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Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

The Hidden Spring by Mark Solms

I’ve written a few blogs recently to the effect that “this is a remarkable, groundbreaking book,” but once again I find myself saying exactly that. Mark Solms analysis of consciousness in his book The Hidden Spring deserves all the praise it gets on its cover: original, captivating, remarkable, extraordinary, daring, bold and paradigm-shifting. I agree. This really is trailblazing.

In essence, Solms – a neuroscientist and psychoanalyst – assesses all the available modern evidence from neurology (wryly remarking that it’s been in the public domain for a while), combining it with psychoanalysis, physics and information theory to convince the reader of what he is saying. And what he is saying is pretty amazing.

He begins with a number of observations. Thought and cognition have long been presumed to be the heart of consciousness, but in fact it’s all about feeling – what is technically called affect. Moreover, it’s been assumed that our huge forebrains must be the place consciousness is generated. That’s incorrect, as he shows. The assumption was made by psychologists overly impressed with the human cortex. He then goes on to describe the true neurology of consciousness, which involves the upper brainstem, and actually quite a small portion of it. All of this is now scientifically demonstrated.

At this point, a number of pennies drop. Given that, as has been clear for a while, human beings don’t experience reality but their own mental model of it, the cortex is in fact the source of a predictive model, not consciousness. As Solms explains in a highly significant fact, ten times the number of neurons go to the upper brainstem than come from it. Those who believe consciousness is all about things coming into the brain can’t explain this fact. For Solms, it’s a crucial bit of evidence showing that we are conscious to make more accurate mental models, which are mostly in our cortex.

This isn’t a book about lived experience, which is ironic given that’s its subject. It’s a scientifically grounded, realistic and convincing description of how information theory, self-evidencing systems, self-organisation, evolution and the regulation of animal needs all combine in circumstances of uncertainty to create consciousness from affect.

One of the delights of this book is how it prioritises feeling above cognition. We cannot have an unfelt feeling – that’s impossible. Unfelt thoughts and even learning however are commonplace. Consciousness is all about what we feel.

The logical and scientific background to all this is persuasive. I am persuaded. What’s astonishing however is that Solms then goes on to demolish what has long been thought of as the central mystery of consciousness, which is how neuron activity can generate qualia – the redness of red, the sweetness of honey, and so on. I’ve long thought there must be a logical fallacy to David Chalmers’ celebrated question regarding this enigma, not least because, as has been obvious to me, an atheist, all my life, consciousness clearly emerged long after the Big Bang. It evolved. It must therefore be explicable, and Chalmers must have stated his mystery incorrectly. Solms points out that Chalmers in fact conflates two separate explanation gaps, both of which can be reduced to scientific, materialist explanations. The uneasy pseudo-dualism of Chalmers and Thomas Nagel are, as expected, incorrect.

Consciousness, then, on this reading, is an evolved function for surviving in circumstances of uncertainty – that is, the real world. What’s lovely about this book is that it matches the social intelligence theory so well. Human consciousness, adorned with language, is superbly capable of solving the problems of uncertainty in social groups. The uncertainty so frequently mentioned by Solms in this book is precisely that experience had by millions of our forebears, evolving millennium by millennium in complex, unpredictable, mutable social groups. Solms and Humphrey match rather nicely.

As I said above, I’m persuaded by all of this. It upends the traditional, male, logos-heavy, Greek-rooted psychology of over a century and replaces it with what you and I actually experience: feelings, affect, needs, drives, and so on.

Some of the more fascinating questions posed by Solms can’t be answered in his book, for instance the matter of language and thought. The last chapter however is perhaps the most daring of all. In it, Solms describes a way of proving his case, which involves making an artificial consciousness. For all my fans who have read The Autist, Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox, this chapter will be of considerable interest. I’m not convinced that Solms will have his proof in our lifetimes, but he is right this minute undertaking the research.

Not only is this a trailblazing book, it’s fantastically well written. Though complex and nuanced, I followed everything, due to Solms’ clarity of thought and deftness of argument. Superbly readable.

In a nutshell… gosh! What an experience. I really think we could be at a proper explanation at last of the evolution of consciousness at this nuts-and-bolts, neuronal, informational level. There are plenty more paths to travel however, for instance melding Solms’ information/entropy level description with something at a higher level – love, emotions, humour.

A remarkable book. I’m so glad I picked it up!

Mothers And Others by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

I came across Mothers And Others online as I was searching for books about human evolution. Never having heard of the author before, but impressed with the positive reviews, I decided to take a punt on it. Thank goodness I did! This is another exceptional book in a year of exceptional ones. Moreover, rather like The Human Cosmos and Mythos & Cosmos, which I read sequentially, this one has a distinct and rather exciting link to Sentience by Nicholas Humphrey, which I read and reviewed last month.

