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?

Posted in Consciousness | 15 Comments

Spontaneous Electrical Low-frequency Oscillations (SELFOs)

Phys.org has a great overview of two issues from Royal Society Publishing on the origins of nervous systems. One great thing about the issues is it seems so far at least that almost every article in the two issues seems to be freely and easily available to anyone. The direct links to the issues are here and here.

The Phys.org article by John Hewitt Where did brains come from? focuses especially on the origins of nervous systems with neurotransmitters. “Jékely’s chemical brain hypothesis postulates that neurotransmitters came before synapses and neurites, as opposed to the other way around. In other words, transmitters make nervous systems”. However, the coverage of the two issues is much broader than the Phys.org article suggests. It includes, among others, papers on learning in slime molds, origin of self, and transitions in learning and cognition by Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka.

However, what has more immediately attracted my attention is a paper by Alison Hanson Spontaneous electrical low-frequency oscillations: a possible role in Hydra and all living systems. I would like to quote some major excerpts from it. Here is its abstract. Bolding is mine.

As one of the first model systems in biology, the basal metazoan Hydra has been revealing fundamental features of living systems since it was first discovered by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the early eighteenth century. While it has become well-established within cell and developmental biology, this tiny freshwater polyp is only now being re-introduced to modern neuroscience where it has already produced a curious finding: the presence of low-frequency spontaneous neural oscillations at the same frequency as those found in the default mode network in the human brain. Surprisingly, increasing evidence suggests such spontaneous electrical low-frequency oscillations (SELFOs) are found across the wide diversity of life on Earth, from bacteria to humans. This paper reviews the evidence for SELFOs in diverse phyla, beginning with the importance of their discovery in Hydra, and hypothesizes a potential role as electrical organism organizers, which supports a growing literature on the role of bioelectricity as a ‘template’ for developmental memory in organism regeneration.

And here is where the paper points to similarities between oscillations in the Hydra and the Default Mode Network in the human brain.

Sherrington’s still-influential proposal of the nervous system as effectively a ‘reflex organ’ waiting for environmental stimuli to push the organism to behavioural response —the foundational proposition of the input–output view of information processing —cannot account for spontaneous neural activity that seemingly has no effect on behaviour. As we have seen, however, such ‘cryptic’, non-behaviour-inducing spontaneous activity has been recognized in Cnidaria for more than half a century. Although speculated to play a role in coordinating animal behaviour at the time, the function of this activity was left to ‘future work’, which was never done. While poorly understood, findings across diverse Cnidaria were essentially the same: endogenously active nervous systems produced rhythmic, low-frequency pulses even in an unchanging environment and even when organisms were at rest. Why? Why would energetically expensive nervous systems be perpetually active in the absence of a stimulus and in the absence of any discernible behaviour? A clue about the potential role of this low-frequency spontaneous neural activity in comparatively simple organisms comes from an unexpected place: the human brain.

This is tied back to theories by Buszáki.

Another way to think about the potential role of the DMN in human self-construction is as the top layer of the hierarchical predictive coding ‘self-model’ as put forth by Friston. Like Buszáki’s theory, which predicts the need for an ultimate brain integrator or ‘reader’ (i.e. a ‘self’), a hierarchical predictive coding model also implies the need for an ultimate brain integrator or ‘predictor’ (also a ‘self’) at the top of the hierarchy. According to predictive coding brain models, prediction error is passed up the hierarchy from the low-level primary, unimodal sensory areas to the ultimate, multi-modal ‘predictor’ at the top of the hierarchy, which contains a high-level abstract representation (of the ‘self’) that then passes predictions back down to the lower levels. In this way, the DMN, oscillating at the lowest frequency in the brain, might act as the brain’s ultimate information integrator, receiving input from all the lower-level, otherwise isolated units (oscillating at higher frequencies), and passing on one unified ‘self’ prediction back down to generate coherent, adaptive behaviour

In conclusion, the author Hanson conjectures “that SELFOs may be the ultimate organism-wide electrical information integrators and communicators in all biological systems at all levels of scale, making them critical for maintenance of organism unity and coherent, adaptive behaviour”.

McFadden in his EM field theories emphasizes the noticeable synchronous firing of neurons during cognition, however, seems to pay little attention to the so-called “background noise” of the brain. These noticeable firings (frequently shown in red on brain images) are frequently used as proxy representations of consciousness in many cognition studies. I would suggest this might be a mistake. Base consciousness might be found in the EM fields generated by regular, even somewhat non-descript, firings of the DMN whereas the noticeable firings found on MRIs may, in fact, represent the integration of new information into the base consciousness.

Whatever the case may be Hanson provides some interesting thoughts in line with the Cellular Basis of Consciousness theory of Reber..

Posted in Consciousness, Electromagnetism, Origin of Life | 11 Comments

Feeling Neurons?

A recent post on panpsychism in relation to a book review and a comment by Travis R. has me thinking about some things.

One thing is whether we are fundamentally conflating two related but somewhat distinct concepts in discussions of consciousness.

The first concept relates to the connection between information and consciousness. The second concept is the feeling of the information.

Since information is physical, there is no reason to believe that matter itself even in its smallest forms might not contain information. An electron, for example, might be conceptualized as an “information field” that is a continually fluctuating wave of calculations about its itself and environment. I am using “information field” in an attempt to suggest something implementation neutral. It might be quantum, electromagnetic, or some other wave-like mechanism not understood at this time. It may be something like a tensegrity structure that I wrote about quite a while ago and that Donald Ingber discussed in a Scientific American piece. While Ingber was primarily talking about living forms towards the end of his discussion he writes:

Finally, more philosophical questions arise: Are these building principles universal? Do they apply to structures that are molded by very large scale forces as well as small-scale ones? We do not know. Snelson, however, has proposed an intriguing model of the atom based on tensegrity that takes off where the French physicist Louis de Broglie left off in 1923. Fuller himself went so far as to imagine the solar system as a structure composed of multiple nondeformable rings of planetary motion held together by continuous gravitational tension. Then, too, the fact that our expanding (tensing) universe contains huge filaments of gravitationally linked galaxies and isolated black holes that experience immense compressive forces locally can only lead us to wonder. Perhaps there is a single underlying theme to nature after all. As suggested by early 20th-century Scottish zoologist D’Arcy W. Thompson, who quoted Galileo, who, in turn, cited Plato: the Book of Nature may indeed be written in the characters of geometry.

The key idea is that there might be similar organizing principles in the small and the large and the principle might involve wrapping information and binding it into structure. The panpsychists then could be correct that consciousness in its information aspect is found throughout the universe in all matter and structures from the smallest to the largest. The complex consciousness that we humans have is but another example of an information structure built on common principles from which all structures in the universe are constructed.

At the same, however, our consciousness seems different, seems to be more than just information. The reason is that it is felt. This might be where the panpsychists, the IIT theorists, and computationalists go wrong when they conflate the feeling of the information with the information itself. Hence, we get absurd statements about electrons feeling things from the panpsychists or the notion that a thermostat might be minimally sentient from an IIT theorist.

Perhaps the prototypical neuron is the sensory neuron – a neuron that senses (feels?) something about its environment. The apparent “feeling” of consciousness is actually neurons sensing the feedback generated by other neurons in its environment. The mind in this feeling aspect is biological and localized to small areas over which neurons are able to be sensed, that is brains. The feedback itself provides an explanation for apparent causal ability of mind without which an evolutionary explanation for its origin is difficult. Consciousness as we know it and feel it represents a sort of wrapped structure, an “information field”, but it belongs to biological matter and is also felt.

Posted in Consciousness, Information, Waves | 7 Comments