Sunday, 3 April 2016

Qualia - the consciousness of experience

Give an everyday phenomenon a posh name and a bit of scientific explanation, and it takes on a new intellectual respectability. Philosophers and cognitive scientists have devised the notion of qualia to describe the feelings and sensations that we experience. The Wikipedia essay linked above makes a good starting point from which to embark on an exploration of the way science defines the way our conscious selves experience feelings.

Now - from the theoretical to the reality. Today was a beautiful blue-sky day, the temperature reaching 17C in the afternoon. Out walking around the manor, the feeling of the south wind on my face, warmed by the sun, brought about a Most agreeable sense of well-being, augmented by bird-song. I knew that the birds were enjoying the sunshine as much as me.

Our senses pick up heat, light, smells, sounds, tastes - but what are the emotions that synthesise in our consciousness as we do so? Are they unique to us as individuals? Do we sense things differently - differently from other people - more acutely, because we are able to describe the experience better? Or do we all experience them in a similar way? People who are better able to describe what it is that ails them to their doctor tend to get better medical attention. Yet this could be down to the fact that they are more intelligent, have a larger vocabulary, and hence can communicate better what they feel - rather than actually feeling it any more intensely than others.

Imagination is another factor. During my Lenten abstinence from alcohol, I was able to imagine, with ease, the sensation of sipping an Islay single-malt whisky. The characteristic, peaty aroma, the taste of the fiery spirit on the lips, tongue and palate; the feeling of swallowing it, its effect when reaching the bloodstream, the first experience of mild intoxication.

Do we experience the same thing the same way? All else being equal - emotional states, health, comfort - would several people watching the sun set over the the Gulf of Mexico from the beach at Key Largo, Florida, be aware of the same feelings?

We may not be conscious of it, but many of us go on holiday in search of qualia. Be it a luxury cruise in the Caribbean, the thrill of downhill skiing in the Swiss Alps, visiting the Sistine Chapel, holidaymakers are searching for a specific experience - even if it's only flopping out on a beach towel on an all-inclusive holiday in the sun.

And when the holiday is over - what's left are memories. How deep those memories are encoded in our individual consciousnesses? Don't know - difficult to judge one person's experience against another. Here, I allow the train of thought to conjure up holidays - azure skies over the Algarve, the sound of a distant moped at dawn in rural France, pine-scented paths in the Polish mountains, the damp of a misty morning on the Lleyn peninsula...

And then those unbidden flashbacks. Qualia from the past recreated perfectly for a split second to pass away leaving an agreeable aftertaste in the consciousness. They happen often throughout my day. I ponder upon them. These are the truest indicators of what it is like to be me, unique, personal, moments imbued with a sense of total me-ness.

I initially started blogging (nine years ago now!) with the intent of setting down markers in the online world to which I can return, to savour atmospheres of times past. And this I shall continue to do, with the intent of trying to get a better understanding of what it is to live, and to experience life.

This time last year:
Analysing the success of Lidl

This time two years ago:
Should schools be teaching language - or Languages?

This time three years ago:
More moaning about Karczunkowska's pavement deficit

This time four years ago:
Architectural detail from Edinburgh

This time five years ago:
Spring explodes in Jeziorki
(+18C! Today it's around zero and snowing!)

This time six years ago:
Along the way for Warsaw's southern bypass

This time seven years ago:
Quintessential Warsaw vista

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki on Google Earth

This time nine years ago:
Okęcie airport, our near neighbour

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