What Are Qualia?


by Nagi Hatoum, M.D., M.S.E.E.                                                                                                                                                                               March 25,2008

Qualia are on everyone's mind, quite literally.  Qualia (singular quale) are an integral part of our lives. We cannot escape them, unless we are dead or in a coma and there are some that believe that we can't escape them even after death.

If you look up the meaning of Qualia, you usually get long worded explanations.

But in one sense, Qualia are very simple to understand. Look at the pictures below.

Inside the brain                                                             Inside the mind

Both pictures convey the same information.  The picture on the left uses numbers in place of colors, 1 for blue and 2 for brown. The picture on the left represents more accurately the process that is happening inside our brain and the colored picture is what we experience in our mind.

Our biological eyes and brain communicate with electrical spikes. Ganglion cells in the retina receive input from many color sensitive photoreceptors and produce sequences of electrical spikes that go to the brain. The sequence of spikes is a code that represents the image that falls on the retina. The spikes are analogous to the numbers in the picture above. Both spikes and numbers describe an image. 

An image is transformed into electric spikes by the retina

Recorded sequences of spikes

But somehow, through a yet unexplained process, the spikes are transformed into the experience of color and shapes. What we call the mind is the place where the electric spikes are transformed into Qualia.  There are many scientific theories that try to explain the mind but none have been proven by experiments.  Scientists are still unable to comprehend the mind, measure it or even localize it in the brain. Yet the mind exists because we are aware of it every day.  Qualia and the mind remain one of the greatest mysteries in science.

In summary, Qualia are simply how we experience our world when we are conscious. We are not conscious of the electrical spikes that are buzzing in our brain, but we are conscious of the Qualia which represent these spikes. The experience of colors represents the electric spikes conveyed from our color sensitive cells in our eyes, and that of sound from sound sensitive cells in our ears and so on for all the other senses.

Why Do We Have Qualia?

Qualia give order to all the information processed by our brain. 

A simple analogy is a computer. The picture that you see on a computer monitor is made up by the computer to represent the states inside it.  Just like the brain, inside the computer, everything is coded in electrical spikes. Yet you see pictures and text on the computer's monitor. This is to help you interface with the computer, just as Qualia help you to interface with your brain which is connected by your senses to your world. 

What's Inside the Computer

What We See

If you now understand Qualia, you'll understand that our brain makes up our conscious experience of the world. Dreams are a perfect example of our brain constructing a reality for our mind. We sometime can experience dreams that we believe are as real as real life (until we wake up and find out that it was a dream).

Still not convinced? Here's some news for you:

Magenta Ain't a Color (click to read about it)

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