The Hidden Spring: Can psychoanalysis and neuroscience answer how consciousness arises?

by Iciar Iturmedi-Sabater

Graphic design by Livia Nyugen

“Tell me where is fancy bred, or in the heart or in the brain,” wrote Shakespeare in 1605 to illustrate a question that has lingered in big thinkers’ minds since Aristotle: “What makes us who we are?” Dr. Mark Solms, a neuropsychologist at the University of Cape Town, started pondering this when his older brother Lee suffered a traumatic brain injury at six years of age. Despite no physical changes, Lee was no longer interested in playing games with his sibling and began missing critical developmental milestones like learning how to tell the time from a clock, becoming highly dependent. His personality dramatically changed. How could changes in the brain lead to such a sudden shift in Lee? In his book The Hidden Spring,1 Solms attempts to answer this question by taking the reader on a journey alongside Sigmund Freud.

Motivated by the uncanny feeling that his sibling’s transformation aroused in him, Solms studied psychology and specialized as a neuropsychologist. Since the pioneering–but also contentious–1848 case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker whose personality changed (similarly to Lee’s) after a metal bar traversed his frontal lobe, neuropsychology has built its knowledge by linking loss of specific psychological functions to brain regions with visible damage. Yet, Solms soon recognized neuropsychology’s limitations. In his 1973 book Awakenings2, Dr. Oliver Sacks confessed that medicine was insufficient to understand the subjective experiences of his catatonic patients. Analogously, later in the 1980s, Solms realized neuropsychology’s scientific method was not enough to empathize with his neurologic patients at Johannesburg’s Baragwanath Hospital and the Royal London Hospital. 

A similar disenchantment inspired Freud’s psychoanalytic theory at the end of the 19th century. The science of his time was not ready to answer what allows the recognition of a sense of self in others. Instead, psychoanalysis became Freud’s new approach to understanding human consciousness through conversation and self-examination. 

Book cover of The Hidden Spring (2021)

In The Hidden Spring1 essays and throughout his clinical practice, Solms utilizes psychoanalysis to understand brain conditions from a subjective, first-person lens. But the reader cannot help recalling that Freud, the first to take on this task, had failed. After World War II, psychoanalysis was confined to a long exile from the land of empirical sciences. It is crucial to inspect where Solms differs from Freud to understand why Solms’ psychoanalytic efforts may succeed this time.

First, Freud believed consciousness resides in “the outermost cortex” of the brain. Since Phineas Gage, the claim that consciousness resides in the brain’s highly evolved prefrontal cortex has barely been contested. But Solms turns the tide: he “decorticates” consciousness suggesting it arises in the brainstem (the most primitive brain structure) together with affect.3 Since affect is always felt, it must always be conscious. Instead, Freud argued that consciousness resides in the “ego”, the structure of the mind that rationalizes and controls affect, whereas affects are unconscious processes of the “id”, the mind structure that governs instincts and impulses.4 Thus, Freud relegated affect to the intangible realm of the unconscious id. In contrast, Solms renders conscious affect a subject of scientific study by locating it in the brain stem. Therefore, Solms’ psychoanalytic proposal can survive in the sciences today since it can be empirically tested.

Second, Freud conformed to explaining conscious experience from a subjective, psychological standpoint and hoped that “all our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably someday be placed on an organic foundation.”3 He was not wrong: Solms is advancing this goal. But Solms further argues that solely physical and biological explanations cannot answer “why should any function be accompanied by experience.”1 Even if we perfectly understand the mechanisms that enable a bat to see in the dark and fly, we will never know what it is like to fly at night.5 These questions comprise the Hard Problem of Consciousness5, a philosophical problem Solms aims to solve scientifically. Even if Freud’s omen is fulfilled and our psychological theories are grounded on an organic base, we will still be unable to answer how consciousness emerges. So, Freud’s goal was not final. Solms’ question reaches even further.

Fortunately, Solms provides a tentative roadmap to solve the Hard Problem of Consciousness, whereas Freud—after surviving two wars, the holocaust, and fleeing his home in Vienna at the end of his life—ended his work on a negative note: “The question of the purpose of life…has not yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one.”6 Solms suggests that the Free Energy Principle,7 where living systems tend to return to equilibrium states to satisfy needs cued by affects, likely constitutes a fundamental law underpinning both psychological and neural explanations of consciousness. This law may answer the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

Solms suggests it is “astonishing how close [Freud] got to the truth”.1 The Free Energy Principle seems nothing more than Freud’s Pleasure Principle, which rules our behaviour orienting it towards the attainment of pleasure. But this time in history, the affective forces—the hidden spring—driving pleasure-seeking have become open to Solms’ and others’ scientific inquiry. So eventually, we may be able to answer how fancy is bred not in the heart but the brain.