Mapping Perceptual Presence

Perception seems to give us direct access to reality. Researchers often articulate this point in terms of a special ‘presence’ characteristic of perception. Presence is what allows us to distinguish our perceptions from imagery or memories. Disturbances of presence seem to be a crucial factor in several mental disorders, including schizophrenia, delirium, and PTSD. Surprisingly, however, researchers rarely address presence explicitly, let alone analyse it in detail.

The aim of this research project is to answer the following overarching research question: What is perceptual presence, and how does it manifest or fail to manifest in a variety of pathological as well as non-pathological experiences? We hypothesize that presence comprises several distinct phenomena. The results will be of value to several disciplines, including philosophy and psychiatry. The project will disentangle these phenomena, and determine their structures and the relations between them.


Presence is supposed to be a salient aspect of normal perceptual experience. As such, it is of crucial interest to philosophers seeking to elucidate the nature of perceptual consciousness. Equally, psychologists and neuroscientists will be concerned to discover the underlying cognitive or neurophysiological mechanisms. As for psychiatry, many mental disorders seem to involve a disturbance of ‘presence’ in some sense of the term—e.g., hallucinations in psychotic disorders and vivid flashbacks in PTSD seem perceptually to present things and events that are not there, or not occurring now. Conversely, normal perceptual presence seems to be attenuated in experiences of derealisation in schizophrenia or depression, in which the surroundings may appear strange, artificial, or unreal.

We hypothesize that what is called ‘presence’ in the cross-disciplinary literature in fact comprises several distinct phenomena. Our working hypothesis is that three related, but nevertheless distinct experiential phenomena are found in the literature – we label them Being-there, Reality, and Directness. Being-there is the experience of being oneself present (or situated) in an environment, whether virtual or real. Reality is the sense that experienced objects or events are real, i.e., actually exist or are happening. Directness is the sense that objects or events are presented or made manifest (‘placed directly before the mind’) in perceptual experience. Furthermore, we hypothesize that these phenomena may come apart in various ways (e.g., one may experience something as real without having a sense of it as being directly presented to one). But most likely these phenomena will be connected in important ways that we hope to be able to determine—e.g., one possibly never has a sense of something as being directly presented without also experiencing it as real.

The project Mapping Perceptual Presence will disentangle the various presence phenomena, determine their relation of dependence, and the extent to which they can be dissociated. It will garner important insights into subtly different phenomenal features that researchers so far have lumped together under the umbrella term of ‘presence’.



Mapping Perceptual Presence is divided into three interrelated sub-projects (SPs), each answering its own research questions:

Sub-Project 1. Dimensions of Presence

SP1 will answer the following research questions:

  • What is presence?
  • Can some presence phenomena be disassociated, and do some always go together?
  • Are some of these phenomena more fundamental that others?

SP1 is the hub of the entire project. It will establish the theoretical foundation for the entire research project, and it is where results from the two other SPs are consolidated. In the initial phase of SP1, we review the multidisciplinary literature on presence, aiming to demarcate the phenomena of presence described therein. On this basis, we elaborate on and, if necessary, adjust and refine our working hypothesis that three phenomena of presence are in play. Once the presence phenomena are clearly demarcated, SP1 will determine the relations between them, including possible patterns of dependence (e.g., does Being-there always go together with Reality?) and dissociation (e.g., can there be Reality without Directness?). We will pay particular attention to cases where some presence phenomena are instantiated, but not others, as well as to disturbances of presence (e.g., an attenuated sense of Being-there in normal perception).

Sub-Project 2. Reality Lost and Found: Disturbances of Presence in Mental Disorders (PhD 1)

SP2 will answer the following research question:

  • How is presence disturbed in mental disorders such as schizophrenia, PTSD, delirium, etc.?

Disturbances of presence may manifest in different ways. For example, presence phenomena may feature in experiences that do not afford access to reality – e.g., in hallucinations or experiences of Anwesenheit (a compelling sense that someone or something is present in one’s proximity but never perceived as such) – or lack in experiences that do give us access to the world (e.g., in derealisation). Drawing on the foundational work in SP1, SP2 investigates how presence phenomena may be distorted in pathological experiences, and which phenomena are distorted in which pathological cases. SP2 examines the literature on relevant pathological experiences, including reviews, empirical studies, and first-person accounts.

For example, while derealisation experiences are often said to involve a diminished sense of the reality of the world, patients also frequently talk about a sense of being in a bubble, detached from reality, or separated from it by a glass wall. This might suggest that what is at stake, in some cases at least, is a diminished sense of Being-there – the very experience of feeling present in the world. Moreover, hallucinations manifest differently in different mental disorders, e.g., in states of organic disorder, alcohol-induced delirium tremens, and schizophrenia, and they may potentially be characterized by distortions of different presence phenomena. For example, hallucinations in schizophrenia are often not associated with appropriate behaviour, whereas this typically is the case for hallucinations in alcohol-induced delirium tremens (e.g., attempting to remove hallucinated ants from one’s body). A possible explanation for this striking difference in behavioural reactions to hallucinations may be differences in the sense of Being-there. Patients with schizophrenia frequently report that their hallucinations are given as a kind of breakthrough to another, ‘higher’ reality, detached from and not anchored in the ordinary world in which we live. Determining which phenomena are distorted – and which are not – in several types of pathological experience will provide valuable input to SP1 (e.g., revealing relations of dependence between different phenomena) and SP3 (e.g., by providing counterexamples to specific accounts of presence).

Sub-Project 3. The Nature of Presence: Contents, Feelings, and Relations of Acquaintance (PhD 2)

SP3 will answer the following research question:

  • What is the nature and structure of presence?

While some researchers agree that presence must be located in the representational content of perception, they disagree on the specifics. For example, some point to the supposed fact that experiences have ‘causally self-referential’ content – i.e., an experience represents objects or scenes as causes of itself. Others suggest that presence is a matter of the ‘counterfactual richness’ of the representational content, e.g., a visual experience not only represents the facing side of an object, but also encodes information about other sides that would come into view, if the viewer moved in this or that way. Yet, other theorists invoke a relation of ‘brute acquaintance’ between a subject and something else. Views then differ widely on what that ‘something else’ is – ordinary physical objects, mind-dependent sense-data, or the representational content itself, etc. Finally, there are those who believe presence is not a feature of perceptual experience itself, but rather something that accompanies perceptual experiences, such as a cognitive feeling or a doxastic state.

In light of the catalogue of presence phenomena SP1 will deliver, it is an intriguing possibility that more than one theory could be correct. For example, it could be the case that Being-there was a feature of the content of an experience, while Reality was a feeling or a doxastic state (e.g., a belief), and Directness a matter of ‘brute acquaintance’ with something. But this is only one out of a multitude of possibilities. By clarifying the nature of presence, SP3 will provide valuable insights that will inform SP1’s endeavour to make the results of the project relevant to a wider audience. Moreover, the conceptual tools deployed in SP3 (e.g., articulating experiences in terms of representational contents, phenomenological characteristics, etc.) will benefit the work on clinical phenomena in SP2.





Name Title Phone E-mail
Henriksen, Mads Gram Associate Professor +4535335597 E-mail
Nielsen, Kasper Møller PhD Fellow   E-mail
Oppi, Laura PhD Fellow +4535323866 E-mail
Overgaard, Søren Associate Professor +4535328687 E-mail

Affiliated researchers