Can an animal have qualia without self awareness? I understand that many animals are said to have qualia but not self awareness (perhaps not the great apes).

In particular, I'm having a hard time thinking of how I could be acquainted with a quale, like the taste of mint or a patch of red, without having self awareness -- and so what the latter is meant to be in addition to the former. I do e.g. recognize my face in the mirror, but am not always doing so or thinking coherently about myself, yet am presumably always self aware.

What is self awareness except my embodiment? Don't I need to be embodied for me to have the experience of qualia? Why not generalize that from me to animal minds?

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    Having a quale and getting "acquainted" with it are two different things, seeing a red apple is different from seeing apple as red, if only because some people may not even have the concept of red to do the latter. Think of the times when your mind is blank or you are dreaming, when there is no reflection on what is there. You are probably thinking "if I have a quale how would I prove (to myself?) that I am having it, that requires self-awareness", or something like that. But experience is experience even without reflection.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 9:27
  • @Conifold i'm still unconvinced there is a genuine thing called "reflection" but thanks the comment
    – user35983
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 11:32
  • On self-awareness only you are in good company:"It is true that Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, and after them many others (for example, Husserl) actually described self-consciousness as reflection... It is not true, however , for early romanticism and not, for example, for Fichte, Franz Brentano, Hans Schmalenbach, or Sartre... the I, still without knowledge of itself, turns to itself during the process of representation and becomes aware of: itself. But how is it supposed to register this insight if it has not already previously had a concept of itself?" [Frank, What is Neostructuralism? p.194].
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 12:06
  • i meant reflection as something in addition to self awareness... thanks again @Conifold
    – user35983
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 21:45
  • "Reflection" (turning attention from the object of an action to the action itself) is vague enough to be mostly uncontroversial, it is only as applied to self-consciousness that some see it as the wrong model. Fichte et al. view the knowledge of self as something more like what Ryle calls knowledge-how, or phenomenal knowledge, than propositional knowledge-that which reflection outputs.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 22:06

2 Answers 2


Question: Can an animal have qualia without self-awareness?

The answer is yes, and the reason is that qualia and self-awareness require different neural circuits and functions that can operate independently of each other.

What neural functions do qualia require? For sensory qualia (such as visual, auditory, or olfactory qualia), one needs the integrated functions of the corresponding brain sensory areas (such as occipital, temporal, or olfactory cortex), from the primary sensory areas to the highest sensory areas. Sensory qualia cannot occur without the integrated functions of these sensory areas. For non-sensory qualia such as emotion, thought, and memory, one needs the function of the corresponding cortical areas such as the amygdala, the frontal lobes, and the hippocampal complexes. Each of these non-sensory qualia cannot occur without the function of the corresponding area.

How these brain areas create qualia is being studied actively. Several hypotheses exist, such as information cycled through a hierarchy of networks in a resonant state (1); joint parietal-frontal-cingulate activation, cortico–cortical or thalamo–cortical γ-band oscillations, cortical neural synchronization or top-down recurrent, reentrant, or resonant activities between neural processes underlying conscious perception (2-6); the attractor activity in networks of pyramidal cells in the cerebral cortex (7); a special kind of signaling patterns of neural circuits (8); and the geometry of integrated information (9).

Self-awareness requires different brain areas from those of qualia.

…At present, there is evidence that self-related processing involves the complex interactions between the default mode network and multiple large-scale networks, especially the frontoparietal control networks (10). In more details, self-awareness and self-face recognition involve a complex right-dominated bilateral network of many cortical areas such as bilateral middle and inferior frontal gyri, medial prefrontal cortices, posterior cingulate cortex, right inferior frontoparietal cortices, right insular cortices, right inferior parietal lobule, right precuneus, and left fusiform gyrus (11-14)…

(from Chapter 11. Self)

Clinically, people can lose sensory qualia (such as lose visual, auditory, and/or olfactory qualia) without disturbances on self-awareness. On the other hand, people can lose self-awareness without disturbances on qualia, such as in cases of delirious states (from psychedelics, alcohol, post-ictal, etc.) and vegetative states (from diffuse ischemic, hypoxic, or traumatic insult to the brain). In both of these states, people still experience qualia (as can be observed from their behaviors or checked later when they become sober, in cases of delirious states; or can be observed from various functional imaging, in cases of vegetative states).

Even ourselves, we may sometimes experience short episodes of not-knowing who we are even if we still feel our body (have tactile qualia), hear sounds and see things around us (have auditory and visual qualia) as usual. These short episodes can occur when we just wake up from deep sleep, general anesthesia, or cerebral concussion.

