updated 2023-05-30

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.

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

J. Kevin O’Regan
Université Paris Cité & Planet Learning Institute


J. Kevin O’Regan
Université Paris Cité & Planet Learning Institute


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 Chalmers’ 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.

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.

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.

Some (longish) talks and classes I’ve given on SMT

These talks are fairly complete overviews of the sensorimotor theory, and are all quite similar to each other. The first one is the shortest.

Why things feel the way they do

Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, 8 Aug 2014

This one-hour talk is a good overview of the sensorimotor theory. It starts with pain, goes on to color, that I treat in quite some detail, and then discusses sensory “presence” or “what it’s like”. I explain the role of attention and give some change blindness demonstrations, I mention the phenomenon of “looked but failed to see”, and talk about the Self and the taboo of changing the self.

La conscience expliquée aux machines (approche sensorimotrice de la conscience)

Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition Center, Université Paris Descartes, 4 Feb 2019

This two hour talk in French (with English slides) is similar to the class I give every year to Masters’ students in the CogMaster course. I start with the robot Terminator, and ask what we would have to build into him so he actually felt pain, for example. I explain the explanatory gap problem and use the softness example to explain the idea of understanding feel in terms of sensorimotor skills. I show how this idea explains the differences between sensory modalities and predicts sensory substitution. I show a video of the “Voice” device. I talk about touch and the rubber hand illusion, and describe the approach to color in detail. I then go on to explain the “what it’s like” or sensory “presence” of sensory experiences in terms bodiliness, insubordinateness and grabbiness and mention the “phenomenality plot”. I show how this idea predicts change blindness and show several varieties of change blindness. After a pause I describe the need for attention to ensure consciousness of a sensory experience, and show inattentional blindness and “looked but failed to see”demos. I then go on to discuss different levels of the notion of self, and how it can be conceived as a social construction and how it might develop in infants.

The Sensorimotor Theory of Phenomenal Consciousness

Barcelona Cognition Brain and Technology Summer School, Sept 2012

In this two-hour talk I start by defining what we mean by “raw” feel, and the three mysteries about it: ineffibity, the structure of sensory feels, and their sensory “presence”. I explain the explanatory gap and the “content-vehicle confusion” of thinking that a neural account of sound intensity or of color could explain the structure of sensory feels like the loudness of sounds or the redness of red. I go on to show how the sensorimotor theory overcomes the three mysteries. I show how it predicts sensory substitution and show a video of the “Voice” device. I describe the sensorimotor approach to color. I show how the approach predicts the rubber hand illusion. I then treat the topic of sensory “presence”or “what it’s like” using the ideas of bodiliness, insubordinateness. I show how this predictds Change Blindness. I go on to talk about attention and inattentional blindness and “looked but failed to see”. Finally I talk about the need for a notion of Self, and describe what is meant by this. There are numerous interruptions and interesting questions during the talk by people including Anil Seth, Paul Verschure and Andreas Engel.

Why red things look red

Barcelona Cognition Brain and Technology Summer School, Sept 2009

Below are links to the videos of a talk I gave on the sensorimotor account. Each video lasts between 30 and 45 minutes, and there are a lot of interruptions and questions from among others, Paul Verschure and Tony Prescott.
Part 1 In this part I start by talking about the Self: we only say that we experience something if we, as selves, are paying attention to what we are doing. But what is the Self? I will assume that the Self is amenable to science, and consists in a self-referential story that “I” construct about “I”! I present some empirical evidence that this makes sense. I then go on to address the main interest of the sensorimotor theory, namely “feel”, or phenomenal consciousness. I start with color, and show how neurophysiological accounts of “basic colors” red, yellow, green and blue, do not work.
Part 2. In Part 2 I go on to generalize from color to all “feels” and explain the “explanatory gap” problem of why any brain-based account of feel must remain unsatisfactory. I then propose the idea of the sensorimotor approach, which is that we could consider feels to be modes of interaction instead of brain activation. I illustrate it with the softness of a sponge. And then i show how, applied to color, it actually explains the “basic colors”.
Part 3 In Part 3 I then describe how the same ideas explain the “feels” of other sensory modalities, and how they predict the possibility of sensory substitution, and phenomena like the “rubber hand illusion”. I then talk about the feeling of phenomenal presence or “something it’s like” in terms of the notions of bodiliness, insubordinateness and grabbiness. This predicts the phenomenon of Change Blindness, for which I give some demonstrations.

A New, Sensorimotor View of Seeing

Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences, Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation, Hebrew University, 24 Feb, 2011

In this one hour talk I start with the upside down image at the back of the eye and other defects of vision, like the blind spot, lack of color vision in peripheral vision, and eye saccades. I explain how the sensorimotor approach dispenses with the need to postulate compensation mechanisms to overcome these defects. I demonstrate inattentional blindness and “looked but failed to see”. I explain that seeing continuously does not need continuous brain activation, thanks to the phenomenon of the “refrigerator light” and thanks to “grabbiness”. I talk about the explanatory gap and the infinite regress of explanations it necessitates. I describe the sensorimotor account of color experience. I explain how the theory accounts for differences in sensory modalities and how it predicts sensory substition. I dont talk about the self.