Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness, by Mark Solms

Review by Terence Jagger

This is a fascinating book, one I bought after hearing the author give an inspiring presentation to the Royal Institution. He starts by recounting how his personal experience as a young child propelled him into neuropsychology: as a child of four, he witnessed his six year old brother fall three stories onto concrete paving – the sound of something like a watermelon cracking open. His brother fractured his skull, but recovered physically quite well, although he was lucky to do so – but Mark noticed that his brother’s personality had changed, he was “no longer there”.

[The] nature of consciousness may be the most difficult topic in science … because you are your consciousness … [and] because of two puzzles that have bedevilled thinking for centuries. 

These are the mind/body problem (how does the physical brain give rise to your phenomenal experience?), and the other minds problem (minds are subjective, so you can only know your own – how can you tell if anybody else has one, let alone understand it?).  These problems have elicited three major scientific responses, which set the scene for Solms’ own radical work:

  • Behaviourism, which systematically applied the experimental method, but excluded all subjective phenomena – ie, everything the mind’s owner could tell them about it.  This was a reaction to Freud and his dominant discourse based on dreams, but it excluded much which almost everybody thinks central to minds – emotions, perceptions, desires.
  • Cognitive psychology, which looked inside the black box of the mind, but in terms of understanding a computer, through information processing.
  • Cognitive neuroscience, which focuses on the hardware of the mind, but now with techniques which allow us to measure and observe the living brain directly.

But when Solms entered the field, he found that he was not studying the mind itself, but the component, functional parts of it.  He had entered neuropsychology with the hope that it would quickly enable me to learn how the brain generates subjectivity.  He was disabused of this notion, and warned that such thoughts were bad for his career!  So he started investigating one area which was respectable – the brain in sleep and wakefulness, including dreams.  And here he made startling discoveries very quickly.

But he also found time to come to London from South Africa (he was born in Namibia) to train as a psychoanalyst, something his peers frowned upon, but which was a response to his increasingly strong conviction that understanding the brain and mind could not exclude the direct personal experience of the people whose personalities and existences they embodied.  I have spent the last three decades trying to return subjectivity to neuroscience.

He introduces one of the central ideas of his life’s work under the title “the cortical fallacy”, the idea that consciousness is seated in the cortex, the big, young part of the brain which is the seat of intelligence.  So, for example, unfortunate children with hydranencephaly, who are born without a cortex at all – the space is filled with fluid – should essentially exist autonomically, ie they could eat, breath, urinate, defecate, etc, but would essential be passive, living, but without intentionality, and emotionality.  But he gives an example of a group of such children taken by neuroscientist Bjorn Merker to Disney World – and they seemed to him to show pleasure, excitement, and so on.  Further work showed them making volitional efforts to enjoy themselves, by touching a musical toy for example.

Contrary to the traditional approach of ignoring the subjective, such as feelings and emotions, Solms sees them as absolutely central.  He asks, how can you consider the person and their consciousness without considering the main manifestation of their personality?  Many important functions are either entirely or normally unconscious – breathing, regulating blood pressure, digestion; and many things can be unconscious – complex experiments prove this to be true of learning and remembering, for example – but feelings are always conscious, because if they are not they are not feelings.  And emotions are what he calls valenced, that is, they have a good/bad value, unlike other forms of sense perception.  So seeing a blue colour, or hearing a trumpet are not in themselves intrinsically good or bad, but feeling fear, disgust, hunger are bad, and removing them, by escaping, moving away, or eating produces feelings which are correspondingly good.  And they drive action: if you are hungry, you seek food.

He offers a taxonomy of the basic emotions produced by Jaak Panksepp, which is largely accepted, and which shows a great deal of commonality not just across all human beings, but across primates, and indeed all mammals, covering the seven basic emotions of Lust, Seeking, Rage, Fear, Panic/Grief, Care and Play.

Neuropsychology has long assumed that if a particular region of the brain has a particular function, then a complete lesion there will result in a complete loss of that function.  As the examples of hydranencephalic children show – and horrible experiments with dogs as well – this does just not hold true of the cortex and consciousness (and the experiments in dogs, which showed consciousness when the cortex had been removed, were a major force in ending such experiments).  So the cortex as consciousness theory is in trouble.  But in the mid nineteenth century, it was also demonstrated that tiny incisions in the reticulate core of the brainstem – an amazingly old part of the brain, which exists in all vertebrates, including fishes – do cause coma, the loss of consciousness.  The traditional view of human specialness – we have a huge, unique cortex, and we are alone (perhaps questionable now) in having self-consciousness, so the two are cause and effect – is seriously challenged by this evidence.  Of course, these could be because the brainstem is the source of consciousness, or it could be that it is like a power cable – it doesn’t produce the picture, but cutting it disables the television.

But in fact, electrical and chemical stimulation of the reticulate brainstem dramatically changes mood and emotions; and during episodes of rage, grief, seeking and fear, the highest metabolic activity occurs in this region.  Consciousness and the only brain activity for which consciousness appears an essential part, the feelings, seem firmly located in this old area of the brain, utterly different to the traditional view.

But how does this work?  Is there still something especially human, or does this mean many animals have emotions and consciousness, at least at some level.  At this point, it gets a bit harder – free energy and entropy enter the debate.

