Where is my mind? Is the materialistic model of reality incorrect?

My belief about the nature of reality is that the only “thing” that exists is matter. That is, there is no soul, no heaven and no hell. Effects aren’t caused without an interaction with different pieces of matter, and consciousness exists within the confines of the physical head that gives rise to it.

However, although I used to be extremely firm in this position, now I am less sure, because of one question. I don’t know how to answer this from a materialist perspective. Maybe there’s just a really simple answer that I’m missing, but I’ve spoken to many people on this and no one has given it to me. Maybe you can. So here’s the question.

Where is the cat?

“HAHAHA puny humans you will never find me. (Photo by Tambako the Jaguar

I can make a picture of a cat in my head; I can close my mind and think of it. So I’m perceiving this image of a cat.

Where is the image? Where is the cat?

I first heard this question (well, I added the cat part myself) in a lecture on the mind/body problem, and my initial answer is that the cat is simply a 1:1 correlate of certain neurological activity in the brain. That is, if you open up my head you won’t see a picture of a cat, but you’d see something that’s the equivalent of it, sort of like the dots and dashes of Morse code are not English characters, but they are equivalents of them. From a materialistic perspective, you’d theoretically be able to interpret the activity in my brain through some technology, and recreate the image of the cat that I am picturing on a screen.

In fact, we’re past theorising on this, as a famous experiment last year that was widely reported as “Mind Reading” in the media demonstrated. Here’s what they did:

1) Measured brain activity as someone watched a load of YouTube videos
2) Linked up the brain imaging data with the image on the screen, creating a sort of database whereby such-and-such brain activity relates to, say, a red object in the middle of the screen, such-and-such relates to certain shape moving to the left, and so on. I’m probably over-simplifying, but that’s the gist.
3) Get the same person to watch a new set of YouTube videos, again while in the scanner measuring brain activity.
4) Use the database created in step 2 to predict what the person was seeing in step 3.

Here’s how the reconstructions compared to the original videos:

It’s important to note that the brain may not code imagined images in the same way as those you see with your own eyes, and also that each person’s brain will likely code the image of the cat in different ways (hence the need for steps 1 and 2), but, since all of the activity of the mind is thought to have a direct neural correlate, the principle is the same.

So when I was asked “where” my mental image of the cat is, that’s why I responded in this way — the image is located in the brain – it’s just in a different format.

But really, I’m not satisfied with that answer. Because in my mind I can see (well maybe not see, but certainly perceive) the cat; not the equivalent neural ‘code’, but the actual cat. I know where the neural code is, but I don’t know where the cat is.

I can’t think how the materialistic model can explain where the cat is. Doesn’t this mean then that there’s more to reality than the purely materialistic? That the materialistic model is incomplete? What am I missing?

To use a computer analogy, the words you are reading now (hello!) are represented in a chip in a computer as a string of 0’s and 1’s. That’s like the neural code in your brain. But the actual words are represented on the screen in front of your eyes. What’s the equivalent of the screen in the case of the cat? Where is it?

I’m actually asking this to you – do you know where the cat is? Am I making a simple mistake? Please leave a comment and help me out!

Where is reality?

That’s probably enough for one day, but just to take this one step further; we know that what we see is not the world. The image we see is a mental construction of the world, and psychology has identified numerous examples of how we each see the world a little differently. An obvious example is colour-blindedness. Since the brain is constructing the world we see around us, and if we assume that the neural code and the image are different things… where is reality?


Nishimoto S, Vu AT, Naselaris T, Benjamini Y, Yu B, & Gallant JL (2011). Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies. Current biology : CB, 21 (19), 1641-6 PMID: 21945275


  • Frédéric says:

    The subjective experience of the cat is actually identical to the neural process of your brain and not just correlated.
    That what is then measured in your brain via for example fMRI is a correlation of this neural process.
    To use your computer analogy:
    The words “hello!” on the screen are just an abstraction of the more detailled electromagnetic processes that are happening in the computer chip.
    That what is in the chip is the real thing, the words on the screen are just a representation of the real thing and not the other way around.

