“The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness” By Mark Solms

by Joan Harvey

For several years I enjoyed discussions about neuroscience with a friend (now deceased) who was a top rock climber. He and his buddies, when not performing solo climbs with torn shoulder muscles and sleeping on cliffside bivouacs, would listen to Sam Harris and talk neuroscience. We have conquered mountains, was their creed; now we will take on the mind. Because of this, and despite the fact that many top neuroscientists are women, and that many neuroscientists come across as gentle and balanced individuals, I got the idea of neuroscience as a slightly competitive macho sport. I grew up among mountains and as a young person I was fond of the Hopkins lines:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed…

Men and women are now fathoming these mind cliffs and, here and there, claiming first ascents.

In the middle of his new book The Hidden Spring, Mark Solms quotes Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” This could describe the thinking behind The Hidden Spring: to make the complex theory within as simple as possible, without dumbing it down so much as to be meaningless. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking—on the one hand Solms is addressing the “hard problem” of consciousness with his own relatively controversial theory; on the other hand he’s trying to explain general concepts of science (falsifiability, Bayesian theory, the free energy principle, Markov blankets, etc.) to a reader who might not know them, so as to guide them through his thinking.

Solms is successful, to my mind, but there remains the question: Who is the general reader (I salute you, General Reader) to whom he says the book is addressed, and whom he advises to ignore the endnotes aimed at academics? I suppose I qualify as a General Reader, as I have neither a math nor a science background, though I did compulsively read all the endnotes. One needn’t be familiar with the arguments of Nagel and Chalmers or Andy Clark’s predictive processing, as Solms summarizes their arguments clearly; on the other hand it probably doesn’t hurt to have some background, and I suspect the “general” reader who comes to this book will do better with at least an acquaintance with these things. Read more »