Ruzanna Hakobyan – The Brain in Mourning and Melancholia


The Department of Neuroscience at McGill University, world-renowned for its cutting-edge research, has a series of online courses called, “Understanding the Brain” on their website. One of these courses is devoted to depression. It is a detailed presentation of what happens at the molecular level in the brain during a depression.

The course is not without surprises.

When one hears the definition of what it’s called reactive depression, one discovers, amazed, that it is the word-by-word definition given by Freud to describe mourning, in his 1917 text, “Mourning and Melancholia”. One word is, nevertheless, added to it: the brain, which completely changes its meaning and scope. “The reactional depression (mourning) is regularly the reaction of the brain to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on. “[1]

For the said unipolar depression, we find again the lines of Freud, as well as the addition of the word brain, which, once again, completely modifies the paradigm, this time for melancholia. The insistance that, even if the depression reaction resembles unipolar depression, it is not simply a sadness in relation to the loss of a loved one, but an abnormal reaction of the brain characterized by a sense of “self-loathing” (self-depreciation). Freud reminds us, in fact, that “the melancholic displays something else besides which is lacking in mourning – an extraordinary diminution of his self-regard…”[2]

After insisting on the radical difference between these two types of depression, pointing out that similar symptomatological manifestations can be confusing, the speaker, nevertheless, gives a single causality of depression. In both cases, the depression would be the result of the functional deficiency of monoamines in the limbic system. The therapeutic conclusion is that by facilitating with drugs, the passage of certain molecules in brains, one can “antidepress” the person.

At the very end of the presentation, in the last ten seconds, the speaker talks about suicide to recognize that, despite multiple studies on the brain, neuroscience has not yet been able to find an answer to the phenomenon. She confesses neuroscience cannot answer the question of why some individuals choose suicide, despite all the antidepressants. The hope is that new technologies will make it possible to examine the brain even more closely in order to find the answer.

This dishonest way of using Freud’s writings, reducing them to a univocal mechanical causality, is not without consequences. It removes the subject, the subject’s experience and the dialectic of the clinic, full stop – leaving at the same time the question of suicide without any point of reference.

In Canada, where the social discourse is marked by the enjoyment (jouissance) of the “right to watch” through videosurveillance cameras, statistics and infinite inspections, the neurosciences enter the game to study, under the magnifying glass, each movement of each molecule. What escapes is what cannot be seen with any microscope – the dimension of the subject of the unconscious.

Is it a coincidence, that what it is not possible to see under the microscope is what makes symptom? Canada, and especially Quebec, remains a place where the suicide rate is one of the highest in the world.

Translation : Janet Haney
Re-read by Lorena Hojman Davis

[1] Freud, S., “Mourning and Melancholia” SE14 p. 243
[2] Ibid, p. 246.
[3] Wajcman, G., L’œil absolu, Ed. Denoël, 2010, p. 14

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