The Hidden Spring

I’ve been following the views of Mark Solms for a while. Much of my original interest was in his views on psychoanalysis and Freud, especially aspects of Freudian theory for which evidence in neuroscience has gradually accumulated. His book The Brain and the Inner World (with Oliver Trumbull) was a great introduction to some of those issues. This interest was for a project which has since fallen by the wayside, perhaps never to be revived. I also quoted Solms quite a bit in previous post I did on learning and consciousness. So it was with particular interest when I found that he had written a more general work, The Hidden Spring, on the topic of consciousness.

<= DIY fountain with “hidden spring” in lower pot. Two pots and pump.

The book actually seems to be three books in one, although there is no tidy division in the actual structure of the book itself.

The first part of the book is somewhat autobiographical and deals with how he became a psychoanalyst and a neuroscientist. These two professions are not usually seen as compatible. Psychoanalysts talk to people on couches about their dreams and pry into the details of their childhood (at least in popular view). Neuroscientists look at EEGs MRIs, neurons, and brain structures. Anyone, but a behaviorist, who actually gives the matter some thought, would likely see some wisdom in making the approaches complementary rather than opposed. The domain of psychoanalysis is subjective experience as reported by the patient. Its fundamental work was the “talking cure“. The domain of the neuroscientist is the brain. It would seem logical that subjective experience, which we presume is generated by the brain, would tell us something about the brain and that activity in the brain might correlate with subjective experience. Mark Solms has spent most of his career at exactly this intersection of brain and experience, pioneering in a field he calls neuropsychoanalysis. He has written several places about how he thinks the “talking cure” actually works to change things in the brain. In this autobiographical part of the book, one of the most interesting things I learned was Solms’ pioneering work on dreams and how he validated to an extent Freud’s understanding of dreams as wish fulfillment: the activity in the brain during dreams is primarily in dopamine circuits, essentially the pleasure circuits of the brain. Freudian observations are scattered throughout the book but are for the most part not essential to the arguments of the other parts of the book.

The second part or aspect of the book is Solms’ view that consciousness originates in the brainstem. The brainstem, as one might suspect, is at the base of the brain, more or less at the top the spine, and below all of big chunks of the brain we see in the typical illustrations of the human brain. The brainstem is regarded as an evolutionary old part of the brain. It has a role in managing basic bodily functions like respiration, heart rate, and importantly the wake and sleep cycles. Solms has noted that damage to even a small number of certain neurons in the brainstem results in an irreversible coma. That observation, along with Solms’ argument that hydrocephalic children are conscious are key points in his argument that the brainstem is source of consciousness. They were initially persuasive to me when I read them a few years ago. Most neuroscientists, along with Freud himself, think consciousness to originate in the cortex. Of course, as humans with enormous cortexes, many of these neuroscientists may have a conscious or unconscious human bias in attributing consciousness to the cortex. We ourselves have large cortexes. Primates have relatively large cortexes. Mammals have relatively large cortexes. Everywhere we look where we see animals who might most likely be conscious we see relatively large cortexes compared to other animals. Naturally we might tend to think consciousness to be something coming from the cortex.

For Solms consciousness fundamentally consists in feelings. Frankly the more I’ve tried to understand this view the less I am persuaded by it. At one point, Solms explains that feelings are always conscious. He then goes on to quote Freud in support of the idea but the quote from Freud is about emotion, not feeling. He then states: “For now, let me be absolutely clear about what I mean by the term ‘feeling’: I mean that aspect of an emotion (or any affect) that you feel“. This is hardly any definition at all. It is saying “feeling” is what you feel. If we are equating, even partially, “emotion” and “feeling” then I can’t see how much that passes before my daily consciousness is emotion or feeling. Like anyone else, I have feelings and emotions but they do not dominate my day to day consciousness. I can’t see how, as I stare at a computer screen now and gather my words for this sentence, much emotion is involved with it. I do have a “feeling” of being like something in the Nagle sense but how that relates to emotion isn’t clear. Even more perplexing is why a Freudian would think that feelings must always be consciousness. It would seem unconscious feelings are persuasive through the Freudian menagerie of complexes and neuroses. Solms himself acknowledges on the same page with his definition that many psychoanalysts disagree with his view that feelings cannot be unconscious.

