The night before last, I completed
Mark Solms (2021) “The Hidden Spring
– A Journey to the Source of Consciousness“.
The Preamble / Previously on Psybertron
- April 2021 – I first mentioned receiving The Hidden Spring, but maybe not having enough bandwidth to read it. It didn’t stop me recommending it on the strength of the index and references, and the title of the appendix “Arousal and Information”. [I had previously mentioned hearing Solms speak and ordering the book (in a link to a “Social Autism” post inside the one above) but I had also made a link to Solms, Friston and Markov-blankets in a post-note to this “Identity Politics / Good Fences” post. It’s all connected.]
- July 2021 – I’d started reading it here in this “Brain Architecture” post. I recall now why – aside from other priorities – I stalled. Brain anatomy is necessarily complex at many levels of detail and abstraction in 4D space-time, even for a practicing neuroscientist I suspect. For generally informed science readers, we really do need a more general-purpose Brain Atlas – and it absolutely must have a systems architecture perspective?
- December 2021 – I remembered that I had it unfinished, alongside my readings arising from Iain McGilchrist “The Matter With Things”. (And again here, though in fact there is no reference to Solms (nor Friston!) in TMWT. Just me making connections.)
- 1 March 2022 – I finally got stuck in to reading The Hidden Spring.
- 4 March 2022 – on completion of Chapters 1 to 6. The Mid Brain Decision Triangle. The evolution of consciousness in key mid-brain structures.
- 6 March 2022 – on completion of Chapters 7, 8 & 9. The Homeostasis / Information model of the subjective experience of consciousness. Plus “crossing the Rubicon” needed for sceptical scientists.
- 8 March 2022 – Today – This post on completion of Chapters 10, 11, 12 & the Postscript (a neat summary in fact) and the Appendix (Arousal & Information). Repairing the cortical fallacy, addressing the hard problem and yes, given the architectural solution, artificially constructed minds are indeed possible in principle.
That Conscious Feeling
Human exceptionalism? I’m not one of those that deny the human species being special. We are very special in terms of our roles and responsibilities in the cosmic ecosystem. However, what has tended to happen, even amongst those scientists that see humanity as a temporary local difficulty amidst their gods-eye view of the whole of objective reality, is that we get blinded by the obvious fact that the ascent of man has been accompanied by development of the relatively enormous cerebral hemispheres in our great-ape lineage.
This has led to a prejudice – the cortical fallacy – that all the important aspects of our undoubted higher intelligence, rational capabilities and social complexity as a species must be primarily associated with these hemispheres, or at least as the default place to start to look for explanations. It’s not that modern neuro-scientists don’t actually understand this, simply that this perspective is baked into so many resources. Some of the alternatives are equally caricatures – that our animal instincts are built into lower / animalian / limbic / reptilian brain structures – and that these emotions are therefore somehow inferior (bad) relative to our “higher” (good) rational cortical capabilities.
The first six chapters of Solms’ book thoroughly nail this.
Our intelligent consciousness, on which we rightly focus as key to our highest intellectual capabilities and our models of how we work as intelligent beings, is thoroughly embedded in our mid-brain structures. Specifically Solms identifies the Mid-Brain Decision-Making Triangle (after Merker) – the “periaqueductal grey” (PAG), the “superior colliculi” (SC) and the “reticular activating system” (RAS) in the “mid-brain locomotor region” as the very source of our sentient being (after Panksepp). This subsystem is constantly processing a three-way appraisal and orchestration of priorities of inputs (in SC), with feelings (in PAG), with available options (in RAS). Where of course, the great majority of component inputs are actually the results of our internal simulations of the options, and the great majority of the processes are subconsciously (semi-)automated. The elements brought to our conscious attention are the exceptions (departures from default expectations) which we sense as feelings – qualitative / categorical / good / bad – and which guide those decisions.
Consciousness “is” affect.
It’s feeling all the way down.
How do I feel
about what I know
and what, if anything,
should I do about it?
For the science – the biology, the neuroscience and the psychology – that really ought to be it.
All Solms’ empirical resources and rational arguments follow the orthodox and thoroughly referenced considerations of those sciences over several decades. Nevertheless having demoted the hemispheres and promoted the subjective, there a quite a few corollaries and loose ends to resolve.
