The science of consciousness is having a bit of a moment. Long confined to the margins because of concerns about how experimental methods could possibly get a grip on the vagaries of subjective experience, consciousness has become neuroscience’s glittery new thing, the subject of colourful theories, packed-out conventions and the wildest of claims. Understanding how that blob of matter between your ears can experience the sound of a loved one’s voice or the perfume of white tea has become the holy grail of brain science, with implications for artificial intelligence and the ethics of dealing with the dying and the not-yet-born.
A scholar and clinical specialist in brain damage as well as a trained psychoanalyst, Mark Solms is perhaps best known for founding the niche field of ‘neuropsychoanalysis’, the aim of which is to integrate the wisdom of psychodynamic theory with the advances of brain science. No surprise, then, to see him starting his journey to the source of consciousness with a figure who has an uneasy status in neuroscience: Sigmund Freud. As psychology undergraduates are still taught, Freud is the mercurial character who gave us an entire conceptual system for understanding emotions but said little that could stand up in the laboratory. It is Freud’s insights into the affairs of our hearts, along with some tantalising glimpses of how he understood them to be instantiated in the brain, that provide the raw material for Solms’s breathless new analysis of how consciousness comes to be. The title of his book might easily have been ‘Freud was a Neuroscientist’.
It’s all about feelings, then, not thoughts or words or the computations of an information-processing brain. No one gets out of bed without them, and consciousness needs their oomph too. Solms argues that our failure to come anywhere close to solving the mysteries of subjective awareness stems from our obsession