The structure of subjective experience

Consciousness is one of the most fascinating yet least understood aspects of human nature, or perhaps nature at large. Our lives dwell in our conscious experiences: this is where we experience love, we feel the ‘chills’ with a good piece of art, enjoy the taste of a good wine, and suffer excruciating pain. Our experience is structured, i.e., it has space and time. If we look at a painting we find spatial structure: there are a top and a bottom, there are a left and a right, and there are relations among objects, colors, etc. The same applies to time: one moment follows another in what gives the sense of orderly temporal continuity, or events for the mind. How does that experiential structure come about? Despite decades of intense (neuro)scientific research, close to nothing is known about how these subjective feelings and thoughts come about in the (human) brain.

Our research aims to characterize the richness and structure of our experience. In particular, we aim to understand how temporal continuity relates to sequences and relations among elements, and what role - if any - memories and predictions play in creating temporal continuity for event perception. Our working hypothesis is that understanding the structure of our experience will enable us to link a map of subjective experience to brain activity and connectivity. A main advantage of focusing on the structure and richness of the experience is that it fits well with the notion that while experience might vary among individuals, there is consistency and internal structure that is preserved for a given individual. Thus, knowing how an experiential map relates to brain activity will not only enable us to understand how the brain creates consciousness but also why and how we experience what we do, from a first-person perspective.


Templeton World Charity Foundation, Human Brain Project