    • Warren Davies says:

      “That what is in the chip is the real thing, the words on the screen are just a representation of the real thing and not the other way around.”

      Agreed. So where is the image of the cat being represented?

  • Steve Fleming says:

    Hi Warren,

    Interesting post! You’ve nicely identified the “hard” problem of consciousness: how can such-and-such pattern of neural activity possibly constitute an explanation of subjective experience (in this case, of an imagined cat) ?

    My view is that there is no mystery here, and that the materialist model is sufficient. There is certainly a mystery about how (in materialist terms) certain experiences are conscious, and others unconscious, and what factors endow conscious experiences with content. But I don’t think that an explanation of those mysteries will ever come to “look like” the experience itself. This is where the computer software/hardware analogy breaks down.

    We think we have a “screen”, what Dennett called the Cartesian theatre. But really we don’t have a screen, not physically anyway. The “screen” is part and parcel of the subjective viewpoint – whenever we step outside of this viewpoint (to an objective, third person perspective) the illusory screen is lost.

    • Warren Davies says:

      Hi Steve,


      Yes I’ve been looking at Dennett’s stuff on consciousness, I read Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves a few years ago but I seem to have forgotten everything about them.

      I agree with you that we don’t physically have a screen. However, I think to call it an illusion is not a satisfactory answer. Because, although I can’t speak for anyone else, I know I can make mental images. I can make them appear, disappear, and change. So if I can perceive something non-physical, then the materialist model must be incomplete.

      The thing is, this might just be an interesting moot point. Since even if this is right and the Cartesian theatre “exists” and is non-physical, who knows if it has any relevance to anything or not? Sports people use imagery to enhance their performance, and this imagery presumably correlates with some neural shifting and changing in the brain which facilitates better performance. But is the imagery causing the neural shifting or is the neural shifting causing the imagery? That’s why I just say it’s a 1:1 correlation, maybe the images don’t ‘do’ anything, and maybe the material model is just as predictive even if you include the Cartesian theatre.

      Anyway I’ll have to read up on this more, including your work! Thanks for the comment!

  • Nuchto says:

    Making analogies between the binary code and perception of the is just useless.
    While you compare, you assume they work in the same way. I think it’s probably out of our reach for the time being. Will we ever understand it? Maybe our limited brains are not to comprehend the hard problem. But it’s fun to try to.

    • Warren Davies says:

      True they may not work in the same way, but i use the analogy more to highlight the problem than to describe the function.

      Indeed, maybe our puny human brains will never grasp it! 🙂

  • Rich says:

    I think “where is the cat?” should be the rallying cry for non-materialists (immaterialists?) everywhere! I don’t think a satisfactory answer to the hard problem of consciousness has been provided yet. However part of the answer may lie within the special properties of neurons. For instance, artificially stimulating the auditory cortex elicits sounds and simple auditory hallucinations while stimulating a neuron next door in the visual cortex evokes flashes and other simple visual hallucinations. Why does providing the same stimulation to two otherwise identical neuron produce such disparate conscious experience? Obviously must be something to do with the connections etc, but nothing in the neuron itself would give us a clue. In the same way, I think the cat is in the connections (with memories etc), but this is a very incomplete and impoverished answer.

    • Warren Davies says:

      Haha I might make some t-shirts with the cat picture or put some posters up! Yes I know, I can’t even conceive of an experiment that could find the cat either. I see that many people (me included, though I’m loosening my grip on the position) feel that eventually the cat will come to be be “found,” but I wonder if holding on to the materialist model is limiting our thinking and theorising on the topic. I think there’s a lot of emotional attachment to it because it’s associated with “true,” “correct,” and “scientific,” where as non-materialist sentiments are associated with “quacks,” “pseudoscience-nuts,” and certain out-of-favour French philosophers.


      Last seen purring on Descartes’ lap. Reward of Nobel Prize to anyone that can find it!

  • Hi Warren, I came across your post by accident when I was reading a comment you left on another one about consciousness and find yours a lot more interesting. I talk and write a lot about this.

