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My account of consciousness unites in a single story the elementary physics of life, the most recent advances in both computational and affective neuroscience and the subtleties of subjective experience that were traditionally explored by psychoanalysis.

Mark Solmes

MARK SOLMS (1961 ): Neuropsychologist, Psychoanalyst, Researcher, Theorist, Co-Founder and Namer of Neuropsychoanalytic Movement, Translator of Sigmund Freud's Oeuvre

When Mark Solms was four, his six-year-old brother had a dramatic head injury that changed his personality. Mark could not comprehend where the brother he knew had gone. His interest in neuropsychology arose out of this loss of the brother he knew, but It took psychoanalysis to help Mark understand.


What is Being? How does our conscious-sentient-subjective Self arise? How and why does ephemeral mind emerge from physical material? These questions have been considered the “hard problem” (David Chalmers) of science. Solms suggests that understanding consciousness and subjective experience has been “hard” because for centuries scientists and philosophers have looked for the answers in the wrong part of the brain. Human pride of ownership has been of our large cognitive cortex. No other creature can match it. Surely, subjective experience, consciousness, is to be found there. New technology (PET scans, FMRIs, etc.) have demonstrated a different story.


Consciousness is not generated, nor does it reside, in the cortex. It is generated and resides in the brainstem. Neurons firing in the cortex do not produce consciousness. Consciousness is an attribute of the elemental foundation of life, the deep source of all we know — the feelings of life: the feelings of homeostasis, perceptual-motor and instinctual emotions. The biological intrinsic good or bad valence and quality of feelings guide our behavior: Do we move toward, away or wait? They enable us to “register our state” of being in the moment, and this subjective experience changes us. We learn. We remember our experience, especially when it foretells good (survival) or bad (death). The primal self exists in the brainstem where these feelings emerge and return. Along with Antonio Damasio, Jaak Panksepp, and Bjorn Merker, Solms states that emotions are essentially extensions of homeostasis. He says that affect is the primary medium of volition and the fount of all mental life.

Neurological and psychological phenomenon are parallel processes caused by underlying mechanisms. They are correlative but not causal. Although homeostatic needs are addressed automatically to a certain point, beyond that level the living creature must go out into the world to meet its needs. The cortex supplies the “how” to accomplish what needs to be done, based primarily on learned experience.

The cortex does not feel. These perceptions and the mapping (memory) are all unconscious mechanisms of the cortex. The cortex, if you will, is a library filled with images, patterns, objects, and automatic processes which produce “virtual” action. The brainstem, responding to needs, arouses the memories and processes stored in the cortex, prioritizes them, extends feelings to the cortex, and addresses the need. Solms argues that the cortex becomes conscious only to the extent it is aroused by the brainstem. The arrangement is hereditary. Cortical consciousness depends on brainstem arousal.

Solms has joined with physicist Karl Friston to explain how at the cellular and molecular level our material brain has evolved a unique, subjective mind. He calls it the Free Energy Theory of Consciousness. This theory is valuable for the True Self exploration especially because Solms gives us the grounding and structure of how we humans function. The universal core of our Being, the primal self (Panksepp), is in the affective brainstem. The True Self lives in a flux of feelings from which our actions, thoughts and values flow. Moment by moment our homeostatic processes (including emotions) are balancing, keeping our life needs in check. What we know of ourselves is derivative of these universal feelings and our learned interpretation of their meanings. Solms’ work is especially helpful in discovering the protective False Self.

He posits that young children, in order to escape feelings of FEAR or PANIC (Panksepp), will come to a conclusion, based on these negatively valenced feelings, that if they act in certain ways they would escape those fears and succeed in their families. These false premises often support the child in the confines of the home; however, when he becomes an adult this “prediction error” causes problems he cannot solve. The prediction error underlies the protective False Self. One must consciously and deliberately reflect on his bedrock feelings and what he does to avoid them. The prediction error was an attempt to solve an idiosyncrasy in family life that isn’t necessarily present in the outside world.

As explorers of our psyches we look to subjective interpretations — what each one of us values, what each one of us has learned about reciprocity or honesty or cruelty, etc. We begin to recognize the “I”ness of action, subjective immediacy and presence. How different that feels from talking or thinking (remembering) about yourself (the object, the “Me”). This structure gives us a schema from which to consider the feeling base of our thoughts.

It feels like something to be…

Thomas Nagel


The valence and the quality of feelings are inherited. They enable you to survive. This is the function of feeling. If you explain the function of feeling you explain the function of consciousness. It is an extended form of homeostasis.

Mark Solms

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