Conscious experiences involve subjective qualities, such as colours, sounds, smells and emotions. In this Perspective, we argue that these subjective qualities can be understood in terms of their similarity to other experiences. This account highlights the role of memory in conscious experience, even for simple percepts. How an experience feels depends on implicit memory of the relationships between different perceptual representations within the brain. With more complex experiences such as emotions, explicit memories are also recruited. We draw inspiration from work in machine learning as well as the cognitive neuroscience of learning and decision making to make our case and discuss how the account could be tested in future experiments. The resulting findings might help to reveal the functions of subjective experience and inform current theoretical debates on consciousness.