 

In essence, this ground-breaking book presents a new hypothesis for the evolution of human beings – the co-operative breeding hypothesis. In the latter quarter of the last century, anthropologists, particularly feminist ones, realised that earlier theories of human evolution were not only ridiculously biased towards men’s position in prehistoric society, not to mention all the things they want or are interested in – patriliny, control of women, social stratification – they were at best scantily resourced with evidence. Often, they were self-contradictory. What is so impressive about Mothers And Others is not only that it at last presents a hypothesis much better matched with reality, it is properly argued, scientifically sound and supported by excellent evidence.

Over nine fascinating chapters the author explains the evolutionary scenario, reviews the evidence, explains why only one branch of hominids felt the selection pressures of evolution which led to our line, and outlines anthropological similarities which reinforce her case. Comparatively little space is wasted complaining about male anthropologists’ hypotheses, most of the book being given over to intensive discussions of the evolution of parenting, predominantly by women (one chapter deals with fathers). It’s all compelling stuff, well written and with that indefinable essence of somebody sure of her case and with the confidence to present it. The book is also highly readable – lay readers welcome.

 

Towards the end, various strands are pulled together. The author explains the difference between emotionally modern individuals, a state of affairs which in her view goes back as far as 1.8 million years ago, and what in general has been focused on by others – cave art, language, symbol use. I was particularly struck by the synchrony between her subtle understanding of the attribution of mental states to others by children and by early hominids and the social intelligence theory of Nicholas Humphrey. This book can be read as the full evolutionary story first presented by him in The Inner Eye.

 

In summary: a very important book. I loved it.

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Bittersweet by Susan Cain

Having had my life changed at 51 by Susan Cain’s ground-breaking book Quiet, I bought her new one Bittersweet the moment I saw it. It’s not in the same league as her bestseller however, and unfortunately I find myself rather disappointed with it. The book in essence follows a line of enquiry devolving from Quiet, in that amongst Western societies especially, and notably in America, there is an unspoken mode of living which emphasises happiness (particularly smiling) and which ignores or denies sadness.

The first part is perhaps the most disappointing of all. While I wholeheartedly agree with Cain’s thesis and the idea of valueing sadness and melancholy – and recognise myself in this – Cain sets her writing in a mess of spiritual miscellanea and semi-random religious woo-woo (to use her word) which offers neither insight nor comfort. At the heart of some religions there is good, humane stuff, but what Cain chooses is neither consistent nor in most cases applicable to her argument. It’s a lengthy, uninspired mess.

The second part is terrific – a concise, insightful analysis of that half-crazy positivity and insincere smiling Americans excel at, with a particular nod in the direction of that country’s narcissistic insistence in separating people out into winners and losers. Cain is without doubt an excellent analyst of her own culture.

The third part is also a bit of a mess, but not so much as the first. In essence it asks how we cope with death, tragedy and trauma, coming to the conclusion that, as musicians in particular have shown (there is a lot about music in this book), we must accept all aspects of our brief lives: the sad and the happy, the melancholic and creative.

Disappointing, then. Much of the book is autobiographical, which is fine, though in Bittersweet I think there is rather too much autobiography. There’s a much thinner book inside this tome waiting to get out. Not bad, then, but hardly recommended, which is a shame, as Cain’s central thesis is important and rarely covered.

Sentience by Nicholas Humphrey

Regular readers of this blog and fans of my work in general will know the very high esteem in which I hold Nicholas Humphrey: our Darwin of the mind. Originator of the social intelligence theory of consciousness, philosopher and psychologist, his books have enthralled and inspired me ever since I saw his The Inner Eye television series in the mid-1980s. Now, eleven years after his last book, comes a new work.

First of all, Sentience is fascinating, beautifully written, thought-provoking and important. But more than that, to my mind it is true. Everything Humphrey writes here, which in some ways sum up his huge contribution to the field of the understanding of consciousness, has that feel of being fundamentally correct. The tale he is telling matches reality.

The book falls into three thirds, the first giving the background to Humphrey’s journey through life and the questions he asked himself as he pondered various unknowns: consciousness… why, and when? This summary is vital for the following two parts, one of which deals with our phenomenal experiences (the redness of a poppy, the sweetness of sugar, etc), and one of which sums it all up in a new perspective, drawing at all times from evolutionary reasoning.

