A sexy new theory of consciousness is in your feelings


So yes, you are the homeostat, a happy little organism that is just trying to maintain homeostasis, a basic comfort level of needs, in the big, scary world. As with everything else in this sentence, it’s hard to know how much a “general reader,” whom Solms claims to write, cares about. Basically, Solms seems to think that a gradual breakdown of information theory is expected of him, a slight betrayal of his original promise to revitalize neuroscience. He spends several chapters on statistical physics, thermodynamics, and Karl Friston’s free energy principle, especially with regard to the so-called Markov blankets. A Markov blanket is simply the barrier that separates you from the non-you. It detects your internal needs and can act on the external environment to meet them. Every conscious being does this naturally. The question for Solms becomes: how? Where does consciousness come from? What is that feel like to maintain your existence? His answer, again, is very simple, but also quite extraordinary, and the thing we’re actually here for: Consciousness looks like feelings.

Humans (and animals) have a lot of feelings. Seven basic, some say, one of which, lust, spurred Freud on. But each emotion is a motor of valid experience. Say your back hurts from sitting all day at a desk. What makes you try to relieve pain, to restore spinal balance? The negative emotions associated with pain, to begin with. Then get angry with yourself for not treating your body better. Also, perhaps a simple desire, which Solms would call “seeking”, to leave the house. The work of survival is therefore “regulated by feelings”. And feelings, says Solms, are about “how well or bad you are doing in life.” They shape how you meet your needs.

You could reasonably object to this: But sometimes I feel the least aware, the least in control, when I am subjected to my feelings. In fact, consciousness in these situations resembles the effort it takes to overcome feelings. The good point, and the effort you’re talking about, is some form of rational decision making, higher order thinking. Humans do this all the time, and it happens in your brain’s cortex, the outermost large layer. This is why brain researchers – before, including and after Freud – have always identified the cortex as the seat of consciousness. But Solms, who calls it the “cortical fallacy,” points out a simple fact: Shell a rat, say, and you can’t immediately tell the difference. Or watch hydranencephalic children. They were born without a cortex, but they laugh, cry and move around the world with what can only be called intentionality. Destroy the core of the brainstem, on the other hand, and consciousness disappears. Automatic coma. And what does this nucleus control, especially the bit known as the “reticular activation system”, the “hidden spring” of Solms’ title? “It generates affect,” writes Solms. Pain. Fear. While searching. Rage. He controls the feelings.

In a way, Solms’ response to the age-old “hard problem” of consciousness, so called, is to make it less hard on itself. It pushes consciousness to a lower level, from thoughts to emotions. Or rather, it elevates emotions to the level, dignity, of thought. We cannot think without feelings, the emergence of which, by regulating our homeostatic states via Markov blankets, has equaled the birth of consciousness. In conclusion, there is nothing subjective – or “fictitious”, writes Solms – about emotions.

This last statement, oddly enough, is the book’s most disturbing disappointment. Of course, the emotions are fictitious, in the best possible way. Look at science fiction, a genre that often tackles the question of consciousness head-on. A robot among humans is judged above all by one thing: not his intelligence or his physical prowess, but what he seems to feel. Some of them, the distant and cold calculators, hardly move at all; others seem almost indistinguishable from their human companions, and it is they to whom – to whom – we ascribe consciousness. The deep murderer of Martha Wells, for example. Or Sidra from Becky Chambers, confused in a human body. Then there’s Klara, this year Klara and the sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel Prize winner. In it, an artificially intelligent “friend” is born, serves a human, and learns the emotions, those “impulses and desires,” Ishiguro writes, that often make her appear more human than the humans around her. It’s a strange book, with phrases as ugly in their own way as Solms’s, but it does what non-fiction, paradoxically, cannot do. It makes the theory real. Read Completed it’s watching Hidden spring come to life.



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