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A Neuropsychologist Takes a Crack at Defining Consciousness

Frustrated by reprimands for discussing Big Questions in neuroscience, Mark Solms decided to train as a psychoanalyst as well

Recently, distinguished South African neuropsychologist Mark Solms discussed the real state of brain research with Stonybrook neurosurgeon Michael Egnor at Theology Unleashed (October 22, 2021) In the first portion, Solms, author of The Hidden Spring (2021), began by asserting in his opening statement that “the source of consciousness in the brain is in fact in the brain stem,” not the cerebral cortex, as is almost universally assumed. Dr. Egnor then responded that his clinical experience supports the view that brain is not mind.

Then Solms pointed to the reality that discussing the fact that the brain is not the mind can be a career-limiting move in neuroscience — even though clinical experience supports the view. Egnor and Solms agreed that the further a neuroscientist gets from actual patients, the easier it is to adopt the view that “the mind is just what the brain does” (naturalism).

Mark Solms now draws our attention to a peculiar feature of the brain stem that seems related to consciousness, the small part of the brain that, if damaged, results in unconsciousness:

Mark Solms: So how do I define consciousness? The ABCs of behavioral neuroscience is, let me damage this part and let me damage that part and let’s see when the lights go out. The lights go out with reticulate brainstem damage. And so then the question becomes, well, what is that part of the brain doing? [00:45:30]

When it was first discovered by Magoun and Moruzzi in 1949, to their very great surprise, consciousness is lost with damage to this ancient, primitive, small little part of the brain.

The way in which they retained the old view, that consciousness is a cortical [higher brain] function, was to say, well, this part of the brain is responsible for the level of consciousness, for the quantitative. How much consciousness is there? The thing we measure with the Glasgow Coma Scale. There’s 15 points. Do you have 15, 14, 13, how much consciousness is there? [00:46:30]

And they said the cortex by contrast is responsible for its contents, the actual qualitative phenomenal stuff of experience. And a good analogy to illustrate the point that Magoun and Moruzzi made, which everyone has followed ever since [00:47:00] is that of a television set plugged into a power source, an electrical socket.

They say, well, of course it’s a prerequisite for a television set to produce televisual content that it has to be powered up, you need to plug it in. But that doesn’t mean that television really comes from the electrical socket, that what explains everything about television is electricity. [00:47:30]

Brain, showing reticular formation

That’s how the brainstem was viewed from 1949 onwards: The reticular activating system is the power supply for the brain. Now that’s the thing that I’ve been led to conclude is wrong. And again, I’ll just refer to the evidence we’ve spoken about already. Those little kids with no cortex at all, the brainstem is fine and they’re conscious and they have feelings. So that part of the brain doesn’t just supply power. It supplies a content and a quality which we call feeling. And I think there’s much more evidence that I can cite. I’m trying to keep things simple. There’s lots of other evidence leading to the same conclusion that the most rudimentary, foundational form of consciousness is raw feeling. So for me, my definition of consciousness is feeling in its most… then we can feel our way into our cognitions and become conscious of them. [00:48:30]

Michael Egnor: Would you say that’s qualia, Mark?

Mark Solms: Yes. Because the qualia that are conventionally cited is the redness of red. Or the sound of middle C, the quality, the phenomenal stuff, and feelings clearly have quality. They have a phenomenal stuff. There is something it is like to have a feeling. So yes they are qualia.[00:49:30]

Note: Qualia: “Feelings and experiences vary widely. For example, I run my fingers over sandpaper, smell a skunk, feel a sharp pain in my finger, seem to see bright purple, become extremely angry. In each of these cases, I am the subject of a mental state with a very distinctive subjective character. There is something it is like for me to undergo each state, some phenomenology that it has. Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. In this broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia.” – “Qualia,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Mark Solms: I don’t think that the whole of consciousness is just raw feeling. I’m saying that the most elementary basic form of consciousness is raw feeling. And from that we can then go on to ask all sorts of questions about what does consciousness add to everything else that the brain and the body do?

You need to stay within certain viable bounds in respect of your core body temperature, your blood gas balance, your hydration in relation to salt and so on. And if you deviate from those, you feel thirsty, or you feel too hot, or you feel respiratory distress, air hunger, and these feelings tell you this is bad. And if you take corrective action, the right sort of corrective action, you feel good. And so you know, yes, this I must do. This I must not do. And I think that that’s the absolutely the bedrock of what consciousness is for. It is for us to know how we’re doing within a scale of values in which it is good to stay alive and bad to die. [00:51:00]

Michael Egnor: Sure. And I think the question that lies underneath this, that David Chalmers has talked about, that a number of philosophers have talked about is obviously the hard problem of consciousness and the easy problems of consciousness. And not that, in neuroscience of course, anything is easy. It’s actually very difficult but it’s tractable.

And I remain fascinated by the question: Who is it that has the feelings? So what is the subject in all of this? I don’t think the subject is or can be the brain or a part of the brain. I don’t even think that that would be intelligible, that the subject is subjective, not objective. [00:52:00]

And I honestly think that one has to look to religion to get a feeling of what the subject is. What has fascinated me as of late is a passage in the third chapter of Exodus, a famous passage where Moses encounters the Burning Bush. He asked this God, speaking out of the burning bush (because this was a time of polytheism where there were thousands of gods), what this God’s name was. And God answered: I AM is my name. I AM.

