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?