Consciousness Is Just a Feeling

By Steve Paulson By Steve Paulson March 3, 2021

When he was a boy, Mark Solms obsessed over big existential questions. What happens when I die? What makes me who I am? He went on to study neuroscience but soon discovered that neuropsychology had no patience for such open-ended questions about the psyche. So Solms did something unheard of for a budding scientist. He reclaimed Freud as a founding father of neuroscience and launched a new field, neuropsychoanalysis.

Solms had one other obstacle in his path. Born in Namibia, where his father worked for a South African diamond mining company, he grew up under apartheid in South Africa. Solms later worked at a hospital in Soweto, where a military occupation tried to clamp down on protesters. “Once you reach the end of your studies, you’re required to join the very same army whose victims I was looking after,” he told me. “That was emotionally impossible.” So he fled to England, where he trained as a psychoanalyst, and didn’t move back to South Africa until apartheid was dismantled.

If my brain were damaged, would I be a different person? Where would the original version of me go?

Solms has spent decades working to reconcile brain science with the study of lived experience. Now, he presents his own theory of consciousness in a new book, The Hidden Spring. Solms believes neuropsychology has been looking for consciousness in the wrong place. “Since the cerebral cortex is the seat of intelligence, almost everybody thinks that it is also the seat of consciousness,” Solms writes. “I disagree; consciousness is far more primitive than that. It arises from a part of the brain that humans share with fishes. This is the ‘hidden spring’ of the title.” The book is a deep dive into modern neuroscience, peppered with surprising explanations for how we think, dream, remember, and perceive.

I reached Solms in Cape Town, South Africa, where he’s stayed during the COVID-19 lockdown. We talked about the brain-mind problem, the biases of neuropsychology and how a family trauma shaped the course of his life.

WHO AM I?: “How does all of this complex stuff that makes my life the way it is relate to this bodily organ?” asks Mark Solms, who’s spent a lifetime studying the brain and consciousness, unafraid to go against the academic grain to ask the most primal existential questions.Ilhaam Abraham

You write about a seminal moment in your childhood when your older brother suffered a serious brain injury. Can you describe what happened? 

I was 4 and he was 6. My parents were yachting and I was down at the water’s edge, but he, with some friends, clambered onto the roof of the clubhouse. Then he tripped and fell three stories onto the pavement below and fractured his skull. He lost consciousness on impact and sustained an intracerebral hemorrhage. We were living in a small village, so he had to be flown to a hospital in Cape Town, and he was very lucky to survive the accident. What was so disturbing and really difficult to comprehend for me was the fact that he looked the same, but was utterly changed. He lost his developmental milestones. For example, he became incontinent and his personality was very changed. He was much more emotional, irascible and difficult, but also intellectually, he was changed.

You say this had a profound impact on you.

It did. We underestimate little children. You start thinking, How can it be that the brain is this thing in his head that’s been damaged and now he looks the same but isn’t the same? Where is he? How can this person, my brother, be an organ? I quickly extrapolated that to my own case and thought, “Hmmm, am I my brain and how can that be? If my brain were to be damaged, would I be a different person? Where would the original version of me go?” And it was a tragedy for my parents. They felt terribly guilty.

So as a boy, you were asking some profound questions that neuroscience deals with today. What is the self? And how is the brain connected to our mental experience?

I think I was just plunged into them prematurely because of that event. For me, it was also the question of mortality. If my body dies, I’m going to disappear, and that was just terrifying. And I thought, well, if you’re gone forever, what’s the point of doing anything then? That disturbed me very much and it spiraled me into what can only be described as a depression. I remember feeling in the mornings, What’s the point of going to school? And not being able to summon the energy to tie my shoelaces. Obviously, I don’t believe at age 4 or 5 that I decided I’m going to be a neuroscientist, but in retrospect, it’s clear that the two things must be connected. It’s sort of the solution to that nihilistic despair. Somewhere in my teens I remember thinking, the only thing really worth doing is to try and understand what existence is. What actually is sentience?

My colleagues were horrified that I studied Freud. I had been taught this was pseudoscience.

You went on to study neuroscience—specifically, the science of dreams. How did that figure into your thinking about the nature of consciousness?

The particular aspect of neuroscience that interested me was how the mind and brain relate, so neuropsychology was the domain of the neurosciences that was most compelling for me. But when I arrived at university, I was taught about abstract functions—the information processing mechanisms of memory, language, perception, and executive control. There was no interest in the actual subjective being of the mind. When I asked questions about the contents of memory and the dynamics of one’s own lived life, I was seriously advised by my professors that you shouldn’t ask questions like that. It’s bad for your career.

You made a big discovery that overturned the prevailing theory that we only dream during REM sleep. What did you find?

It was just assumed that when your REM sleep stops, your dreams also stop. But I found that human patients with damage to the part of the brain generating REM sleep nevertheless continue to experience dreams. In retrospect, you realize what a significant methodological error we made. That’s the price we pay for not gathering subjective data. You know, the actual subjective experience of dreams is an embarrassment to science. And this is what my professors had in mind when they were saying, don’t study things like that. But you’re going to be missing something rather important about how the brain works if you leave out half of the available data.

