I have noticed recently that my mental experiences seem to posses the appearance of temporal continuity even when I cease to be aware of them. For example, if I'm running through a song in my head, I will cease to be conscious of doing so and then become aware of it again a minute later, by which time my inner monologue will have reached a later stage of the song. I realise that introspection is unfashionable as a source of philosophical insight, but nonetheless I think this observation raises interesting questions. I wonder if anyone else has had similar experiences, and what ontological conclusions regarding the nature of qualia/mental experiences people think we are entitled to draw from their possibility.

So: to what extent can we infer from occurrences like this that it is possible for qualia or mental experiences to exist when nobody is consciously aware of them?

  • 2
    Qualia events are those which are traditionally characterised by a 'what it feels like' quality. Information from the environment is able to be processed without being consciously registered, as in the case of 'the cocktail party effect' en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cocktail_party_effect, however What would be the criteria from distinguishing between 'qualia' experiences which are unattended from unconscious processes which are inaccessible to awareness?
    – Dr Sister
    Aug 8, 2012 at 5:05
  • Unfashionable? :D "Huuuuhaaah" (c) Bender. NO you really made me laugh :) IT is the ONLY source of info in ANYWHERE. I have this all the time. MOREOVER i can tell you there exist even bigger processes like this (invisible ones) they can last DECADES. Inside is the ONLY source of ANYTHING.
    – Asphir Dom
    Mar 12, 2014 at 13:51
  • @AsphirDom maybe he meant unfashionable with respect to reporting on inner states? All I can know is my experience, and I can report on the phenomenology of inner states, but once I start to report on what those states mean, I run into problems. For instance, take experiments where men were shown photographs of women, rated the most attractive ones and then asked why they found them attractive. It seems their brains noticed something their "minds" didn't -- that those women had dilated pupils. Or take the LIbet experiments. Or split-brain experiments...
    – R. Barzell
    Oct 20, 2015 at 20:20

3 Answers 3


Try looking up "visual illusions" or various results from psychophysics. There's all sorts of stuff going on that you're not perceiving. I'm not sure philosophy has caught up with these observations enough so that it is even speaking about qualia and perception using the right terms.

But, anyway, in some sense you're asking a definitional question (do we call it an "experience" if it is unperceived, or only if it is perceived--and what do we mean by "perceived" anyway?). But it is certainly the case that inputs you are unaware of can considerably change your mood and actions (or can change your mood in actions in ways that seem unconnected to the input, and you can be unaware of the impact). "Unconscious priming" is the term typically used to describe these phenomena.

(If you want to read something even more disconcerting, look up retrodiction or implanted memories--temporal continuity might be happening, or it might just be invented by your brain afterwards to make sense of before-and-after, and you probably would have no way to introspect which was which....)

  • You did not get him. He said HE DOES perceive them, but he did not notice when they start/stop and how they pop up. He asks MOST fundamental question there has been since Descartes/Leibnitz. Actually qualia is the thing Descartes noticed in his ergo sum :) Took people 200 years to invent word for that OBVIOUS thing. OP asks - "How is it possible that something invisible exists and becomes directly visible time to time."
    – Asphir Dom
    Mar 12, 2014 at 13:57
  • @AsphirDom - He does not perceive them for some of the time, but they appear to have been running: "I will cease to be conscious of doing so and then become aware of it again a minute later". That is what I was addressing.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 12, 2014 at 15:31

Full disclosure: I probably don't know what I'm talking about. And I don't think I'm in a position to make any inferences. But I do think I can feebly offer another example:

Consider an aspect of your consciousness that is taken for granted nearly every moment of every awake and visually enabled person: the boundary at your extreme peripheral between what you can see and what you cannot see. Specifically, that distinct or wuzzy line that you should see when focusing on what should be the area where the angle of incoming photons do not enter your eye.

I've tried relentlessly to "see" this line--to perceive or experience it in a sense. But there is some aspect of my cognition preventing this qualia event. Somehow or way, before sight is reaching my conscious "thread" the visual input is being parsed and interpreted.

Backing away from that boundary, a non-trivial amount of visual qualia begins and increases as the angle to your pupil approaches 90 degrees, with the most information coming from directly in front of your focus.

Now, in a very real sense, towards the boundary point where there is a small but non-zero amount of information being delivered to your eye, a part of your mental process is dealing with that information. If your eyes are open, you cannot help it. If energy hits the nerves at the back of your eye, that energy will be dealt with (excluding any transmission loss).

In almost all moments, this information at the boundary is parsed in some way by some mental functions. (This is purely speculative neuroscience, but I would imagine that the small but non-zero amount of information is enough to trigger initial neuron interactions, but not enough to propagate into the network of neurons that constitutes our conscious thread--much like a raindrop could hit the ground of a riverbank but be absorbed by the ground before reaching the flow of the river.)

That is, unless there is something "signifiant" at or peripheral. Like a very bright light, or something like it, that would alert our consciousness to attention. I'd be interested to read studies about this that would specifically limit the overflow to other senses or angle of light, but let's take these as occurrences as particulars. (Again, if I put on my speculative lay neuroscientist hat on, I'd imagine that there are pattern recognizing systems early on in the process that increase the intensity of the message when non-matching patterns are inputed.)

Moving more towards the center of focus, there is more information to parse. At about 60 degrees out of focus, there is an experienceable amount of information. If something moves, I can sense it. But when I'm not focusing my consciousness there and nothing is moving, that mental "thread" which monitors the input of that area continues in some fashion under my conscious thread.

Thus, there is a mental process which is parsing visual information not in focus which everyone experiences and for the most part there are a significant amount of moments that we are not ware of them. This gets us a step closer to events that no one is aware of, but not all the way there.


Perceptions being "processed" by the mind, but not in your awareness would also explain how the song was in your awareness, it left your awareness, it came back into your awareness at a later point in time - and the song had advanced in time, i assume, roughly or precisely equal to the amount of time it had left your consciousness.

In the same way that a background process on a computer would chug along, yet not be in the "foreground", or that your senses would chug along processing information, despite you not being aware of it - that part of your mind that was running through the song, seems to have continued - despite you being aware of it.

Then you hooked back into that process - or you invoked it into the foreground somehow, at the point were it resumed.

Seems the computer analogy does a decent job of accounting for this sort of thing.

Interestingly, you have to wonder can we fire off a bunch of background processes? Could be useful to do you taxes or something outside your awareness...might be that's sort of what we do when we "sleep on things".

On a computer you can run too many processes and run out of memory, or chew up the CPU, so be careful, might find yourself hugging horses.

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