It’s this latter third which I think is groundbreaking. The issue for the vast majority of philosophers dealing with qualia in the brain (that is, how the redness of red can be generated and experienced by “mere” neuron activity) is how to make the leap from neurons to private mental experience. There’s a couple of sentences in this book which I suspect may be the most important Humphrey has ever written. They read: Remember how it emerged in the earlier discussion that when, for example, you project phenomenal redness onto a poppy, you are in effect making a bridge to other sentient beings. You’re seeing the poppy as being ‘rubropotent’ – as having the power to evoke red qualia in another like yourself.

Isn’t that extraordinary? Other philosophers look at one brain in isolation and try to pin down the mind/body relationship therein, but that’s their mistake. Conscious brains, human brains, never exist in isolation. They grow, develop and mature only in social groups. Personally, I think this cultural blind spot has a lot to do with men dominating such intellectual discussions, men who in comparison with women have little grasp of the true importance of relationships.

This, then, is the brilliance of Nicholas Humphrey. He grasps the fundamental role of social relations in the evolution of consciousness. He never loses sight of that evolutionary history, and indeed uses it to underpin the truth of his theory.

As he notes early on in the book, his intellectual and philosophical journey has been rather a lonely furrow. I hope this exceptional work changes all that. It certainly deserves to. It’s more than worthy of being added to his outstanding canon of work. Trailblazing, compelling and true.

Groundbreaking.

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Subtitled The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, this book swiftly became a classic as rumour of its excellence spread. I really enjoyed it, for insight, for originality and for its science.

Each of eight chapters deals with an aspect of the topics in question, beginning with the tree of life and Darwinian evolution. Octopuses are cephalopods, evolving alongside molluscs and splitting from the vertebrate group six hundred million years ago, i.e. before the Cambrian Explosion. This in itself is a fundamental part of the author’s argument, in that cephalopods seem to have evolved intelligence in a completely different way to vertebrates, an origin sourced in the enigmatic Ediacaran biota. Next up comes a chapter on the evolution of nervous systems and remembered experience, before what in my view is the most significant and interesting chapter, dealing with sensation and perception, and the rise of internal experience. I sense a debt to the work of Nicholas Humphrey here, not least from his book Seeing Red.

Subsequent chapters deal with colour changes on cephalopod skin, and the difference between too much “bandwidth” with not much to say (octopi) and not enough with too much to say (baboons) – an intriguing distinction I’ve not seen before. The remaining chapters deal with experience and language, inner monologue, the relationship between lifespan and metabolism, and finally a look at an octopi heartland, Octopolis off the Australian coast, which the author knows well.

All in all, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking read, which I much enjoyed, and which complements the more recent Metazoa rather well. Both these works are significant additions to our understanding of the evolution of animal minds.

The Hidden Landscape by Richard Fortey

A classic in popular geology since 1993, this updated book by Britain’s favourite geologist and consumer of mushrooms is a tour de force of witty, informative and entertaining writing. Beginning in the wilds of (geologically speaking) the most ancient part of Britain, the Scottish uplands, this superbly well written jaunt then covers the rest of Scotland, Wales and the Midlands, the Westcountry, then the more youthful parts of England, ending up on the swiftly eroding coasts of East Anglia. The style is somehow light and academic, with diversions presented as charming interludes, most of them confirming the author’s erudition and wit.

My favourite chapters of course were those dealing with my own places: Shropshire, North and Mid Wales, and other parts of the Marches. The author is a fan of the extraordinary and complex geology of the Church Stretton area, which is a bonus. All in all, a terrific read. Very enjoyable.

How Religion Evolved by Robin Dunbar

Buying this was a no-brainer for me – the right subject, a favourite author. The book is readable, plausible and enjoyable.

In ten chapters Dunbar covers his ground, pointing out at the beginning that this is not a book about the theological or historical aspects (the usual framework) of religion, rather it hopes to deal with neurological and associated aspects, dipping where necessary into sociology and psychology.

The chapters cover a discussion of what Dunbar calls the mystical stance, by which he means the underlying assumption that there is another realm which can be accessed by mystical processes, then consequences of belief, how it works in communities, the social brain, ritual and the central place of synchronous actions, prehistory, the Neolithic, then a look at cults and schisms. It’s all interesting, often fascinating, and I broadly agreed with what is presented. This book is written from the perspective of human beings, who have brains operating in a certain way and who sense and perceive as a consequence in a mode which can be demonstrated to be universal. There is a hint of David Lewis-Williams here, although he’s not named.