Let’s acknowledge that defining consciousness isn’t easy. It is something we all know from our experience but that experience consists of a great many things: memories, dreams, random thoughts, sights and sounds, pleasures and pains, and occasionally a good idea or two mingled among the bad ideas. The only commonality is a sense that we are something, know something, or we are experiencing something, although sometimes even the sense of being something is lost to what we are experiencing. If this is what Solms is saying, it improves little on Nagle’s definition and, by itself, gives no support to the brainstem theory. What I seem to be experiencing at any one point is usually a mixture of cognition, sensual impressions, and general feelings about my well-being. Lumping this together as “feeling” doesn’t seem to help to elucidate its nature. Similarly lumping it all together as some sort of cognitive image seems to leave out real emotions and feelings.

Defining consciousness as feeling is related to locating its origin with the brainstem. Solms finds evidence that hydrocephalic children with small, almost non-existent cortexes are conscious, so a brainstem locus for consciousness would be consistent with that evidence. The observation that irreversible coma results from damage to parts of the brainstem would be consistent as well. Locating consciousness in the most primitive part of the brain allows for the possibility that most animals would have some degree of consciousness and would eliminate a requirement for higher cognitive abilities that we associate larger cortexes. In other writings, Solms has compared to the cortex to the RAM of a computer. It has the ability to form the contents of consciousness but consciousness itself is like a flashlight originating in the brainstem that shines on the images in the cortex to make them conscious. The brainstem in effects adds the feeling to the content that is elsewhere in the larger brained animals.

Of course, placing consciousness in the brainstem and placing it in the cortex does not have to be an either/or proposition. If consciousness emerges as a distinct system whenever a certain critical mass (perhaps small in number) of neurons began to operate in a integrated manner with wave-like oscillations, then children with little or no cortex and small brained animals, such as insects and worms, could all be conscious to some degree. Humans with their large cortexes would be conscious as well but their consciousness would arise from a system that arises over a much larger mass of integrated and oscillating neurons. The brainstem in humans would not only be a participant in larger consciousness but also its chief enabler in its role in the wake cycle which, in turn, generates the transmitters that makes possible the faster, complex oscillations of the cortex that are associated with consciousness.

The third part of the book is all about Karl Friston’s free energy theories about the brain. Friston thinks that the brain (also cells and life in general) is constantly trying to minimize free energy. It is in a constant battle to maintain its internal order and homeostasis. To do this it must constantly learn and adapt to its external environment. The key to doing this is to minimize surprise, to keep internal predictions matching the external world. The brain is an inference engine that is constantly trying to reconcile the internal with the external. It can do this either by adjusting the internal model or taking actions in the external world to change it.

The theory is a good bit more complicated than that and buttressed by considerable mathematics. Friston himself, however, acknowledges it is not falsifiable.

Solms seems somewhat enthralled with the theory but I find it difficult to mesh with the rest of his theories. I can’t see, for example, how it relates to brainstem as origin of consciousness or consciousness as feelings. In fact, it seems much more like a cognitive theory with feelings playing primarily the role of gross indicator of congruity between the internal and external worlds. The theory does point to learning as primary explanation and role for consciousness. Yet Solms doesn’t reference Stephen Grossberg’s Adaptive Resonance Theory that explicitly explains that the “processes whereby our brains continue to learn about a changing world in a stable fashion throughout life are proposed to lead to conscious experiences”. Nor does it reference Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka and their argument that complex learning as an evolutionary marker for minimal consciousness. Grossberg’s theory, in fact, seems to have come to most of the same conclusions as Friston about the brain but a number of years earlier and without some of mathematical baggage.

Solms now seems to have embarked on a quest to create artificial consciousness by implementing Friston’s theories. I’m dubious the effort will succeed and he will end up with a device that feels. But then, how will he know if he has succeeded or not?

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15 Responses to The Hidden Spring

  1. I found his interest in psychoanalysis interesting, because his theories about consciousness do seem radically different from Freud’s. At least according to an Aeon article about Freud’s views. It described Freud as viewing all cognition as unconscious. The only thing he saw as conscious is what the brain reflects back at itself, a pretty higher order view.

    I’m with you on having issues with the feelings definition of consciousness. I think affective feelings are an important condition to trigger our intuition of consciousness, but saying that consciousness is feelings seems inverted. To have conscious feelings seems to require…consciousness. But it is true that a system that is aware of its environment without any feelings is unlikely to be regarded by most people as conscious.

