A complex sight onto (into) “Conscience”

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(English version of the paper published in Rev. da SPPA, Vol XV, n.3, December 2008.)


In this text, reading Mark Solms, the A. returns to Freud’s idea about the mental life being completely unconscious and only a part of it is untrustworthily perceived as conscious. Confronting it with the Complexity Paradigm, it seem compatible with ideas of Spinoza, Maturana, Varela and other present scientists from so disparate fields as physic, mathematic, cybernetics, and neurosciences. Revising these entire field shows that psychoanalysis affected and was affected by all, considering participation about human mind knowledge. The A. discuss about the conscious having the same statute of other senses, as vision and hearing without distinction between mind and body by the simple reason that they are expressions of the same functional unity. Accepting the Complexity Paradigm change will cause few differences to psychoanalytical technique, because Psychoanalysis deals with complexity from its beginning. The comprehension of phenomena, yes, this must be rethought, as it is now well established that there are no “transmission of information”, so what matters is the internal constitution of subjects and their respective autopoiesis.


Conscience, complexity, autopoiesis, psychoanalyse as autopoietic experience


After centuries of conflict over the nature of consciousness, of the dualistic division that begins with the Greeks and culminate with Descartes, it seems that today we can think differently, reframing the problem and dissolving the paradox by changing the point of observation. Firstly, it is necessary to rescue Psychoanalysis pioneering as a complex science from its beginning, by the inclusion of a complex object of study, the unconscious, and the design of multi-causation of neuroses, which Freud adopted early in his research as a solution to explaining the failure of the chain of single cause – single effect. Again we are forced to surrender to his genius and acknowledge that ideas taken for granted today, had already passed through his mind: the status of consciousness as a result of an inner sense is one of them and will be addressed in the text. It is also necessary to take into account the fact that science is a single one, although the various descriptions of its particular aspects. With this, I include here the recent findings of neuroscience, cognitive biology, cybernetics and processing of images, always talking from my place as psychoanalyst.

Our daily experience to exist, see, hear, be aware of oneself, makes it to seem banal and already known experiences, because they are common to us all. But just a little attention and difficulties begins to appear: something as simple as “looking at the sunset,” for example. I see the sun putting down behind the hills of the city of Guaiba, reflecting on the muddy waters of the river of the same name, which is not river, but a “ria” or a lake, and I feel emotions that the reflected light in the clouds evokes for me as an “old time” lived in Porto Alegre for a lifetime. The colors you see are actually breaking the white light from the sun by the prisms formed by the atmosphere about us. Only that? Is much more: the fact that, in the retina, there are three types of receptor cells of light leads to a slight and easy metaphor for the three-color process printing on paper, but one thing is to deposit pigments on a paper, other very different is the stimulus in the retina, the perception that flux along the path in the brain, following to the visual cortex, where each element will be highlighted: color on here, contrast there, the integration of all elements in the frontal cortex, which finally gives me an awareness of what I see. There is not a locus in the brain where it forms a picture like that in the retina. The same source of comparisons is misleading: it appears as a “camera obscura”, but the retina is far from a film or CCD chip of today that “feel” the light in modern digital cameras. It is a living system that transmits impulses, but this is not enough to have vision. We depend on actual action to develop what we later call “vision.” Kittens deprived of walk (because they were being carried on a cart by other little cats) behaved as if they were blind, knocking against objects, dropping by the edges of their platform (Varela et al., 1993 pp. 174-5). Eyes and brains were functional but not “know” how to see because they were move restricted and impeded to establish coupling with their environment. With that, I mean that the organs of the senses are only part of the whole process of perception, dependent on integration with the rest of the organism in a complex and tangled up way. Says Solms (1997):

“The comparisons [that lead to vision] and their results are not properties of the brain and the external world, even if all information necessary to carry out these comparisons are contained in the external world.”

In the perspective of the biology of cognition, we could consider that the external stimulus does not determine the effect on the being, but its structure does (Maturana and Varela, 1984, pp. 130), so not all comparisons are in the external world, may be, not even most of them. Accept this proposition as true means to accept a change of paradigm: there is not something “out there” that I may describe objectively, but all exists in the interaction with the viewer – we must to give up a “positive knowledge” in order to seek to understand the phenomenon studied from the point of view of involved observers. “Everything that is said is said by an observer” is another maximum of the authors, who expresses this change of focus.

One good example of the difficulties in moving paradigms can be found in this dialogue between Gerald Edelman (1992, pg. 210) and Jacques Monod:

“Freud suggested that some threatening events could be retained in memory so they are not accessible to conscious recall.

We cannot forget that these are psychological terms, not structural ones. My deceased friend, the molecular biologist Jacques Monod, used to strongly discuss with me about Freud, insisting that it was unscientific and quite possibly a charlatan. I took the position that, although perhaps not a scientist in the sense that we give the word, Freud was a great intellectual pioneer, especially in their views on the unconscious and the role it plays in behavior. Monod, of rigid Huguenot tradition, replied: “I am absolutely clear about the reasons of my actions and I take full responsibility for them: they all are conscious.” Once, mad about him, I said: “Jacques, let us just put things clear “All that Freud said applies to me and nothing of what he said applies to you.” He replied: “Exactly, my friend.”

