Fabian Fajnwaks – Impression – Trace – Signifier – Letter


That the unconscious has nothing in common with the brain is not self-evident for our neuroscientist colleagues who have for many years been searching for the biological markers of all the phenomena that take place in Consciousness and the Unconscious; such as they conceive of it. In his text, In Search of Memory, the Emergence of a New Science of Mind, published in 2006 in conjunction with the author receiving the Nobel Prize for Medicine, Eric Kandel had already pleaded for the “development of a biological approach to psychotherapy”, which would encompass the “phenomena of Consciousness, the unconscious and subjectivity as a whole “(1). Kandel, whom as a young man having met Ernest Kris in the USA at the time of Kandel’s emigrating there, had thought of becoming a psychoanalyst, presents – with a call he makes in this book to collect psychoanalytic data based on empirical research, supported essentially on brain imaging – how one might integrate psychoanalysis into the new science of the mind which is currently being developed.

Kandel wishes to point out that psychoanalysis was merely a digression that developed between the development of neurology and its rallying around the research of Ramon y Cajal in the twenties, and the new impetus that neurology has gained since the 1980s via new brain imaging techniques such as MRI, as well as the newer scanners. A desire for a renewal of neurology is thus clearly affirmed by this leading author of the Neurosciences. Psychopharmacology and Cognitive Behavioral Therapies would reinforce this new science of the mind […] and psychoanalysis as well, if it deigned to conform to this biological model. This is what Kandel indicated during his visit to Paris last September, when in a discussion with colleagues from other schools he proposed that psychoanalysis could submit to parameters of “scientific” evaluation, that is to say, observable parameters. Impossible? Not for these guys. If the whole problem for neuroscientists is to find biological markers of conscious or unconscious phenomena, then they have begun to do so.  In fact, the basal nucleus of the amygdala, a cerebral region that is only beginning to be explored, would be color-highlighted, for example, in the case of CT scan, as the area reacting to the stimuli that elicits for the subject “the unconscious perception of fear” (2). Fear and anxiety are of course not of the same order, but for our colleagues a reduction is effectuated in this direction.

The same reduction is evident with regard to neuronal plasticity: for many years, our colleagues have been able to explain the evolution of the nervous system over time, thus seeking to go beyond the innate/acquired debate and escape from the fixity of neuronal determinism. New synapses would be established every day thus modifying the structure of the nervous system; where lived experiences of the individual – trauma, learning, etc., in short, any contingency, would involve a manner of cerebral inscription. Two years ago, Céline Alvarez authored a book based on the work of Stanislas Dehaene who caused controversy in the field of education, by explaining how a stimulus offered by an increased interest of teaching staff in underprivileged suburban Parisian classrooms – where the interventions were staged – facilitated the development of new neural connections, thus improving the academic results of these students.

If indeed there are synaptic connections developing, this should not be confused here as Eric Laurent pointed out at the Neurosciences and Psychoanalysis Colloquium held at the Collège de France in 2008, with the difference between the written trace, the effaced trace that founds the signifier and the writing that constitutes the remainder of this operation. If our colleagues in Neuroscience are so interested in the Freud of the “Project”, it is because they read the impressive routes that he delineates as a metaphor for writing, a perspective already foreseen by Lacan in Lituraterre. Whereas, to become a letter each impression must first pass through the signifier, that is to say, through the spoken word; that which the written language model that neural plasticity supposes is an impression in short-circuit with speech and the signifier.

In this return to the organicist neuronal materialism, today refreshed as Kandel would have it, with brain imaging as proof, there is a complete foreclosure of the speech of the subject. A perspective which it is undoubtedly necessary to put into opposition with the moteralism that psychoanalysis practices: causality in language in so far as it fails to name the thing.

Translation by Raphael Montague
Reviewed by Caroline Heanue

(1) Kandel, E., In Search of Memory […].W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2006, p. 370.

(2) Kandel, E., op. cit. p. 388.

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