    On the brainstem, I’ll repeat what I noted in my post. The forebrain / midbrain / hindbrain architecture in vertebrates is very ancient. The simplest vertebrates, such as lampreys, have a discernable forebrain. The forebrain appears to go back to the Cambrian. It is true that the forebrain in mammals, reptiles, and birds is far larger than in fish and amphibians. But that enlargement includes phylogenetically ancient components.

    I remain pretty hazy on the Free Energy Principle. I agree that many of its best features seem to be covered in other theories that seem far less convoluted.

    Anyway, good write up!

    Liked by 2 people

    • James Cross says:

      Originally I was thinking of adding some more on the FEP but then thought to go anymore into it I need to add a huge amount of content. I would also probably need to understand it a lot better.

      Where I’m a little mystified about it is its relationship to consciousness. Since it seemingly is applicable to all life in some sense what does consciousness add to it? You could argue all life is conscious. I’m not sure either Friston or Solms is saying that. That’s where the missing Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka analysis comes into play. But then if life itself was already operating on FEP how does learning change that to create consciousness? On the other hand, Friston himself calls out learning directly in the theory. In that case, is the theory not applicable to life in general?

      All in all, its relationship to life and consciousness seems somewhat problematic. Solms, I think, is sort of implicitly making a learning sort of argument when he is saying that consciousness is to handle new situations but I think he could draw the connection more explicitly. But then, how do learning and consciousness connect? What is it about learning that needs consciousness or would create it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m with you on not being sure about the scope of the FEP. All the talk about self organizing systems seems to tie it to life. Although to be precise, the phrase is “self evidencing system”, which might be a tighter scope. It’s the part about active inference that I think ties it more closely to systems we think of as conscious.

        Although even here, definitional issues can trip us up. Are we talking about automatic responses that are emergently predictive? For example, a plant seeks the light, not because it “knows” that it needs light, but because that’s just its automatic reactions. By the same token, a squirrel stores nuts, not because it knows it’ll need them later, but because that’s just what squirrels do. Here I think the learning aspect is crucial. We’re talking about systems that learn their predictions using Bayesian processing.

        I do think Solms links his conception of affects to learning, although I don’t recall him using the word “learning”. What he describes is the system adjusting its predictions to more closely match the incoming signal. That seems like a pretty basic form of learning, well short of the unlimited associative learning G&J discuss.

        All that said, my grasp of the FEP remains pretty uncertain. I felt like Solms gave one of the clearest descriptions of it I’ve seen, but that’s only because most descriptions of it seem mostly incomprehensible.

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          We’re in pretty strong agreement with this. If you look at the index, there are entries under learning but he doesn’t draw a lot of attention to it in the book itself, almost as if it is incidental to the argument. I wonder how it would be addressed in any artificial consciousness he tries to create. BTW, looking back on my previous post about low frequency oscillations, I think there could seem to be a model of how homeostasis and order is maintained with a minimum energy expenditure. At the same time, modifications to the oscillations, for the most part small and incremental, with record-keeping or memory would provide a mechanism for learning and adaptation.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Lee Roetcisoender says:

    “…of the most interesting things I learned was Solms’ pioneering work on dreams and how he validated to an extent Freud’s understanding of dreams as wish fulfillment: the activity in the brain during dreams is primarily in dopamine circuits, essentially the pleasure circuits of the brain.”

    I got a real kick out of this fluff explanation about dreams being wish fulfillment. If that is the case, then this old hippie needs some serious psychoanalysis because at the very earliest age of my recollection from age two onward, my dreams were filled with nightmares of epic struggles causing me to thrash in my bed often resulting in me falling out of the bed onto the floor. The brain is a stimulus machine, some brains more so and some less. But at the end of the day, if one’s brain is wired in such a way that the need for stimulus is excessive, then that particular organ will invent the stimuli that is necessary to satisfy its own intrinsic need.

    Have you ever heard of prosopagnosia? It is a condition that occurs after a specific area of the brain has been injured. In a nutshell, prosopagnosia is a condition where an adult child will not recognize the faces of someone they know, more often than not it is the parents. When they talk to the parents on the phone, or even talk with a partition between them the one with the condition “knows” that it is indeed their parents, but as soon as they see them with their eyes, they are convinced that these people are imposters and not their parents.