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Your interest in Freud is very unusual for a neuroscientist. You actually trained to become a psychoanalyst, and since then, you’ve edited the complete psychological works of Freud.

Yes, and my colleagues were horrified. I had been taught this was pseudoscience. One of them said to me, “You know, astronomers don’t study astrology.” It’s true that psychoanalysis had lost its bearings. Freud was a very well-trained neuroscientist and neurologist, but in successive generations that grounding of psychoanalysis in the biological sciences had been lost. So I can understand where some of the disdain for psychoanalysis came from. But to its credit, it studied the actual lived life of the mind, which was the thing that interested me, and was missing from neuropsychology. So I turned to psychoanalysis to find any kind of systematic attempt to study subjective experience and to infer what kinds of mechanisms lay behind it.

Did we get Freud wrong? Did he have scientific insights that we’ve ignored?

Very much so. I’m not going to pretend that Freud didn’t make some gigantic mistakes. That’s to be expected. He was a pioneer, taking the very first steps in trying to systematically study subjective experience. The reason he made so little progress and abandoned neuroscience was because there weren’t scientific methods by which you could study things. Even the EEG was only brought into common use after the Second World War. So there were no methods for studying in vivo what’s going on in the brain, let alone the methods we have nowadays. But the sum of his basic observations, the centrality of emotion, was how much affective feelings influence cognitive processes. That’s the essence of what psychoanalysis is all about, how our rational, logical, cognitive processes can be distorted by emotional forces.

You founded the new field of “neuropsychoanalysis.” What’s the basic premise of this approach?

The neuropsychology I was taught might as well have been neurobehaviorism. Oliver Sacks famously wrote in 1984 that neuropsychology is admirable, but it excludes the psyche, by which he meant the active living subject of the mind. That really caught my attention. So I wanted to bring the psyche back into neuropsychology. Emotion was just not studied in the neuropsychology of the 1980s. The centrality of emotion in the life of the mind and what lies behind emotion is what Freud called “drive.” Basically, his idea was that unpleasant feelings represent the failures to meet those needs and pleasant feelings represent the opposite. It’s how we come to know how we’re meeting our deepest biological needs. And that idea gives an underpinning to cognition that I think is sorely lacking in cognitive science, pure and simple.

That was the biggest mistake we’ve made in the history of the neuroscience of consciousness.

There are huge debates about the science of consciousness. Explaining the causal connection between brain and mind is one of the most difficult problems in all of science. On the one hand, there are the neurons and synaptic connections in the brain. And then there’s the immaterial world of thinking and feeling. It seems like they exist in two entirely separate domains. How do you approach this problem?

Subjective experience—consciousness—surely is part of nature because we are embodied creatures and we are experiencing subjects. So there are two ways in which you can look on the great problem you’ve just mentioned. You can either say it’s impossibly difficult to imagine how the physical organ becomes the experiencing subject, so they must belong to two different universes and therefore, the subjective experience is incomprehensible and outside of science. But it’s very hard for me to accept a view like that. The alternative is that it must somehow be possible to bridge that divide.

The major point of contention is whether consciousness can be reduced to the laws of physics or biology. The philosopher David Chalmers has speculated that consciousness is a fundamental property of nature that’s not reducible to any laws of nature.

I accept that, except for the word “fundamental.” I argue that consciousness is a property of nature, but it’s not a fundamental property. It’s quite easy to argue that there was a big bang very long ago and long after that, there was an emergence of life. If Chalmers’ view is that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, it must have preceded even the emergence of life. I know there are people who believe that. But as a scientist, when you look at the weight of the evidence, it’s just so much less plausible that there was already some sort of elementary form of consciousness even at the moment of the Big Bang. That’s basically the same as the idea of God. It’s not really grappling with the problem.

You can certainly find all kinds of correlations between brain function and mental activity. We know that brain damage—for instance, what happened to your brother—can change someone’s personality. But it still doesn’t explain causation. As the philosopher John Searle said, “How does the brain get over the hump from electrochemistry to feeling?”

I think we have made that problem harder for ourselves by taking human consciousness as our model of what we mean by consciousness. The question sounds so much more magical. How is it possible that all of this thinking and feeling and philosophizing can be the product of brain cells? But we should start with the far more elementary rudiment of consciousness—feeling. Think about consciousness as just being something to do with existential value. Survival is good and dying is bad. That’s the basic value system of all living things. Bad feelings mean you’re doing badly—you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, you’re sleepy, you’re under threat of damage to life and limb. Good feelings mean the opposite—this is good for your survival and reproductive success.

You’re saying consciousness is essentially about feelings. It’s not about cognition or intelligence.

That’s why I’m saying the most elementary forms of consciousness give us a much better prospect of being able to solve the question you’re posing. How can it happen that a physical creature comes to have this mysterious, magical stuff called consciousness? You reduce it down to something much more biological, like basic feelings, and then you start building up the complexities. A first step in that direction is “I feel.” Then comes the question, What is the cause of this feeling? What is this feeling about? And then you have the beginnings of cognition. “I feel like this about that.” So feeling gets extended onto perception and other cognitive representations of the organism in the world.

