visual quale, is. The objects reported in Chapter 5 were treated as independent qualia. These qualia interacted (colliding, morphing, etc), creating new qualia, which continued the cycle. This brings up an interesting question: Are complex mental images composed of a single quale, or do qualia combine into a new quale having characteristics of its components? This has implications for how different functional parts of the brain (e.g., visual cortex) store representations in working memory to maintain and modify input to the conscious mind.

This might sound like a pedantic question, but the answer could influence how manipulating qualia can improve cortical function, for example functional communication and working memory.

Imagine yourself (create a symbolic representation) on a tropical beach at sunset, walking along the sand, the waves gently breaking on the shore. For our purposes, this is a multi-object, multi-qualia perception (e.g., visual, tactile, auditory, emotional). It is a single scene with multiple components. Most people can imagine it using symbolic representations of all of the qualia it contains, even if we can’t see the sunset, hear the waves, feel the sand, smell the ocean, or feel the sense of peace this image is supposed to convey.

This is a difficult scene to unravel because it’s easy to imagine turning one’s head and seeing the palm trees along the beach, and then looking offshore and seeing the sun on the horizon. Perhaps turning around and seeing the trail leading to the cabana. There are many components to the qualia we perceive. Are they separate qualia, or has the conscious mind created a new quale from the myriad of imagined perceptions coming from the subconscious? Recall from Chapter 3 that our brain works at pretty high frequency, so qualia can be updated (and replaced) relatively quickly. For example, while imagining this tranquil scene, its component qualia are updating at 8-12 Hz (8-12 times per second), and possibly as high as 35 Hz.

We will keep this in mind in future posts that discuss multi-quale scenes like this one. For consistency, I will retain (for now) the original definition of a quale as representing one object. Multi-object perceptions like the tropical beach will be defined as SCENES.

In other words, a scene is composed of qualia that are constructed by the conscious mind from packets, themselves composed of bytes of binary neuronal signals arriving from parts of the brain processing different kinds of stimuli (e.g., sight, sound, touch, smell). There’s a lot that can go wrong in this sequence. No wonder many of us can’t smell the rotting seaweed!


This post discusses two kinds of SCENES: (1) static mental images with multiple objects that persist long enough to be examined closely; and (2) dynamic sequences of multi-object images that change reasonably slowly over a sufficiently long time interval to be remembered. The cases discussed below were randomly generated and I exercised no control over them. I was a neutral observer.

Static Scenes.

One example of a static scene I recall occurred after I had controlled the anomalous visual stimuli.  Two or three people (one woman) were dressed formally in a room with pictures on the wall and a table. They were close together. It lasted about five seconds. It was realistic but I didn’t recognize any of the people. The stock image could have come from thousands of movies and photos I’ve seen. I don’t know if it was modified or unaltered. Static scenes don’t seem to be as memorable as dynamic ones, which will be discussed next. It’s hard to forget those.

Dynamic Scenes.

The first example we will discuss occurred several times on different days. It includes several large fish in a shallow river or lake; rocks; a sandy bottom covered with ripples and aquatic plants; the surface of the water is seen at the top of the scene. The water has an overall greenish hue, giving the fish a similar color, although they are very realistic, with irregular coloring. The fish are swimming slowly past my viewing point. It lasted at least 30 seconds on each occasion.

This scene is based on the Amazon rainforest exhibit at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. I have been there many times. The view point is based on an open aquarium tank, seen through the glass wall facing the aquarium visitor. What is different is that there is more depth to the mental image. The channel in the real tank is only a few feet across, although it is more than 50 feet long. The mental image fades in the distance, more like a natural water body rather than an aquarium tank. In other words, it isn’t a static photo of a scene I have certainly seen enough times to remember; instead, my subconscious has manipulated it, adding more depth, other objects (e.g., aquatic plants), and turned it into a movie. This sequence of images was delivered to my conscious mind in carefully coordinated packets and assembled as a quale. I call it a quale (more correctly a series of related quakes compiled into a scene). Why? I don’t know the answer, but we’ll talk about that in a later post.

The second example of a dynamic scene is striking and requires expansion of the idea of subconscious manipulation of memory to create visual stimuli.

I’m looking down on a wide, grassy valley with low hills in the distance. There are a few knolls within the valley floor. I’m not very high, maybe on a knoll, and about 200-300 yards distant. I have to turn my “head” (mentally; no head motion required) to view the expanse of the scene. The valley is empty. Then, a large group of men enter from the right side, dressed in blue with a couple of them riding horses. I have the impression that they are soldiers (maybe Union troops from the American Civil War) because several are carrying large flags. I have an emotional response to the soldiers; I feel that something is about to happen, maybe a battle. They march along the valley in front of me.

I look to the left and see what appears to be hundreds, if not thousands, of animals (I had the impression they were wolves) entering the valley. The soldiers can’t see them because of a slight rise between the two groups. As the soldiers start up the rise, I move in for a better look. This is interesting because I intentionally moved my position, hovering I suppose. I remained elevated. I get to within maybe a hundred yards when the protagonists see each other.

The scene jumped a little here, like fast forward, but smoothly without interruption. Suddenly the soldiers were running back the way they came with the wolves in pursuit. When the wolves are within about a hundred yards of the retreating men, they begin to dissipate into dust. We’ve all seen this special effects technique in science fiction movies. The dust cloud caught up to the men as the last wolf dissolved into dust. The troops were enveloped in the dust cloud. End of scene. It lasted almost a minute without interruptions and I was fully engaged as an observer. I had no idea what was going to happen and was quite surprised at the ending.

This scene is fascinating for several reasons: (1) I never saw this before; (2) I felt a slight sense of anticipation (I was emotionally engaged); (3) I controlled my viewpoint, interacting as it were, with the scene. Let’s address each point in turn.

(1) I have certainly seen formations of soldiers, in movies, paintings, dioramas, you name it. No surprise there. I have also seen plenty of valleys (this looked like a landscape from the Valley and Ridge region of central Pennsylvania). As I said, I have seen the special effect of dissolving objects into dust many times. I’ve also seen wolves and images/videos of groups of animals moving (e.g., buffalo in the U.S., migrating herds in Africa). In other words, all of the components of the scene came from memory. The interesting issue is how they were combined into a completely new scene that lasted almost a minute, all with no conscious control on my part.

(2) I’m not sure if my emotional response was part of the scene or my reaction to what I was viewing. It didn’t evolve into fear for the soldiers, however; when they were fleeing, I was indifferent. It was only when the soldiers first appeared that I was apprehensive.

(3)  I controlled my view point by turning my head (essentially extending the scene through conscious action), and moving to a different location for a closer look, before returning to my original viewing point. This implies that the scene was responding to my conscious act (thought actually), my desire to change the view. That is dynamic interaction. This means that, not only were new details created on demand, the objects were stored in working memory and used to recreate previous view points. This has important implications for learning to control how our conscious and subconscious minds interact.

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  1. Chapter 11: Discovering our Physical Nature | Timothy R. Keen - October 27, 2020

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