    Prosopagnosia is correlated with face recognition where a “feeling” is generated with that visual stimuli. In these patients, that feeling associated with the visual input is disrupted. They no longer experience a feeling associated with the visual. It is the feeling that they trust not the visual, and it is the feeling that rely upon for the confirmation of what they see is “true”. It appears that sentience is the arbiter of what is true and what is false, not logic derived from the intellect.

    This condition was identified by Freud, but dear old Sigmund claimed the condition was caused by a dissociation correlated with sexual desire. A young man may experience a sexual desire for his own mother, knowing that this sexual desire was unacceptable, the young man would dissociate himself from his mother as a son and claim that this woman was not his mother in order to justify his sexual desires. Yeah, dear or Sigmund Freud


    • James Cross says:

      “Many aspects of Freudian theory are indeed out of date, and they should be: Freud died in 1939, and he has been slow to undertake further revisions. His critics, however, are equally behind the times, attacking Freudian views of the 1920s as if they continue to have some currency in their original form. Psychodynamic theory and therapy have evolved considerably since 1939 when Freud’s bearded countenance was last sighted in earnest”.

      This is from The Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud:
      Toward a Psychodynamically Informed Psychological Science
      Drew Westen

      For some reason WP doesn’t like the link itself.

      From same:

      “The existence of unconscious cognitive processes, which were seen as the province of psychoanalysis just a decade ago, is now taken for granted by most cognitive scientists. What remains distinctive about the psychodynamic perspective is the view that affective and motivational processes can be unconscious as well. Logically, the assumption that cognition can be unconscious but affect and motivation must be conscious makes little sense. We have no reason to assume a parallel architecture for cognition but a serial architecture for emotion and motivation. Conscious emotions and motives do not “come out of the blue” any more than conscious thoughts do, and they often include or reflect cognitive components (such as attributions or interpretations) that presumably are assembled outside awareness, as are other cognitions”.

      Oddly this reference here supports my argument against Solms as well as your observation about prosopagnosia where cognition is shown to be somewhat disconnected from feelings in that particular case. I think in general consciousness is composed at least of cognition and feelings and probably a good many other things. Usually this stuff is bound together but in this condition some of the feeling part has gotten disconnected.


      • Lee Roetcisoender says:

        “…but in this condition some of the feeling part has gotten disconnected.”

        Prosopagnosia is a great example which demonstrates what the final arbiter actually is in our reasoning process, and that arbiter is feelings not logic. I remember watching a documentary on this condition several years ago. It was fascinating to see this dude with the condition talk to his parents on the phone, on the other side of a door etc, but as soon as they walked into his view of vision he immediately commented that even though they look like his parents, act like them and sound like them he was convinced that they were imposters. He could not explain his conclusion, he only “knew” that he was correct in his assessment and they were imposters, and there wasn’t anybody who could convince him otherwise.

        The structure of pure logic takes a back seat to feelings and sensations every time. I think the reason why this is true is because the structure of intellect just like any other type of structure is cold, heartless and completely void of feelings, whereas feelings in and of themselves are vibrantly rich and make this experience worth living. This is more than likely the reason why we as a species are reluctant to acknowledge that matter at the fundamental level experience feelings that are non-conceptual like a positive (+) and a negative (-) charge for example. Positive (+) and negative (-) charges are feelings that are non-conceptual, no intellect or information processing is required, the response is immanent. (No laws which command unwavering, unquestioning obedience from it unknowing, unsuspecting subjects is required either).

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          In the case of faces, sure I can understand that the final arbiter might be feelings. But faces are tied to early social learning and our relationships with the most important people in our lives when we are children. Faces are critical throughout our social lives and we are hugely social creatures. Strong feelings could also get attached to symbolic objects like flags, anthems, or Bibles. The early learning and social element of faces probably contributed towards Freud’s understanding.

          But let’s say we were looking at tables and chairs or other ordinary utilitarian objects. I don’t see how feelings would have much impact on our trying to find an ordinary spoon in a drawer.

          I think it would be more accurate to say perceptions are guided by cognition and feelings but in some cases the feeling component is strong and in other cases weak, almost non-existent.

