Short Talks

Some short talks that overview the SMT

These are some short (<30 min) talks I’ve given about the sensorimotor theory. Because they are so short, they usually will miss out one or other important aspect — usually I emphasize the main originality of the SMT, namely how it deals with phenomenal feel. What I don’t touch on is the notion of Self and the need for attention and cognitive access to make feels conscious.

2023 TSC Taormina talk

‘What it’s like’ to have a phenomenal experience can be partly explained in terms of loss in control of body movements and of information flow.

Click above for the slides and transcript of a 30 min talk I gave at “Towards a Science of Consciousness”, Taormina, 23 May, 2023.

This talk is a simplified version of my paper:

O’Regan, J. K. (2023). How voluntary control over information and body movements determines “what it’s like” to have perceptual, bodily, emotional and mental experiences. Frontiers in Psychology13


The “sensorimotor” approach to understanding phenomenal consciousness bridges the explanatory gap and dissolves the “hard problem” by adopting a different metaphysical point of view than most other theories. Instead of supposing that phenomenal consciousness is a product of brain mechanisms, the sensorimotor approach claims that phenomenal consciousness is a collection of capacities that we exercise when we interact physically and mentally with the world.

As a consequence, to explain why people consider that experiences have “something it’s like”, the sensorimotor approach seeks to determine what aspects of one’s physical and mental interactions with the world are at the root of the claim that there is “something it’s like”.

Two very fundamental aspects of phenomenal experiences seem to be relevant. One aspect is the imposingness of experiences. Experiences impose themselves on us and seem “present” in different ways. For example they can seem displayed scenically before us, as in vision, or they can seem non-scenic and “latent”, as in the sense of balance. A second fundamental aspect is the fact that experiences have a “locus of attribution”: they can seem “external” (perceptual), “internal” (interoceptive, bodily or emotional) or “mental”.

I show in this talk that both “presence” and “locus of attribution” are aspects of “what it’s like” that can be identified with the degree to which we lose voluntarily control of what we are doing when we engage in a phenomenal experience. The degree of imposingness of experiences and their different types of “presence” is determined by how our voluntary actions are impeded or assisted by innate, attention-grabbing mechanisms. The locus or external/internal/mental dimension of experienes is determined by how our voluntary bodily actions can influence the sensorimotor flow of information.

By elucidating these two most fundamental aspects of “what it’s like”, and taken together with prior work accounting for inter- and intra-modal differences in experiences, the sensorimotor approach suggests a path towards a scientific theory explaining why experiences “feel like something” rather than feeling like nothing.

ASSC 2022 Abstract and Talk

New developments in Sensorimotor Theory of phenomenal consciousness: how different types of voluntary control determine the ‘what it’s like’ of sensory, bodily, emotional and mental conscious experiences

Click above for the slides and transcript of an 11-min talk I gave at ASSC 2022 in Amsterdam, 14 July 2022

This is a short paper that was a first attempt to simplify my account of “what it’s like”. It gives a somewhat different account compared to the later talk given at TSC 2023.


Would you look in the brain to explain to someone why bicycle riding feels different from motorcycle riding? No! Of course the brain is doing different things, but the correct level of explanation to understand the differences lies in what you do when you engage in these experiences**.

The “Sensorimotor Approach” takes this idea further and suggests that all experiences can be accounted for in this way (O’Regan 2011). In particular the approach leads to an appealing account of inter-modal and intra-modal differences in sensory qualities, and suggests an exciting way to deal with color experiences that links to empirical results (cf Philipona & O’Regan, 2006).

In this talk I try to extend the sensorimotor approach to essential aspects of ALL experiences. To do this I appeal to two characteristics of experiences that concern control. One type of control is the degree to which we can modulate an experience by moving our bodies. This provides an explanation for the locus of attribution of an experience (in the mind, the body or the world).The second type of control concerns loss of control: the degree to which we lose our ability to voluntarily move our bodies or our attention. This explains the extent to which experiences seem to impose themselves on us bodily and mentally, and the different ways experiences appear “present” to us.