In this paper I propose to discuss that, as the dualistic perspective had exhausted their arguments, the “complexity” is the one possible way in order to join again “which was disjointed” as Morin would say. (Morin, 1990)

The emergence of complexity

The paradigmatic revolution began to draw from the 30s with the studies of Alan Turing. He created the logic conditions for a major turning point of cybernetics in the years 40 and 50, bringing to the research objects that were hitherto in the hands of mere speculations of philosophy. Objects such as mind, consciousness and cognition were not systematically and empirically investigated except in the case studies of Freud, this one very little regarded among practitioners of the “hard sciences”. Monod was not alone; in fact, he was among the majority…

The importance of the “Turing machine” was to show that the Cartesian cogito was not as transparent as pretended, because the response obtained in a step of the machine, depends also on its internal state at that time. This brilliant mathematician caused a conceptual revolution, offering logical solutions to the issue of the relationship between mind and matter, hitting the core of classic dualism. The cyberneticists will use this in support to the principle that “what the machine is able to generate is beyond the mechanical” (Dupuy, 1994, p. 34). Thus were born the cybernetics and in its trail, the cognitive sciences. Also emerged the conditions for the development of cybernetic informed neuroscience, which allowed the move in unusual directions, thereby providing a more consistent approach in relation to studies of consciousness.

The first phase of cybernetics, which originated with the project of studying the issues of communication and control in machines and living beings, is still very close to behaviorism. However, distinguishes from that by practicing a non-linear logic, consequence of the principle of recursion. The arrival of Heinz von Foerster to the group, years later, determines another conceptual turn that is known as “second-order cybernetics” in which the core logic is the presence of the observer as part of the observed system. There is a clear and profound shift in science that goes from observed systems to observant systems. Indeed, this intuition was already present in Freud’s thinking in order to handle relations between analyst-analysand, or transference-counter transference, confirming its pioneering in complex science.

The unfolding of complexity and the study of consciousness

In times of complexity, it is up to us to check what changes in our way to see psychoanalysis. We can disagree with Freud’s diagnosis, for example, for the “Man of the Wolves”, but his detailed description allows us to construct other hypotheses derived from different points of view. This may not invalidate what he said, but complete or complexify in most cases. Freud was a scientist who was attentive to the limitations of technology available in his time, saying to accept the hypothesis that some day one may cure neurosis in a different way, perhaps with chemical mediators. On our days the non-invasive examination of living beings permit to foresee his ideal of creating a “scientific psychology”, but we are still far from completing the task. It is interesting to note that our pioneer had a clear idea that the mind does not fluctuated in the air, but depended on its anatomical and physiological substrate: “The Ego is first and foremost a bodily ego” is one of its most quoted phrases. If he abandoned this bias was precisely because he feel the fragility of knowledge of brain physiology available at that time, opting then for a purely psychological approach. The neuronal network that he conceives at the “Project” has computational characteristics of excitation and inhibition that will make sense only many decades after. It is only in 1943 that McCulloch presents

“…a model of brain as a network of idealized neurons. Each neuron receives or not from its neighbors an impulse and he is activated if and only if a weighted sum of 1 or 0 that encode the presence or absence of a pulse in the afferent synapses exceeds a certain threshold, called threshold of excitement. ” (Dupuy, op. pp. 60)

Such an approach is made by Humphrey (2000):

“… human brain and mind are […] a single state of the material world that, in fact, in principle, can be completely described in terms of their microphysical components. We assume that all and each of the mental states is identical to a brain state, mental state m = brain state c, meaning that the mental state and condition of the brain express the same thing in this microphysical level. “

The discussion that follows is that, even assuming these correlations of state, this does not approach us of its cause, there are even some who doubt that they will be accessible to the human mind some day. (McGinn, 1989, apud Humphrey).

“A mental state is a brain state. Assuming this, the recall of a particular event in memory could be described as the simultaneous activity of a given, at least ascertainable, set of neurons. “(Harth, pp. xxi, 1993)

Harth states that such a description would please a classic physic, but physics has also changed, including now Relativity and Quantum Physics, what led to some one to declare, “materialism is dead” – “The machine that works with deterministic precision as if a perfect clock, is no more an appropriate description for most processes in nature.” And this also applies to the brain.

He has a heavy criticism to behaviorism, showing that often we can see situations where there is only “inputs” or “outputs”, or neither of the two, but the brain is functioning at full, as expressed in the figure of a “Thinker”. Also draws attention to the fact that there are no isolated neurons, all belonging to very complex networks where there are feedback paths between the functional groups. The visual occipital cortex, which receives information from the retina and refers to the frontal cortex, also receives a “feedback” from other areas that allows connections to the “already seen”, the experience of life. This loop plus thousands of others that he designates as the “Creative loops”, result in the perception of oneself – the conscience – according his way of seeing.

