A Sexy New Theory of Consciousness Is All Up in Your Feelings


So yes, you’re the homeostat, a happy little organism just trying to maintain homeostasis, a basic comfort level of needs, in the big scary world. As for everything else in that sentence, it’s hard to know how much a “general reader,” for whom Solms claims to be writing, cares. Basically, Solms seems to think a step-by-step, information-theoretic breakdown is expected of him, a slight betrayal of his upfront promise to vitalize neuroscience. He spends multiple chapters on statistical physics, thermodynamics, and Karl Friston’s free energy principle, particularly as it relates to so-called Markov blankets. A Markov blanket is simply the barrier that separates you from the not-you. It senses your internal needs, and it can act on the external environment to address them. Any conscious being does this naturally. The question for Solms becomes: How? Where does consciousness come from? What’s it feel like to maintain your existence? His answer, again, is very simple, but also rather extraordinary, and the thing we’re actually here for: Consciousness feels like feelings.

Humans (and animals) have lots of feelings. Seven basic ones, some say, one of which, lust, stimulated Freud. But every emotion is a valid driver of experience. Say your back hurts from sitting all day at a desk. What makes you attempt to ease the ache, to restore vertebral equilibrium? The negative emotions associated with pain, for starters. Then a little anger at yourself for not treating your body better. Also, maybe a simple desire, which Solms would call “seeking,” to leave the house. The work of surviving, therefore, is “regulated by feelings.” And feelings, Solms says, are “about how well or badly you are doing in life.” They shape the way you respond to your needs.

To this, you might reasonably object: But sometimes, I feel least conscious, least in control, when I’m subject to my feelings. In fact, consciousness, in those situations, feels like the effort it takes to overcome feelings. Fair point, and the effort you’re talking about, it’s a form of rational decision-making, of higher-order thinking. Humans do it constantly, and it happens in your brain’s cortex, the big, outermost layer. That’s why brain researchers—before, including, and after Freud—have always identified the cortex as the seat of consciousness. But Solms, who calls this the “cortical fallacy,” points out a simple fact: Decorticate a rat, say, and you can’t immediately tell the difference. Or observe hydranencephalic kids. They’re born without a cortex, but they laugh, cry, and move through the world with what can only be called intentionality. Destroy the core of the brainstem, on the other hand, and consciousness vanishes. Automatic coma. And what does that core, specifically the bit known as the “reticular activating system,” the “hidden spring” of Solms’ title, control? “It generates affect,” Solms writes. Grief. Fear. Seeking. Rage. It controls feelings.

In a way, Solms’ answer to the centuries-old “hard problem” of consciousness, so called, is to make it less hard on himself. He pushes consciousness down a level, from thoughts to emotions. Or rather, he elevates emotions to the level, the dignity, of thought. You can’t think without feelings, whose emergence, in regulating our homeostatic states via Markov blankets, equaled the birth of consciousness. In conclusion, there’s nothing subjective—or “fictitious,” Solms writes—about emotions.

This last claim, oddly enough, is the book’s unsexiest slipup. Of course emotions are fictitious, in the best possible way. Look at science fiction, a genre that often addresses the question of consciousness head-on. A robot among humans is judged by one thing above all else: not its intelligence, or its physical prowess, but by how much it seems to feel. Some of them, the cold distant calculators, barely emote at all; others seem all but indistinguishable from their human companions, and those are the ones to which—to whom—we ascribe consciousness. Martha Wells’ deep-feeling Murderbot, for instance. Or Becky Chambers’ Sidra, confused in a human body. Then there’s Klara, in this year’s Klara and the Sun, by Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro. In it, an artificially intelligent “friend” is born, serves a human, and learns about emotions, those “impulses and desires,” Ishiguro writes, that often make her seem more human than the humans around her. It’s a strange book, with sentences as ugly, in their way, as Solms’, but it does what nonfiction, paradoxically, cannot. It makes theory real. To read Klara is to watch Hidden Spring come to life.



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