    Firstly any discussion we have on any topic is is with ourselves. Though we can read what we say to each other the meaning of what we write is “made up” in the mind of the reader. The question you ask exists but only in your mind. I have read your post but nobody else will understand it the way I do because I have attached meaning not just to every sentence but to every word and letter. I am now in the process of answering my own question based on something you have asked.

    The problem with perception is that it depends on the past. The cat I see does not exist except in the past which is a construct with no physical attributes except the “pictures” we see in our heads. Everything we perceive is dependent on our belief system of reality which depends on everything we experienced in the past. But the past does not exist. There seems to be a subconscious dynamic here that compels us to create the past in order to maintain a reality dependent on linear time otherwise we cannot make sense of anything. Time exists because we need it to exist in order to make sense of what we choose to believe is real and to up the meaning we attach to everything else we experience.

    The picture created in the head which you have presented in the post of the flying parrot lacks the unique past of the observer which is the essential ingredient in perception. The computer is unable to do that because of the limitless possibilities for past experiences.

    The question you ask is important to me because it resonates with an idea in my head that my perception is limited by the “software” I am using. When you ask where is the cat I “know” I have made it up in my head. I “know” that there is a physical presence there via my five senses but there is something else not tied by space but by time and that is why I “know” the cat as I perceive it does not exist because space and time are also constructs like Windows is the platform for some computers. We use Windows in order to create a common experience without which no communication could occur.

    Our physical bodies are actually a way for us to communicate but for some strange reason we have all identified with the body believing ourselves to be our bodies and that makes us invest our energies in also believing that we are separate. But that is a story for another day. Thank you for sparking off this debate and I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with myself and the meaning I made up for all the reactions you received.


    • Warren Davies says:


      Many thanks for the thought-out comment. Yeah I see what you mean about talking to ourselves, since our minds our constructing our experience. It’s a pretty weird thing to think when you put it like that. And everyone knows that text over the internet can be interpreted in a completely different way that what you mean. Same with face-to-face conversation but on a more subtle level I guess. But even though there’s some error we clearly express and comprehend meanings closely enough to get by. I’m not sure that everything we perceive is dependent on beliefs. From what I’ve read, it’s more like we have a perceptual system that operates in more or less the same way in everyone (not completely the same e.g., colour blindedness), and our beliefs are more like filters than determinants of that perception, refining it rather than creating it.

      I sense that you’re quite sold on the idea that reality is non-materialistic, at least from what I can gather from the conversation I’m having with myself based on what you wrote, you might have a view closer to some Buddhist and new-age ideas, where consciousness is the fundamental “thing” of reality, and material things exist within and arise from consciousness. As opposed to the scientific view which says the opposite. That is another interesting discussion, I have been writing some posts along those lines. What I’m concluding is that all models of reality are unfalsifiable, or at least I don’t know of a way that can falsify them. So it is very hard to write about without arbitrarily choosing one model over another. But like you say that’s a story for another day.


  • Eduardo Reis says:

    Hi Warren,

    (I’m portuguese, so be prepared for some strangeness in these english words.)

    I think it’s not helpfull to say that the scientific point of view is opposite to the buddhist point of view, or other…
    What’s opposite to buddhist is the current theory or paradigm embraced by academic people.

    The truth – we hope – is universal.

    I think is more correct to say that there is one thing called scientific method ( – i’ll call it OHEP – Observation, Hypotheses and Experiment Protocol – to emphasize some things ahead), and, that “some” academic people use it, or try to use. But other’s use it, even though they’re not aware of any label.

    In practice the OHEP is seldom used, if ever. Is more the HEOP – Meaning that first, intuitions of possible patterns arise; and they’re all biased, by things, like nature/nurture/or something else.

    The first, or at least one of the first bias comes in the question asked.

    I don’t know how to solve the hard problem, but it seems that before newton (XVII century) “the nature of Movement” had a similar transcendental carisma, and then not. It was not explained, movement. No one ever explained “what is movement” but everone seem to be satisfied by describing it. That’s cinemetics (the description of movement).
    Could it be, that if and when we be able to described every jolt of consciousness we stay sastisfied?

