“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 »

The Return of the Repressed: Freud Sneaks Back into Neuroscience

by Joan Harvey

Our expectations sculpt neural activity, causing our brains to represent the outcomes of our actions as we expect them to unfold. This is consistent with a growing psychological literature suggesting that our experience of our actions is biased towards what we expect. —Daniel Yon

Because consciousness is something common to all of us, it is also interesting to many of us, though we may lack both philosophical and scientific backgrounds. And while many regular people are interested to some degree in the workings of their mind, those who have experimented with drugs and meditation may be even more curious about the latest research. From a fairly young age I’ve had a fair amount of experience with both psychedelics and meditation, though certainly not consistently through my life. And, for a while, I had separate conversations with two different persons—one heavily into psychedelics and one a longtime Zen practitioner—about some of the general books on consciousness.

Among the three of us, our biases sometimes came to the fore. Andy Clark’s book on predictive processing has a very sexy title—Surfing Uncertainty–and some very difficult, academic text—my Zen friend found it unreadable, and attributed this to the fact that Clark is not a meditator. My friend, in turn, had me read some recent books on consciousness with a Buddhist bias, which I disliked for their slanted view (though I have had a regular meditation practice at times). Of course the psychedelic expert liked Michael Pollen’s book How to Change your Mind, as did we all. And we all particularly liked Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel. Though not much discussed in the book, perhaps Metzinger’s background in both meditation and psychedelics unconsciously played into our appreciation. We could relate to his ideas of conscious experience as a process and a tunnel through reality, as well as his discussion of transparency, the name he gives for the way we are unaware of the medium through which information reaches us. All of us were (the Zen practitioner has since died) atheist materialists (though also all familiar with plenty of ecstatic, mystical, and irrational states which we felt had a purely physical basis), and intuitively Metzinger’s position made sense to us. The “ego tunnel,” as Metzinger says, is a complex property of the neural correlates of consciousness, the “neurofunctional properties in your brain sufficient to bring about a conscious experience.” He also locates out-of-body experiences and other related phenomena squarely in the physical, as opposed to metaphysical, world.

But my beloved grandmother was a Freudian psychoanalyst, and due to her (and alone in my family, and among most of my friends) I became interested in Freud. Read more »

Three Seconds: Poems, Cubes and the Brain

by Jalees Rehman

Stopwatch.06.jpg4c4d5258-02ae-4e67-bb40-71ea134b660dLargerA child drops a chocolate chip cookie on the floor, immediately picks it up, looks quizzically at a parental eye-witness and proceeds to munch on it after receiving an approving nod. This is one of the versions of the “three second rule”, which suggests that food can be safely consumed if it has had less than three seconds contact with the floor. There is really no scientific basis for this legend, because noxious chemicals or microbial flora do not bide their time, counting “One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand,…” before they latch on to a chocolate chip cookie. Food will likely accumulate more bacteria, the longer it is in contact with the floor, but I am not aware of any rigorous scientific study that has measured the impact of food-floor intercourse on a second-to-second basis and identified three seconds as a critical temporal threshold. Basketball connoisseurs occasionally argue about a very different version of the “three second rule”, and the Urban Dictionary provides us with yet another set of definitions for the “three second rule”, such as the time after which one loses a vacated seat in a public setting. I was not aware of any of these “three second rule” versions until I moved to the USA, but I had come across the elusive “three seconds” time interval in a rather different context when I worked at the Institute of Medical Psychology in Munich: Stimuli or signals that occur within an interval of up to three seconds are processed and integrated by our brain into a “subjective present”.

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