Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness [book review]

Recently I have taken a great interest in the development of mind and how a constructionist view of learning might help people solve harder problems.  How we learn and how we facilitate learning appear to be key to designing effective learning experiences and in the last 20 years psychologists, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists seem to have made great strides in understanding what is going on.

I’ve just finished Mark Solmes’ Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness and I thoroughly recommend it, but be prepared to work hard.  It is not an easy book but it is highly rewarding and thought provoking.

The book explores what has been called “the hard problem of consciousness”; why do we have personal, first person experiences of what we are thinking?  Many have suggested that this takes us beyond what can be understood in terms of physics and this is the landscape that Solmes explores building on the work of many others.  

Solmes suggests that previous attempts to understand the mechanism have failed for two reasons: they look in the wrong part of the brain (the cortex) and they look at the wrong types of cognition (usually starting with vision),

He starts instead with “affect” or what we would call feelings and explores the role of part of the brainstem in bringing together internal and external sensations and prioritising them.  It is this prioritising of feelings that gives rise to consciousness.   As he says, it is impossible to imagine unconscious feelings as they need to be felt.

We prioritise feelings in order to deal with what is going on in our world and in our heads; dealing with the problems of hunger, thirst, danger and procreation as well as learning.  He explains the prioritisation in terms of homeostasis; the need to restore order in order to prevent ourselves from spiralling out of control and hastening death.  We are conscious in order to stay alive and consciousness has evolved to make this efficient. There is lots of science and maths here to explore but even, if it is hard to gasp, keep going as he is a very good storyteller.

I particularly like the way he tells the same story from multiple perspectives and although I struggled with some chapters revisiting the same ideas from a different perspective later on really began to let things sink in.

I was also glad that he tackles the ethical challenges raised by the ideas.  If consciousness can be described in terms of physical functions then there is the potential to mirror these functions in hardware and software and develop sentient machines.  Solmes suggests that this will be possible very soon and that it must be done for non commercial gain and patented for the common good.  

As we understand more of how we think and learn, how we construct mind, then we can think about effective ways to engage learners to maximise the impact of learning experiences.  Solmes suggests that we remember only those things that matter; that generate strong feelings to provide memories that will be useful in solving problems later.  We need to recognise that seeing and hearing ideas may be not enough to generate affect and this might explain why most of education is forgotten.  

Do we instead need to solve learning challenges that excite, engage, frustrate and inspire? Perhaps only through these kinds of experiences will we create the memories that our minds will find useful in the future.

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