  • don salmon says:

    hi, i’m not sure if anything can be said in an online discussion that will make a difference – but I’ll try! My essay “Shaving Science With Ockham’s Razor” goes into this in more detail, but here’s the briefest look at another view:

    Whenever Dennett, Crick, Blakemore etc try to explain the kind of challenge you’re offering: Where is the image of the cat:

    and they direct you to the “brain”

    they overlook a simple problem:

    Where is the image of the “brain”

    if they say it’s in the brain, they’re just resorting to a tautology.

    For the philosophically literate, I’d like to caution you – I’m not advocating any philosophic position here, just asking a question. you might think I’m proposing Idealism of some variety, but I’m not.

    In a way, you could say I’m inviting you to deconstruct ALL philosophic positions and just look.

    I think the more you just look, the more absurd materialism becomes. It is the ultimate in hypertrophied, left-mode abstraction.

    Well, that’s enough for now.

    Oh, ok one more thing – I was surprised, as a psychologist, to find out from Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary” that schizophrenia really didn’t exist until the 18th century. McGilchrist attributes the rise of schizophrenia to the dominance of left-mode thinking in Western culture (“left mode” to distinguish it from pop left brain/right brain cliches). And he quite credibly, I think, connects imbalanced left mode thinking to materialism.

    Thanks for your interesting article.

    • don salmon says:

      hey, i just looked up your background. Masters in applied positive psychology – cool!

      • don salmon says:

        ok, one more thought. Best person on positive psychology in the whole world (but he doesn’t call his work positive psychology); Dan Siegel. Start with Mindsight, or with “Whole Brain Child” if you want a real easy overview – fast to read, very practical to apply. If you want the heavy textbook with tons of research (he had a team of 15 graduate students spend the summer reviewing 2000 studies to make sure there were no basic errors) try The Developing Mind, 2nd edition.

    • Warren Davies says:

      Yes, I’ve had someone say that we should give the material model a chance here, because maybe we will someday find where the cat is in the material world. Even though I can’t imagine that, we don’t really know.

      Regarding schizophrenia, I haven’t read that book but I’d think that theory would be unfalsifiable, since you can’t diagnose people who have been dead for hundreds of years. The link to “left-mode” thinking is empirical — first you need to define “left-mode” specifically, find a way to measure it, then you can study it alongside schizophrenia. Without the definition, measurement and evidence, it’s just conjecture.

  • Marc Immanuel says:

    By ”where is the cat” what is actually meant, to say it accurately, where is the image of the cat that is subjectively seen?

    My answer to that, which is based on direct insight into the answer, is that this image is precisely there where it seen, that is, in the subjective mind, the actual consciousness.

    Then the question is, where is the actual consciousness, the actual subjective experience?

    If I look inside your brain for the actual image of the cat you see, or for your actual sensations, actual thoughts, actual emotions, etc, I will not find these anywhere in there. I will find physical energy, neurons, electrochemical activity, but not your actual mind.

    So, mind, or consciousness, must, in my view, be distinguished from the brain, as well as from the whole physical universe. There is a direct correlation between mind and brain, but the two are not the same.

    So where is the mind?

    It is in itself. The mind is where it is, that is, in the mind itself.

    Mind has reality or existence in itself, and this existence underlies every physical life-form, lying within its own transcendent mind-space.

    Therefore, I distinguish the transcendent and immaterial realm of mind from the physical realm (whatever the physical realm may actually be in itself).

    I also view this immaterial realm of mind — or Mind — as essentially a universal realm, pervading all individuated minds.

    I identify this universal realm of Mind with the Absolute, or Ultimate Reality, the immaterial Essence of all Being, timeless and formless, without beginning or ending, self-existing, all-pervading.

    As for the physical world experience, I believe we all experience, as a construct formed in our own minds, our own phenomenal projections of whatever the physical world is in itelf.

    I don’t know what the physical universe actually is in itself. But given an Absolute which is essentially immaterial Mind, my best guess would be that the physical universe is actually an Idea within the Absolute, which is presented to our individuated minds. What it may be, it is actually unfathomamoble to our little minds….

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