To actually answer the question: no, I don't have a good way to try to explain this. The principle that's at stake is the claim that 'like knows like.' Which is to say, there has to be a kind of isomorphism between the knower and the thing known, if that knower really knows
the thing known at all. St. Thomas talks about this principle when he discusses Plato's epistemological errors in I, 84, 1.
Now it seems that Plato strayed from the truth because, having observed that all knowledge takes place through some kind of similitude, he thought that the form of the thing known must of necessity be in the knower in the same manner as in the thing known. Then he observed that the form of the thing understood is in the intellect under conditions of universality, immateriality, and immobility: which is apparent from the very operation of the intellect, whose act of understanding has a universal extension, and is subject to a certain amount of necessity: for the mode of action corresponds to the mode of the agent's form. Wherefore he concluded that the things which we understand must have in themselves an existence under the same conditions of immateriality and immobility.
But there is no necessity for this. For even in sensible things it is to be observed that the form is otherwise in one sensible than in another: for instance, whiteness may be of great intensity in one, and of a less intensity in another: in one we find whiteness with sweetness, in another without sweetness. In the same way the sensible form is conditioned differently in the thing which is external to the soul, and in the senses which receive the forms of sensible things without receiving matter, such as the color of gold without receiving gold. So also the intellect, according to its own mode, receives under conditions of immateriality and immobility, the species of material and mobile bodies: for the received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver. We must conclude, therefore, that through the intellect the soul knows bodies by a knowledge which is immaterial, universal, and necessary.
And this kind of intellectual knowledge is distinguished from sensation by way of that immateriality. He talk about sensation in I, 78,3.
Now, immutation is of two kinds, one natural, the other spiritual. Natural immutation takes place by the form of the immuter being received according to its natural existence, into the thing immuted, as heat is received into the thing heated. Whereas spiritual immutation takes place by the form of the immuter being received, according to a spiritual mode of existence, into the thing immuted, as the form of color is received into the pupil which does not thereby become colored. Now, for the operation of the senses, a spiritual immutation is required, whereby an intention of the sensible form is effected in the sensile organ. Otherwise, if a natural immutation alone sufficed for the sense's action, all natural bodies would feel when they undergo alteration.
But in some senses we find spiritual immutation only, as in "sight" while in others we find not only spiritual but also a natural immutation; either on the part of the object only, or likewise on the part of the organ. On the part of the object we find natural immutation, as to place, in sound which is the object of "hearing"; for sound is caused by percussion and commotion of air: and we find natural immutation by alteration, in odor which is the object of "smelling"; for in order to exhale an odor, a body must be in a measure affected by heat. On the part of an organ, natural immutation takes place in "touch" and "taste"; for the hand that touches something hot becomes hot, while the tongue is moistened by the humidity of the flavored morsel. But the organs of smelling and hearing are not affected in their respective operations by any natural immutation unless indirectly.
Now, the sight, which is without natural immutation either in its organ or in its object, is the most spiritual, the most perfect, and the most universal of all the senses. After this comes the hearing and then the smell, which require a natural immutation on the part of the object; while local motion is more perfect than, and naturally prior to, the motion of alteration, as the Philosopher proves (Phys. viii, 7). Touch and taste are the most material of all: of the distinction of which we shall speak later on (ad 3,4). Hence it is that the three other senses are not exercised through a medium united to them, to obviate any natural immutation in their organ; as happens as regards these two senses.
There are different ways of receiving form (immutation). You might receive the form naturally--the metal becomes hot, say--or you might receive them spiritually--the person holding the metal becomes aware
of the heat. If just receiving a form naturally were sufficient for sensation, then the metal
would feel the heat. So, roughly put, this second way of receiving form is what distinguishes simply becoming F from becoming aware of F. And there's a kind of continuum in the way becoming aware of F happens. With some senses, there must be a natural immutation in us, preceding the spiritual immutation. In other senses (viz. sight) there is no natural immutation. But you can see from the way St. Thomas talks about these ways of receiving form that he's got a kind of analogous notion in mind. And when it comes to intellectual awareness--what he's talking about in the passage above--it's still another sort of reception. The wholly immaterial, universal, kind of reception.