          Certainly if we go back to single cell organisms or simple multi-celled ones perception, indeed, might be little more than a + or -. So the origins of consciousness possibly could be traced to such simple differentiation. However, I think as a more complex repertoire of perceptual capability and adaptation evolved, a much more feeling neutral type of perception had to develop.


  3. Lee Roetcisoender says:

    “But let’s say we were looking at tables and chairs or other ordinary utilitarian objects. I don’t see how feelings would have much impact on our trying to find an ordinary spoon in a drawer.”

    There are a lot of moving parts in our experience no question about that, but I do think that all of the those complexities reduce to something that is very simple and fundamental. And that some thing is feelings and sensations. The simple illustration above is a good example. What this particular example reduces to is the feeling or sensation of control, the ability to recognize objects and “know” what they are, manipulate them and use them for our own purposes. This “sensation” of control is coextensive with the “sensation” of self as it interacts in the world and it is the lack of control that directly impacts the sense of self in a very negative (-) way. This is exactly why we as a species cling with such ferocity to our own confirmational biases and actively seek out others who share those same confirmational biases. They give is that all important sense of being right which is nothing more than a “sensation” of control which directly reinforces the sense of self.

    “…I think as a more complex repertoire of perceptual capability and adaptation evolved, a much more feeling neutral type of perception had to develop.”

    Absolutely. The discrete system of rationality which is nothing more than binary information processing is itself feeling neutral. But that feeling neutral mechanism supports and eventually reduces back to something that is very simple and fundamental: a sense of self which is directly correlated with a sense of control. Rationality feeds into those fundamentals and is the feedback loop for the primal sensations of positive (+) or negative (-) feelings, feelings that are directly correlated to a sense of self all of which is underwritten by all important and absolutely essential sense of control.

    I apologize for going Freudian on you Jim, but a least I didn’t blame it all on sexual desire…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      Adding “knowing” to the list of “feelings” starts to put it into the cognitive realm for me. In this post, I myself added it as a thought:

      “The only commonality is a sense that we are something, know something, or we are experiencing something, although sometimes even the sense of being something is lost to what we are experiencing.”

      At one point, I was vaguely thinking that “knowing” might actually be a more apt description of “feeling”, perhaps as Solms means it, and combines what we think to be feeling with a cognitive element.

      BTW, Freud (except maybe the early Freud) didn’t blame it all on sexual desire. When he started to try to explain things like masochism, he introduced the idea of an opposite instinct – a sort of death instinct – and the idea that Eros and Thanatos interacted. Beyond the Pleasure Principle marks the point in this transition. Eros goes far beyond simple sexuality, especially genital sexuality. And the two are beyond a simple positive and negative. They represent two different urges in life – expansion, growth, merging and repetition, drive to homeostasis, ultimate urge to become lifeless again.

      I think maybe the positive/negative carries a little too much of a binary opposition. I’ve always like the Yin/Yang which are somewhat binary but also curved and woven around one another.


    • James Cross says:

      BTW, your view relies a lot of + and – but how do explain things like masochism where pain and pleasure are interwoven?


    • Lee Roetcisoender says:

      “…your view relies a lot of + and – but how do explain things like masochism where pain and pleasure are interwoven?”

      Positive (+) and negative (-) are binaries on a linear gradient. Yin/yang are equally binary also but much easier to blend as a conceptual construction then electromagnetic charges. Rationality itself is a binary system and by design we think in binary terms where meaning is derived from contrasting one binary against another. Binaries are the achilles heel of rationality and this is the reason why the entire premise of how we perceive the world is predicated upon the quintessential binary system of SOM.

      That’s why I find the term value to be a fulcrum concept, one that is not limited by binaries but can actually accommodate them. No matter where I plug the word value into the linear gradient of (+) and (-) binaries it always remains value. In this sense, value is the one and only universal constant, a constant by which every binary is adjudicated. A good analogy in physics would be the notion of heat. Absolute zero is defined as the complete absence of heat. Absolute zero does not exist in nature and cannot be achieved in a lab so no matter where a measurement is taken on the binary gradient from hot to cold, there is only a measurement of heat.

      So the short answer to your question is that the sensation of pleasure is value as is the sensation of pain. Since value as value is everywhere the same, a blending is not required because value is a universal and ubiquitous feature of reality.

      Liked by 1 person

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