The examples in the talk show how one can progress towards an objective, 3rd person account of the “what it’s like” of experience. The approach could be said to be part of Chalmer’s project of solving the “meta” hard problem of consciousness, in that it shows a path towards accounting for everything people potentially could SAY about qualia, without committing to the problematic existance of qualia themselves.

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How to make a robot that feels

Towards a science of Consciousness, Tucson, Arizona, 4 Mar, 2013

I gave this this 20 min talk at the Plenary session of the “Towards a Science of Consciousness” Conference. The slides I showed are not shown in the video, but the talk is quite good in explaining the theory, and the questions asked at the end are very useful. I start with Access Consciousnes, which I assume is amenable to science and go on to Phenomenal Consciousness. I claim that the explanatory gap is a strategy to maintain the last bastion of humanity, namely “feel”, against the onslaught of robots. I suggest that the explanatory gap is due to making the Rylean category mistake of reifying qualia, and can be overcome by taking a “skill” approach to feel. I mention bodiliness, insubordinateness and grabbiness, and I show how Change Blindness is a consequence of taking the sensorimotor approach. I only touch on color, sensory substitution and the importance of attention and the notion of self. In answer to questions, I talk about dreams, thoughts, locked-in syndrome, pain, and the explanatory status of the theory as a re-definition of the notion of phenomenal consciousness or “feel”.


How the sensorimotor approach overcomes the Explanatory Gap and the Hard Problem of Consciousness

Mind and Life European Summer Research Institute, 10 Aug 2020

This 22 minute talk is an overview of some of the main ideas in my sensorimotor approach, as presented in my book “Why red doesn’t sound like a bell”. It was filmed by Denis Connolly of the School of Looking.

The talk covers: the blind spot and other defects of vision; how we should understand what it’s like to perceive in terms of active exploration rather than brain representations.

I explain the explanatory gap problem and show how the sensorimotor approach overcomes it, explaining why red looks red rather than sounding like a bell. And I show how “bodiliness”, “insubordinateness” and “grabbiness” explain why there is “something it’s like” to have an experience. Finally I show how the brain can understand the notion of space by interacting with the world.


Le faux problème de la conscience et la conscience imminente des machines

Forum des Sciences Cognitives, April 28, 2020

This half-hour summary in French of my sensorimotor approach to consciousness is a short but fairly complete overview of the theory.

I start with the explanatory gap problem of explaining the differences in experienced sensations in terms of brain mechanisms. I review whether current theories of consciousness deal with this. I say that Access Consciousness and even the notion of Self seem amenable to scientific investigation, but Phenomenal consciousness seems difficult because of the explanatory gap. I show then how the sensorimotor approach can solve the explanatory gap. I give the example of softness, I discuss the explanation of sensory modalities in terms of sensorimotor laws and the prediction of sensory substitution. I describe the rubber hand illusion. I explain sensory presence in terms of bodiliness, insubordinateness and grabbiness. I describe change blindness. I then go on to the importance of invoking Access Consciousness and the Self as paying attention to the sensorimotor laws, which brings me to inattentional blindness.

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The sensorimotor approach to understanding “feel” in humans and robots

Softbank robotics, Paris, June 17, 2014

In this 40 min talk I cover pain, color, sensory presence, the explanatory gap, change blindness. I spend quite a while explaining the approach Alexander Terekhov and I have developed to explain how brains could deduce the notion of space without prior knowledge. I don’t cover the Self and cognitive access.


Thinking about vision in a different way: the world as an outside memory

Workshop on Perception Through Structured Generative Models, at ECCV on Aug 28, 2020

This 45 minute talk does not present my SMT as a whole, but rather is about vision and the “world as an outside memory” idea, used to explain the experienced quality of visual perception. I start with all the defects of the visual system like chromatic aberration, lack of color vision in periphery, distortions due to retinal inhomogeneity, the blind spot, and eye movements. I show how there is no need to compensate these defects if we think about vision as an exploratory sense like touch. I propose we take vision to be like exploring an outside memory, and illustrate this with inattentional blindness. I discuss why seeing seems “real” rather than just like thinking or remembering in terms of grabbiness, which I illustrate with change blindness.