The Mind’s Four Doors of Perception

8 min read

The other day, I was engaged in a philosophical discussion group about how to divide up the human mind. Initially, it was proposed that we could divide our minds into four categories of thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuiting. I went along with this but shared that there is a more effective way to divide the mind based on UTOK, the Unified Theory of Knowledge.1

With its Map of Mind2, UTOK divides human mental processes into three broad domains. Your subjective conscious experience, or your inner mind, is called Mind2. It arises from the domain of Mind1, which refers to the neurocognitive activity that allows you to behave in the world. Finally, there is the domain of Mind3, which refers to self-conscious reasoning and language. Our focus in this blog is to map the domain of Mind2.

Gregg Henriques

Gregg Henriques

Let’s start with the basic structure of Mind2. Take a minute to pay attention to your conscious experience. What do you notice? Folks who study human consciousness have identified several key features, such as: a) it tends to be bound, integrated, and unified; b) it can be focused via attention; c) it is about something; d) it connects to memory and anticipation of events; e) it has an affective valence and f) it tends to be experienced as continuous with a sense of self.

In UTOK, we call this your “epistemic portal.” It is the perspectival doorway of awareness and knowing through which you have a first-person experience of the world. This doorway is made up of “qualia,” which is the technical word for the subjective qualities we experience. We can note that there are two aspects to the doorway metaphor. One aspect is the frame provided by the doorway. We3 call this framing aspect of the epistemic portal adverbial qualia. Adverbial qualia refer to the “hereness-nowness-togetherness” that binds consciousness together, akin to a frame provided by a doorway.

Of course, in addition to the frame, there is the material in the doorway. This is the most salient aspect of our conscious experience. Take a moment and look at something, such as your computer mouse. The way the mouse looks to you, its color and shape, are the qualia of your experience. We call those qualia adjectival qualia because they refer to the properties that we experience.

From here, we can now shift to the primary modes, or doorways, of experience. For this post, we are going to lay out four major doorways that go into Mind2 and that we can access in our everyday experience. These include the:

  1. Sensory-perceptual awareness of the outside world, which we will shorten to “sensory awareness”
  2. Embodied feelings of being in the world, which we will call “inner feelings”
  3. Imagined, anticipated, or remembered images, which we will call “inner seeing”
  4. An internal narrating voice, which we will call “inner speech”4.

Seeing the computer mouse is an example of sensory awareness of the outside world. Technically, this is called “exteroception,” which refers to the process of sensing things in the exterior world. Your eyes and ears are the primary modes of sensory awareness. Now consider the last time you felt hungry, tired, or dizzy. In this case, your inner mind is focused on your body and how it feels. This is called “interoception,” and it emerges from sensory inputs from the body. It includes things such as the position of the body5 and the states of the body, such as thirst or pain. Interoception can be either localized, as in the case of experiencing the sharp pain of a pinprick or can be more body-wide, such as fatigue or nausea.

We should be clear that, although these two lines of experience can be separated, the design of your mind is to relate the exterior world and your interior states. That is, your mind tracks the world and references that against what it predicts will be the case, relative to what it wants. It then makes adjustments and judgments accordingly. Those judgments emerge in the domain of Mind2 in the form of a third kind of qualia, something we call valence qualia. Valence qualia refers to the tone of the feeling, which, at its base, reduces to pleasure and pain. Valence qualia function to signal when things are going well or poorly about what is expected.

Let’s put these elements together in an example. Consider what happens when you take a swig from a bottle of milk that has gone sour. You perceive the milk bottle via your exterior sensory awareness, and then you position your body so that your arm can reach out and grab it and bring it to your mouth. This is all a coordinated act between your exteroception and interoception processes.

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Then, the soured milk hits your mouth and nose. Taste and smell sit on the border between exterior and interior perception. Detecting that the milk is rancid and is now entering your body results in feelings of disgust, which have a strong negative valence, and you run to the sink and spit it out to avoid further contamination. This example shows how, most of the time, you are tying exterior and interior perception together, and how valence qualia track what is happening and motivate action accordingly.

Now, take a moment and think about the most disgusting thing you’ve ever tasted. As you engage in this exercise, you are engaged in inner seeing. Inner seeing refers to the images that run through your head. This can include remembering past events or imagining things that might happen or even things that could never happen. For example, you likely can imagine yourself tasting rancid milk while riding an elephant as it walks on the moon. Another way to frame inner seeing is to consider it as nonverbal thought.

Finally, there is inner speech. This is the private narrator who tells the story of what is happening and why and also wonders what should happen. It is what UTOK identifies as the justifying part of your mind’s “I”. It is crucial to what makes us people. Because it is organized via language, UTOK characterizes it as a different domain of mind, specifically, the domain of Mind3a. Unlike Mind2, the information in Mind3a can be shared directly with other people. One of the miracles of talking is that we get to share the information in our minds directly with others. We can’t do that with our sensory awareness, inner feelings, or inner seeing.

Gregg Henriques

Gregg Henriques

If we return to the discussion I had with my friends in the philosophy group, we can see that sensory awareness aligns with sensation, inner feelings align with feelings, and thinking can now be divided into nonverbal inner seeing, verbal reasoning, and narrating.

What about intuition? Intuition is an interesting phenomenon, but it would not be included as a primary doorway of Mind2 in the current scheme. Intuition refers to ideas or feelings that emerge, but we are not clear about why and where they come from. Rather than being a separate domain, intuition points to the more general fact that we are sometimes not clear as to where our thoughts and feelings come from. In other words, our Mind2 emerges from our Mind1 activities, and we often don’t know why. Intuition refers to instances where we get the feeling or idea that something is important but just aren’t sure why or how we arrived at that conclusion.

In sum, according to UTOK, four primary doors of perception can be readily framed by the mind’s “I”. We can look out onto the world via sensory awareness, we can check our inner state and bodily position via inner feelings, we can track how we think about the world via inner seeing, and we can turn our attention to how we propositionally understand the world via our inner speech.

Knowing about these domains is important for several reasons, but one of the most important reasons is that many folks live their lives in the world of inner seeing and inner speech and lose contact with their actual surroundings. As the philosopher Rob Scott makes clear, learning to be grounded in the world of true experience and learning how to separate the processes by which thought grips the world and shapes it based on one’s identity and expectations can be crucial to finding the right path to mental health6.

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