The book creaks a bit towards the end, with a not terribly inspiring look at cults and charismatic leadership. The final chapter on schisms is presented in a fairly dry way, with the author baffled by why so many religions split up and fragment. But the answer is obvious: narcissism, both individual and group. Dunbar does seem to be aware of this phenomenon, since he grasps that groups of extremists for instance are disconnected from reality.

The best chapters are those in the central part: prehistory, the Neolithic, and the chapters on how the human brain responds to synchronous ritual. These really are fascinating, and very well written and presented. Here Dunbar truly gets to grips with why it was inevitable that spirituality appeared, then evolved into religion as we know it.

There is perhaps too little about the changes 5,000 years ago when patriarchy really began to take over. Dunbar mentions some differences between male and female, but not enough, and it rather gets in the way of the other stuff. That’s a minor criticism however.

Overall: excellent. The positives outweigh the negatives, and the new material on human brains and the evolution of religion via the mystical stance is superb. Recommended to all who don’t care what religious people believe, but who do care about humanity and why religion started and continues to this day. The author concludes by pointing out that much of what religion provides is neurologically essential for human beings. He sees no equivalent appearing. Well, yes… but it is rather too early for the humanist equivalent to appear!

Primate Change by Vybarr Cregan-Reid

The author’s thesis in this excellent and fascinating book is that, especially in recent centuries, the environment in which we live has changed our bodies, something which may perhaps seem fairly obvious. Yet the process has been going on for millions of years. This book develops the idea into something quite worrying, supported by a lot of science.

The book is split into sections, one covering human evolution up to 30,000BCE, one covering that time up to the beginning of the Iron Age, a third section dealing with the Industrial Revolution, and a fourth with the Digital Revolution, or what the author calls the Sedentary Revolution. A fifth part speculates about our future.

All of this material is fascinating, well written and often surprising, with plenty of detail about backs, feet, hands and teeth. The second section I found particularly good, with its emphasis on dietary changes and how often we eat. The section on the Industrial Revolution makes for grim reading, given how much exploitation occurred in that time, but the fourth is also worrying, with the author explaining how the rise of sedentary living is causing immense damage to us, to our communities and to the state organisations attempting to support us. In ten words Cregan-Reid offers governments a forward-thinking statement – Governments of the world: address falling activity levels and obesity.

Aimed at the lay reader, this is a timely and readable survey of how the world we have created, especially in the West, is causing pain, disease, mental conditions and much more, problems which could be largely solved by a change in perspective on life. I was especially impressed with the section on education, which points out that, just as nineteenth and twentieth century schools mimic the industrial factory model, so more recent changes in schools mimic the modern techno-capitalist model, also to the detriment of bored, inactive, stultified children.

Primate Change

Deciphering Ancient Minds

Deciphering Ancient Minds by David Lewis-Williams and Sam Challis

Continuing the theme of prehistoric images, art, belief and thought, this book by Sam Challis and (author of the outstanding The Mind In The Cave and Inside The Neolithic Mind) David Lewis-Williams covers a modern group of people, the San, of whom one remnant living today are the San of the Kalahari Desert.

The authors’ intent is to properly understand the methods, purpose and meaning of the beautiful and complex San cave and rock shelter paintings, in particular to clear up innumerable mistakes and assumptions made by Westerners. The opening chapters underline this prejudiced, unthinking attitude, which in the main bolts on Western concepts of art to San work. In particular, emphasis is given to shamanic practice and beliefs, whether it be “spiritual travelling,” “rain making” or interactions with animals.

The final chapter is particularly telling, pointing out the irrational, often ludicrous nature of Western beliefs which are presumed to be superior to non-Western ones, eg. the “Holy Ghost.” In the end, a marvellously vivid and satisfyingly complex picture is offered of the San, their art and their beliefs.

David Lewis-Williams is to be congratulated on another profound book which is at once illuminating and readable. Highly recommended to students of the human condition.

Samurai William by Giles Milton

Before the two century exclusion of foreigners in Japan which ended in the mid-1800s, a remarkable Englishman called William Adams spent many years there on behalf of his countrymen, eventually “going native” and becoming a friend of the de facto ruler of the country. Milton’s book tells the amazing tale of that event, using never before published first hand sources.

In the early 1600s it took around two years to reach Japan, a country hardly known to Europeans, and on the way disease, piracy and lack of a common language were not the only problems. The book tells many stories, not just that of the remarkable Samurai William, presenting the reader with a rich tapestry of tales.

What comes across most is the culture shock between English and Japanese, and the extreme sadism and brutality of the Japanese. Milton uses his first hand sources with enthusiasm, telling a superb tale.

Very enjoyable, impeccably researched and well written, this is a book for lay historians and readers of Elizabethan derring-do. Recommended.