Solms worked with Karl Friston, the world’s most influential neuroscientist, to develop ideas on how free energy and entropy inform our understanding of consciousness.  All self-organising systems, including animals like us, have an overriding imperative, to keep existing, which they do through managing (limiting) their free energy.  They do this through a process of homeostasis, keeping within tight limits – temperature, blood pressure, and many others – which must be neither too hot nor too cold, but “just right”.  To do this, they need to fight entropy the tendency of systems to move towards disorganisation and chaos – and to keep their identity.  We have boundaries, there’s a point which is you – then a point which is something else – the chair, the atmosphere, your shirt;

You cannot equalise with the ambient, as hot water does when you add it to a cold bath. Hot water doesn’t remain separate from the cold in a large globule under the tap.  But you do – you must, to stay alive – and this requires work.

Solms’ view is that the tendency of self-organising systems, because they strive to preserve themselves and actively separate themselves from their surroundings, provides the elemental basis for selfhood. The Markov blanket – the concept that marks the boundary between the system and the rest of the world – means that systems can only register the outside world through their own external sensory states, and this constitutes the elemental basis of subjectivity (though this is not of course sentient in the vast majority of systems).

From here, Solms goes on to discuss how consciousness arises, and notes first that affects (eg, hunger, fear, disgust) are always subjective, valenced, and qualitative. They have to be, given the control problem they evolved to handle. You – your brain – has often to decide between competing affects – to eat because you’re hungry, to run away because you’re afraid, or to go to the toilet?  It does this according to experience, including inherited experience in the form of instincts, immediate sensory inputs, and how assessing and reassessing the errors inherent in the sensory inputs.  The language here becomes quite technical (though this is unusual and there is a helpful three page summary of the book’s whole argument at the end), but Solms can then say, in one of the boldest sentences in any science book I have ever read:

This, I submit, is consciousness.  

Although he has been determined to lead us away from the cortex as the fount of consciousness, the cortex of course does play a hugely important role in consciousness and how we see the world every day.  He is clear that our perception of the world is the brain’s perception, not reality “as it actually is” – for example, our brain is processing electrical signals, not light, to produce a visual image, and interprets the world – for example, to fill in your blind spot, to assign colour, and to resolve ambiguities – for example, if you are shown a face in one eye and a house in the other, the brain does not superimpose them, because it knows that is very unlikely, but alternates them; but when you show a cage and a canary separately, one in each eye, the brain puts the canary inside the cage because that it what it knows (this is the source of many visual puzzles and unreliable evidence!). What you perceive is an inference.

The brain is trying not to work, to be autonomic, but of course it can’t achieve this, because the world is complex and rapidly changing in a million ways at every moment.  But things which are 100% predictable are information free, and are ignored.  If you are not convinced, see the “lilac chaser” illusion, Lilac chaser – Wikipedia, which shows how easily and quickly your mind completely ignores and obliterates things (sequential purple dots in this case) which are definitely there, when they become automatic or information free; the illusion, incidentally, also shows you how easily you can see something – a moving green dot – which is most assuredly not there.

At this stage, Solms’ argument about the source and nature of consciousness is essentially complete.  But he finishes off the book with two chapters which are as interesting and compelling as anything that has gone before.  The first of these is about the “hard problem”, the question of how sensory inputs and physiological processes give rise to consciousness.  His answer to this is simple – this is the wrong question – they do not “give rise” to consciousness, any more than lightning gives rise to thunder – they are both manifestations of the same cause: so there is no “explanatory gap” between the electrical signals propagated from the retina and the sensation of vivid red, they are different ways of observing the same thing.  There is still a hard question, how experiences like seeing red – qualia the philosophers call them – arise, but it is not the hard question we have been asking for centuries.  Some philosophers and scientists respond to qualia by saying that they are not real, not part of the physical universe.  But Solms is robustly dismissive:

I have always found it impossible to accept either the argument that conscious qualia exist in some parallel universe or the argument that they do not exist at all.  And so should you, because you are your consciousness.

Finally, there is a chapter called Making a Mind, in which he discusses the practicality and ethics of making a mind physically, that is, making a machine which be able to become conscious, to experience uncertainty and valence (goodness or badness) in its efforts to preserve itself.  He concludes that this is theoretically achievable, and explains how he and colleagues are trying to do it, tackling formidable scientific and ethical problems along the way.

And then he ends the book with a brief reflection on feelings (the heart of consciousness) I found moving as well as instructive:

So, as we relinquish the familiar illusion that consciousness flows in through our senses, and the misconception that it is synonymous with understanding, let us take comfort in the fact that it actually comes spontaneously from our inmost interior. It dawns within us even before we are born. At its source, we are guided by a constant stream of feelings, flowing from a wellspring of intuition, arising from we know not where. Each of us individually does not know the causes, but we feel them. Feelings are a legacy that the whole of history of life has bestowed upon us, to steel us for the uncertainties to come.

Its a demanding book to read, but it has come closer than anything else I have ever read to shining a light on a central facet of our humanity, and I hugely enjoyed the experience, which will lead to further explorations.

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Mark Solms, The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness  (Profile Books, 2021). 978-1788162838, 305pp., hardback.

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