Marco Mauas – Memory: A Common Space Between the Brain and the Unconscious (Real)?


Dr Eric Kandel’s latest book, The Disordered Mind, (1) illustrates in an astonishing way, on one hand, the dead ends of the said neurosciences at present, and, on the other hand, the existence of an instructive void. Let’s start with the first point. Kandel opens his book on the difference he finds between Freud and Kraepelin. Freud, according to Kandel, believed that mental illnesses, although based in the brain, are acquired through experience, such as a traumatic experience in childhood. Kraepelin believed, according to Kandel, that they have a biological, genetic origin. Consequently, according to Kandel, psychic diseases can be distinguished one from another just as organic diseases are distinguished from one another by observing their beginning, their clinical course, and their end. This belief would have led him to create his system of classification of mental illnesses, that of Kraepelin, which is still useful today. This statement, -which appears on page 10 of Kandel’s book-, is of mysterious origin, since all that is needed is to open Kraepelin’s Lectures on Clinical Psychiatry (2) to find, on the contrary, the style of a rigorous clinician. For example, from page 1: “Of course, from the medical point of view, it is the disorders in the organic substructures of psychic life that should mainly occupy us. But such symptoms usually come from organic diseases, a situation that has been little discussed by medicine to date. These are not so much physical changes in size, shape, firmness or chemical composition as disturbances in the registers of comprehension, memory and judgment, illusions, hallucinations, depression and pathological changes in the field of the will. With the help of ideas from general pathology, we usually find our way into a new medical field without too much difficulty. But in this particular field we remain initially completely confounded by the fundamentally strange nature of the phenomena encountered until we have reached a certain degree of knowledge of the singular symptomatology of mental pathology.” The object of Kraepelin’s interest is another type of clinic, which involves singular phenomena. This is the Kraepelinian thing.

Kandel, for his part, was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discoveries on memory. His experiences with the Aplysia snail have led him to postulate that the memory is “localized” at the level of the synapse and recently a Kandel collaborator thinks he has discovered how to “transmit memory” by injecting RNA taken from a snail that has undergone certain experiences into another that has not. (3) Dr Kandel underlines in his book that, in his opinion, memory and learning are at the very heart of our lives: “Memory, the Storehouse of the Self” is the title of Chapter 5 of his book.

There are two postulates, or if you will, a petitio principii supported on two sides: 1) the assumption that the Kraepelinian clinic is based on Kraepelin’s belief in the biological origin of mental illnesses, and 2) the assertion of memory, with its cerebral foundation, as the storehouse of the self. Which makes a lot of assumptions.

Is our life made of memory? Borges says that one of his stories – “The Memory of Shakespeare,” about a man who agrees to receive Shakespeare’s memory – came to him after he dreamed a phrase: “I’m selling Shakespeare’s memory.” The character in his story acquired the memory of Shakespeare, but after a strange journey he must confess: “I realised that the three faculties of the human soul – memory, understanding and will – are merely scholastic fiction. Shakespeare’s memory was able to reveal to me only circumstances of the man Shakespeare. Clearly, these circumstances do not constitute the singularity of the poet; what matters is the literature the poet produced with that frail material.” At the end of the story, he thinks: “The wish of all things, Spinoza says, is to continue to be what they are. The stone wishes to be stone, the tiger, tiger – and I wanted to be Hermann Sörgel again.” Then, finally, the materialistic conclusion: “Simply the thing I am shall make me live.” (4)

Curiously, the simple postulation of the real leads Lacan, in his seminar on Joyce, to wonder if we can argue that we have a memory. Lacan has just said that “Let’s say that it’s to the very extent that Freud articulated the unconscious that I react to it […] It is to the very extent that Freud truly made a discovery – supposing this discovery to be true – that it may be said that the real is my symptomatic response.” (5)

It is from the real as a symptomatic answer that Lacan can ask the question aloud: “Does one possess a memory? Might it be said that we do more in saying that we have one than in imagining that we have one, that we have one at our disposal? I should say that we have it at our dire-sposal, that on a à dire.” (6)

Jacques-Alain Miller, in his meticulous reading of this chapter, (7) refers to memory as a knowledge already present. Memory is in the place of the Other, it is a name of the unconscious, of the unconscious but not of the unconscious as real, but of the unconscious as knowledge. And one can read these lines, as Jacques-Alain Miller proposes: “… speaking has nothing to do with any memory at all. And kindly he shows you that it is not at all that we remember anything: we create language by speaking.” And then: “The analysand subject speaks his own language. And […] it’s a language that is not, that one does not compare and that we do not endow with models of language in order to explain that it is deviant or that it is not.”

We thus perceive the way in which the void is introduced between the (real) unconscious and the brain: by the separating effect of the real, a real other than the brain, a real that separates the symbolic from the imaginary, we arrive with Lacan to empty the memory of all importance to identify something that is of the real of life, “the thing that I am that makes me live.”

Translated by Janet Haney and John Haney
Re-read by Lorena Hojman Davis

  1. Kandel, Éric, The Disordered Mind, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2018.
  2. Kraepelin, Emil, Lectures on Clinical Psychiatry, New York, William Wood & Company, 1904.
  3. Usha Lee McFarling, “Memory Transferred Between Snails, Challenging Standard Theory of How the Brain Remembers: research finding hints at the possibility of new treatments to restore lost memories”, Scientific American, 14 May 2018.
  4. Borges, J. L., “Shakespeare’s Memory”, The Book of Sand, Penguin, 2000, pp. 129-131.
  5. Lacan, J., Seminar 23, The Sinthome, [1975-76], Cambridge, Polity, 2016, p. 113.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Miller, J.-A., El ultimisimo Lacan, lesson of 13 December 2006, Paidos, Buenos Aires, 2013, p. 85.


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