The Point of Life Itself
The first avenue is that whilst the whole of the above stands fine with neuroscience and psychology as biological sciences, it is fully supported by the more fundamental sciences of physical systems generally. How life itself arises from the self-organisation of non-living systems and how the basics of conscious intelligence are a natural part of that evolution. Prompted by the work of Karl Friston (since 2010) and working together with him (since 2017) Solms elaborates in this biological neuroscience domain the arguments rehearsed over many decades in the information science domain. (For that reason I can only skim over the topics here, but if the terms are not already meaningful to you, Solms provides as good a case as I’ve seen outside information science.)
Life as the battle against entropy.
Entropy as an informational property.
Consciousness as part of the armoury in that battle.
Homeostasis: The efficient minimisation of free-energy. The self-organisation of a system, an organism, as an entity bounded by a so-called Markov-blanket, with as many sub-systems as may similarly emerge ad-infinitum. The independence of each system / sub-system processing its internal resources yet “sensing” external information at its boundary. The irony of this information processing line of thinking – a computing machine with algorithms – which appears to reduce life and consciousness to mechanistic processes and yet it is these Markov-blankets separating the levels which ensure the qualitative categorical existence of the emergent entities.
Solms provides an excellent extended metaphor of an engineering organisation set-up to maintain a leaky dam protecting a local community – the little Dutch boy (girl in Solms’ case) comes of age.
If that weren’t impressive enough, having emphasised the “feeling” nature of consciousness as affect in the first half of his book, Solms shows that – considered as such a subsystem – the mid-brain decision triangle providing these intentional, intelligent capabilities of consciousness is itself our subjective experience of it. It’s worth dwelling on that.
We have an explanation of
how our consciousness works
we have an explanation of
our subjective experience of it.
Having effectively disposed of qualia and the hard-problem en-passant, he does pay much respect to David Chalmers influence on his earlier thought journey throughout as well as spending a full 30 pages on arguments arising from Chalmers’ work.
The Home Straight
He sets the record straight on the cortical fallacy and this from the opening of Ch10 probably says all that needs to be said:
“As we have seen repeatedly throughout [the book], the cortical fallacy has a lot to answer for. Had the pioneers of behavioural neuroscience not been so impressed by the large expanse of our cortex or been so blinded by the philosophical idea that mental life arises from associating memory images, we might have discovered the real source of consciousness a good deal earlier. It is a tantalising irony of the history of mental science that Freud possessed so many pieces of the puzzle more than a century ago. The clues, both neurological and psychological, were staring him in the face. But when it came to consciousness, even he fell prey to our collective fixation with the cortex – an obsession whose cost, in case we forget, may be measured in more than just wasted time.”
This reminder of how much damage has been done by misunderstanding and misapplying our own received rationality in the past century or more is similarly echoed in Iain McGilchrist’s recent work “The Matter With Things”. Like Solms, McGilchrist also documents the damage caused by the cortical fallacy. Entirely complementary to Solms’ focus on the higher(newer)-lower(older) distinction, McGilchrist’s focus is on the left-right brain differences mediated by the lower(older) structures. Both bring a fundamentally systems architecture perspective to understanding how our minds work and how our misunderstandings of our minds’ subsystems are leading us astray.
Given the scale of such a change in human understanding, it is perhaps un-warranted icing on the cake that Solms also demonstrates that the same arguments can be applied to the creation of artificial minds. However, I can only echo the existing blurbs for “The Hidden Spring”
“A remarkable book.
It changes everything.”
– Brian Eno
Solms’ vital work has never ignored the lived, felt experience of human beings. His ideas look a lot like the future to me.”
– Siri Hustvedt
The big challenge is precisely there, and Solms acknowledges it.
Crossing that Rubicon
He calls it inviting the scientific sceptics to “cross the Rubicon” with him. Without that it will change nothing and the future will look the same as the past.
“[Mind is primarily affective, felt subjectively.] To rule the subjective perspective out is to exclude from science the most essential feature of the mind.”
Solms (and I too, having called this hurdle “Catch-22” for decades) invite you to take that perspective of subjective self-hood, the one you already “have in mind” into your scientific considerations of mind.
“I am asking you to replace the third-person objective perspective we have taken so far on the dynamics [of the neuro-science] with a first-person one: with the subjective perspective of the self-evidencing system itself. I am asking you to adopt the system’s point of view, to empathise with it.”
Without accepting that shift of perspective, we are indeed ruling out scientific progress in understanding our minds.