We get the sense of mystery beaten out of us at medical school or graduate programs.

Where are those feelings rooted in the brain?

Feeling arises in a very ancient part of the brain, in the upper brainstem in structures we share with all vertebrates. This part of the brain is over 500 million years old. The very telling fact is that damage to those structures—tiny lesions as small as the size of a match head in parts of the reticular activating system—obliterates all consciousness. That fact alone demonstrates that more complex cognitive consciousness is dependent upon the basic affective form of consciousness that’s generated in the upper brainstem.

So we place too much emphasis on the cortex, which we celebrate because it’s what makes humans smart.

Exactly. Our evolutionary pride and joy is the huge cortical expanse that only mammals have, and we humans have even more of it. That was the biggest mistake we’ve made in the history of the neuroscience of consciousness. The evidence for the cortex being the seat of consciousness is really weak. If you de-corticate a neonatal mammal—say, a rat or a mouse—it doesn’t lose consciousness. Not only does it wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night, it runs and hangs from bars, swims, eats, copulates, plays, raises its pups to maturity. All of this emotional behavior remains without any cortex.

And the same applies to human beings. Children born with no cortex, a condition called hydranencephaly—not to be confused with hydrocephaly—are exactly the same as what I’ve just described in these experimental animals. They wake up in the morning, go to sleep at night, smile when they’re happy and fuss when they’re frustrated. Of course, you can’t speak to them, because they’ve got no cortex. They can’t tell you that they’re conscious, but they show consciousness and feeling in just the same way as our pets do.

You say we really have two brains—the brainstem and the cortex.

Yes, but the cortex is incapable of generating consciousness by itself. The cortex borrows, as it were, its consciousness from the brainstem. Moreover, consciousness is not intrinsic to what the cortex does. The cortex can perform high level, uniquely human cognitive operations as reading with comprehension, without consciousness being necessary at all. So why does it ever become conscious? The answer is that we have to feel our way into cognition because this is where the values come from. Is this going well or badly? All choices, any decision-making, has to be grounded in a value system where one thing is better than another thing.

So what is thinking? Can we even talk about the neurochemistry of a thought?

A thought in its most basic form is about choice. If you don’t have to make a choice, then it can all happen automatically. I’m now faced with two alternatives and I need to decide which one I’m going to do. Consciousness enables you to make those choices because it contributes value. Thinking goes on unconsciously until you’re in a state of uncertainty as to what to do. Then you need feeling to feel your way through the problem. The bulk of our cognition—our day-to-day psychological life—goes on unconsciously.

How does memory figure into consciousness?

The basic building block of all cognition is the memory we have. We have sensory impressions coming in and they leave traces which we can then reactivate in the form of cognitions and reassemble in all sorts of complicated ways, including coming up with new ideas. But the basic fabric of cognition is memory traces. The cortex is this vast storehouse of representations. So when I said earlier that cognition is not intrinsically conscious, that’s just saying that memories are, for the most part, latent. You couldn’t possibly be conscious of all of those billions of bits of information you have imbibed during your lifetime. So what is conscious is drawn up from this vast storehouse of long-term memory into short-term working memory. The conscious bit is just a tiny fragment of what’s there.

You say the function of memory is to predict our future needs. And the hippocampus, which we typically regard as the brain’s memory center, is used for imagining the future as well as storing information about the past.

The only point of learning from past events is to better predict future events. That’s the whole point of memory. It’s not just a library where we file away everything that’s happened to us. And the reason why we need to keep a record of what’s happened in the past is so that we can use it as a basis for predicting the future. And yes, the hippocampus is every bit as much for imagining the future as remembering the past. You might say it’s remembering the future.

Wouldn’t a true science of consciousness, of subjective experience, explain why particular thoughts and memories pop into my brain?

Sure, and that’s exactly why I take more seriously than most neuroscientists what psychoanalysts try to do. They ask, Why this particular content for Steve at this point in his life? How does it happen that neurons in my brain generate all of this? I’m saying if you start with the most rudimentary causal mechanisms, you’re just talking about a feeling and they’re not that difficult to understand in ordinary biological terms. Then there’s all this cognitive stuff based on your whole life. How do I go about meeting my emotional needs? And there’s your brain churning out predictions and feeling its way through the problem and trying to solve it.

So this is the premise of neuropsychoanalysis. There’s one track to explain the biology of what’s happening in the brain, and another track is psychological understanding. And maybe I need a psychotherapist to help me unpack why a particular thought suddenly occurs to me.

You’ve just summed up my entire scientific life in a nutshell. I think we need both. What drove me to study neuroscience in the first place was exactly these incredibly important and interesting questions. How does all of this complex stuff that makes my life the way it is relate to this bodily organ? You know, we get it beaten out of us at medical school or graduate programs that you must lose your wonder and your sense of mystery and excitement and fascination with those big questions. For my own particular reasons, I wasn’t able to give up on those questions. That’s what motivated me to do what I’ve done.

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science. You can subscribe to TTBOOK’s podcast here.

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