Seventeenth century painting by Sébastien Bourdon in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

And if you think about it, the subject in all this talk about consciousness is a little “I am.” It’s not the capital I AM, it’s the smallcase I am. And in Genesis it says that we are created in God’s image. [00:52:30]

So I really think that the I am, the subject of consciousness is the part of our soul that is created by God. And I think that’s the scientific truth. I think it’s a truth in science and I can’t understand neuroscience without including that in it.

And I do believe that the brain obviously plays a central role in consciousness and cognition and all of that. I believe that the functions of the brain are pretty much what Freud ascribed to the id and the superego. I think, more or less, that the brain is the id, the whole brain, and the subject, the ego that actually consciously perceives is the little I am, the little part of us that is created in God’s image and it’s part of our soul. [53:52]

Mark Solms: Michael’s being generous to me by referring to Freud all the time. Because of my frustration with the neuroscience that I was taught in the 1980s, bearing in mind why I came into the field, I was terribly disappointed that there was… these big questions were simply not addressed and you were reprimanded for raising them. As I said earlier, I was told it’s bad for my career. I mustn’t ask questions like that … I was drawn to psychoanalysis because with all of its faults, and I have to say psychoanalysis has many faults. It’s strength is that its starting point is subjective experience… [00:55:30]

I didn’t abandon neuroscience, but I was working in the Department of Neurosurgery [00:56:00] in the Royal London Hospital by day and by night I was at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, training as a psychoanalyst, like Jekyll and Hyde. And so this is why Michael is referring to Freud all the time, he’s trying to build a bridge to my language. Because I then try to bring this conceptual framework into neuroscience. It provided us with a language, with concepts, with methods, tools, for being able to invest… take seriously, this subjective being of the mind. Which as Michael keeps reminding us and I agree with him completely, the mind is… it’s subjective. It’s a being, it’s the being of the thing. It’s not an object, it’s not an organ. It’s not a physical thing. So I try to bring that perspective into neuroscience. [00:56:30] …

I’m deeply respectful of people of other faiths. Remember I think science is a faith. I’m not a religious person but I’m not an atheist. I’m agnostic about such things and I’m trying my best to understand… trying my best to come to grips with these deep mysteries. I think that what you’re alluding to, Michael, without saying it is: Where does life come from? And the difference between living things and non-living things is, I use the word very advisedly, miraculous. [00:59:00]

Next: Neuroscientist Mark Solms argues that the very concept of purpose is, in a sense, miraculous

Here’s the whole discussion in order

1.1 Here’s the first portion of the debate/discussion, where neuropsychologist Mark Solms shares his perspective: Consciousness: Is it in the cerebral cortex — or the brain stem? In a recent discussion/debate with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, neuropsychologist Mark Solms offers an unconventional but evidence-based view, favouring the brain stem. The evidence shows, says Mark Solms, author of The Hidden Spring, that the brain stem, not the cerebral cortex is the source of consciousness.

And Michael Egnor responds:

1.2. Neurosurgeon and neuropsychologist agree: Brain is not mind Michael Egnor tells Mark Solms: Neuroscience didn’t help him understand people; quite the reverse, he had to understand people, and minds, to make sense of neuroscience. Egnor saw patients who didn’t have most of their frontal lobes who were completely conscious, “in fact, rather pleasant, bright people.”

1.3. Then Solms admits what all know but few say: Neuroscientist: Mind is not just brain? That’s career limiting! Neuropsychologist Mark Solms and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor agreed that clinical experience supports a non-materialist view but that the establishment doesn’t. Mark Solms: “science is an incredibly rigid… sort of… it’s like a mafia. You have to go along with the rules of the Don, otherwise you’ve had it.”

In the second portion, they offer definitions of consciousness:

2.1 Materialist neuroscientists don’t usually see real patients. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and neuropsychologist Mark Solms find common ground: The mind can be “merely what the brain does” in an academic paper. But not in life. Egnor takes a stab at defining consciousness: Following Franz Brentano, he says, “A conscious state is an intentional state.” Next, it will be Solms’s turn.

2.2 A neuropsychologist takes a crack at defining consciousness. Frustrated by reprimands for discussing Big Questions in neuroscience, Mark Solms decided to train as a psychoanalyst as well. As a neuropsychologist, he sees consciousness, in part, as the capacity to feel things, what philosophers call “qualia” — the redness of red.

Now, about God…

3.1 Einstein believed in Spinoza’s God. Who is that God? Neuropsychologist Mark Solms admits that life is “miraculous” and sees Spinoza’s God, embedded in nature, as the ultimate explanation. In a discussion with Solms, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor argues that it makes more sense to see God as a Person than as a personification of nature.

3.2 Egnor and Solms: What does it mean to say God is a Person? Mark Solms and Michael Egnor discuss and largely agree on what we can rationally know about God, using the tools of reason. Egnor argues that, if the most remarkable thing about us is our personhood (I am), it Makes sense to think of God as a Person (I AM).

And why materialism is a dying idea…

4.1 Why neuroscientist Solms is no materialist: Information theory He points out that, to begin with, Einstein’s famous equation — E equals MC squared — makes the point that matter is derivative. It’s a state of energy. In Solms’s view, the true implications of quantum mechanics and information theory in refuting materialism are only beginning to be understood.

4.2 Discovering the non-materialist dimension in science Hint: Stephen Hawking was a fine physicist and writer but not a very good philosopher. Neurosurgeon Egnor and neuroscientist Solms agree that great physicists have often been fine philosophers; the universe and consciousness are intertwined.

You may also wish to read: Your mind vs. your brain: Ten things to know

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A Neuropsychologist Takes a Crack at Defining Consciousness