So, if we can have qualia without self-awareness (although not in normal circumstances), it is very likely that animals can too (also, probably not in normal circumstances).


  1. Orpwood R. Information and the Origin of Qualia. Front Syst Neurosci. 2017Apr;11(Article 22):1-16.

  2. Babiloni C, Marzano N, Soricelli A, et al. Cortical neural synchronization underlies primary visual consciousness of qualia: Evidence from event-related potentials. Front Hum Neurosci. 2016;10:310.

  3. Dehaene S, Sergent C, Changeux JP. A neuronal network model linking subjective reports and objective physiological data during conscious perception. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Jul 8;100(14):8520–8525.

  4. Engel AK, Singer W. Temporal binding and the neural correlates of sensory awareness. Trends in Cognitive Science. 2001 Jan;5(1):16-25.

  5. Fisch L, Privman E, Ramot M, et al. Neural “Ignition”: Enhanced activation linked to perceptual awareness in human ventral stream visual cortex. Neuron. 2009 Nov 25;64(4):562–574.

  6. Pollen DA. On the neural correlates of visual perception.Cereb Cortex. 1999; 9(1):4-19.

  7. Orpwood R. Qualia could arise from information processing in local cortical networks. Front Psychol. 2013;4:121.

  8. Ukachoke C. Chapter 5. Theorem IV: A Quale is a Special Kind of Signaling Pattern. In: The Basic Theory of the Mind. 1st ed, 2018. Bangkok, Thailand.

  9. Balduzzi D, Tononi G. Qualia: The geometry of integrated information. Friston KJ, editor. PLoS Comput Biol. 2009 Aug; 5(8): e1000462.

  10. Caso I, Poerio G, Jefferies E, Smallwood J. That’s me in the spotlight: Neural basis of individual differences in self-consciousness. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2017 Sep; 12(9):1384–1393.

  11. Hu C, Di X, Eickhoff SB, et al. Distinct and common aspects of physical and psychological self-representation in the brain: A meta-analysis of self-bias in facial and self-referential judgements. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016 Feb;61:197-207

  12. Klemm WR. Neural representations of the sense of self. Adv Cogn Psychol. 2011;7:16–30.

  13. Musholt K. A philosophical perspective on the relation between cortical midline structures and the self. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013;7:536.

  14. Sugiura M, Miyauchi CM, Kotozaki Y, et al. Neural mechanism for mirrored self-face recognition. Cereb Cortex. 2015 Sep;25(9):2806–2814.


You don't distinguish types of self-perception. What you seem to talking about is passing the mirror test, a degree of mental sophistication that allows a being to picture itself in the world clearly enough to recognise another being from a reflection. It's likely this involves brain bicamerality, a cortex that can suppress instinctive 'other' responses in terms of higher order information, and specialised 'mirror' neurons. These seem to be more abundant in monkeys that raise their young collectively, than great apes that don't.

Anyway. When we look at the neural connectome of nematode c. elegans, with 302 neurons total, we find a specific neuron tasked with distinguishing between it's own body and other things. The analogy is with human proprioception. More widely, the work-space model of awareness sees this as one of the inputs, given various levels of prioritising by neural networks, to enter into the mental models of self and world which form the basis for action.

The only good model I know of for qualia is that of strange loops. In this view tangled hierarchies are key to the emergence of minds. True conscious awareness involves having a complex model of the self, as a component in the tangled hierarchy, that is not just self-reference but self-reflection, theory of mind as manifested in the stages of human development, with the stages of impulse-controlling neocortex development.

I have never encountered any other midel of qualia that is coherent, and always seen it as reducible, though in a sense unique in relation to an individuals worldline self-memories in the hierarchy, in this way.

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    read your answer, and liked it (upvoted) but can't tell if you agree. thought you did, but then the tone seemed off for that?
    – user35983
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 0:23
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    Qualia is the work-space, so even c elegans have it - even single-neuron and single celled creatures in some sense have it imho. Notably, typical configurations even of complex computers, do not
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 1:08
  • you used the word "true conscious awareness" and i'd like to know to know what that means if i am to accept the answer... do amoebas have an awareness of time, is that what the last paragraph meant and its reference to memory?
    – user35983
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 1:21
  • I distinguish awareness, which probably almost every animal has, from consciousness which requires enough complexity to not just register self vs other but have a mental model of these. It seems to be a sliding scale, though there are 'jumps' like mirror neurons and the neocortex
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 1:54
  • but what is a mental model like?
    – user35983
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 1:57

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