Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Tag: mind

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!

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.

5 Best Books On Consciousness

Recently I was approached by Ben Shepherd at and asked to choose five books for a list of my designing. I decided at once to choose the five best books explaining the mystery of consciousness, and my choices have just been published. Regular fans of my blog will recognise most or all of the titles, but on the page I’ve also added more personal description of how I came across each book and what they mean to me. Here’s the page!

my 5 choices

Metazoa by Peter Godfrey-Smith

This terrific book is nothing less than a history of the likely evolution of the animal mind, starting from nothing, or, at least, from a past so distant there are almost no fossils. Published last year, it has already won many plaudits.

It begins with the simplest known multicellular animal types, focussing on glass sponges. In this and subsequent fascinating chapters, the author develops a theory of the animal mind using sensing and movement as his core processes. The chapters then go on to self-sensing, the crucial importance of knowing whether a stimulus comes from self or from the world outside, and then a look at how ever more sophisticated mental models evolved – and why.

Brilliantly written, compelling and fascinating, this is an excellent book. The author also has a go at analysing the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, qualia. He is a materialist monist, so in my view he comes to a highly plausible declaration, which is that the mind is not something created by the brain, it is the brain, that is, when the brain is doing all its usual things. The mind in other words is not a thing or a consequence, it is a process. This leads to an excellent demolition of the usual SF AI tropes of mind-uploading, etc, which I had a go at in my novels Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox (reviewers had differing opinions of the results).

This book comes highly recommended from me for non-specialist and specialists readers alike. The author’s first book on octopi, Other Minds, has been acknowledged a classic. I’ll be seeking out a copy soon.