“Consciousness has imprecise limits and trying to impose sharpness does not add insight.” (Op. cit.) He recognizes at least two distinct meaning: after a severe trauma, may occur different levels of loss of consciousness or, in a second sense, “I can be aware of the presence of something or someone.” In this sense it is called “subjective awareness”.

However, it was a psychoanalyst (!), who drew attention to:

“These loops have been postulated by neurologist Lawrence Kubie already in 1930, in an article published in the journal Brain, entitled “A theoretical application to some neurological problems of the properties of excitation waves which move in closed circuits”. […] In 1941, Kubie, who had become psychoanalyst, conjectures that the neurophysiologic lowering of neurosis lies in reverberating closed loops in which the pulse sequences fall into the trap of an endless circle.” (Dupuy, op. cit.)

Kubie was the only psychoanalyst participant of the “Macy Conferences”​*​, and was the bag-of-hits of the cyberneticians, because they considered that psychoanalysis was a “damn discipline”, but the reverse is also true to some extent, as psychoanalysts like Kubie, himself, or Emanuel Peterfreund and others who where interested in cybernetics, have always been considered cursed among psychoanalysts … Anyway, fact is that psychoanalysis was represented at this moment of epistemological mutation of science.

A leap of seventy years and got to Miguel Nicolelis (2008), which became world famous by a series of electrodes implanted in volitional motor region of the brain of a monkey, Aurora, to record the activity of hundreds of neurons simultaneously. Next he started to use this information to control both the movements of a robotic arm. Aurora uses a joystick to control an electronic game, but soon realizes that she can release the joystick and control the game just by thinking. If she is or not “aware” of what she does is another matter. The basic idea is to use this knowledge of “brain-machine interface” to allow a paraplegic human to command some kind of robot, as an exoskeleton that assists him in their movements.

In January 2008, in his laboratory in the Duke University, US, Dr. Nicolelis (op. cit.) observed a monkey with a set of electrodes implanted in the brain walking on a treadmill and remotely controlling a robot that walked on another treadmill in Kyoto, Japan. The monkey could see the robot moving synchronously with it on a screen. After turning off the treadmill of the monkey the robot continued to walk for some minutes, droved only by the “intent” of the monkey, as if it were an extension of himself. I imagine how much Francisco Varela would like to know about this: it seems one more evidence of his intuition on enaction. Back to this, later.

Another blockbusting question is put on table by research of Professor Kacelnik at Oxford, England that is revealing tool-making conduct in birds of crowd family, and not by essay and error, but apparently by direct intuition. Not only primates, now also birds; our human narcissism is being challenged again.

Nicolelis says that we have so many neurons within the brain as stars in the sky, so we must seek to know this internal universe, yet so little understood. But we do know something. For example, we know that this is a closed neuronal network, which only communicates with the outside world via sensorium by one side and the motor plate of muscles and glands by another (Maturana, 1996). It follows that any pattern of activity that is observed in the brain is not “the” external world or its representation, but the result of structural coupling between the living beings and the environment in which they live. Moreover, if “mind” implies in neuronal network, it is not restricted to the skull, because there are neurons and nerve fibers outside it that map the entire surface of the body and internal organs, including blood vessels. From that follows the “body map”, about what tells us Damasio (1999) and is part of the perception of ourselves, which leads, at the end, to be aware of us. Maturana (1996, pp. 605) draws attention to the fact that these are recurring phenomena, which he differentiates from repeated:

“There is a recursion if the observer can say that the reapplication of a transaction occurs in consequence of its prior application. There is a repetition if the observer can say that an operation is performed regardless of the consequences of their previous achievement. […] When the observer sees a repetition, finds that everything remains the same, but when see a recursion, sees the emergence of a new phenomenological domain. Example: if the driving wheel of a car turns, and it does not move, stays at the same place, the observer sees the move of the wheels as repetitive. However, if the wheels of the car run so that the points of contact with the ground change, and at each new turn the wheels start in a new point, unlike the former, the observer sees a new phenomenon, the movement of the car, and considers the movement of the wheels as recursive.”

This distinction is fundamental to his concept of consciousness:

“… I believe that consciousness occurs as a particular relational dynamic, when an organization operates as a participant in a domain of recursive distinctions in language, and that is not an entity or property of an entity.” (Op. cit., P. 601)

Damasio (1999) says that to understand consciousness is to understand two related problems:

“The first is to understand how the brain engenders in the human body the mental patterns we call, for lack of a better term, the images of an object. Object here designate entities as diverse as a person, a place, a melody, a toothache, a state of bliss, image means a mental pattern in any sensory modality, such as a sound image, a tactile image, the image of a state of well-being. These images communicate aspects of the physical characteristics of the object and can also report the reaction of like or not like that we may have about an object, the plans for it that we can have, or a network of relationships of this object amidst of other objects. […] and the problem of how we get a “movie in brain […] in that rough metaphor…”


“How, in addition to engendering mental patterns for an object, the brain also engenders a sense of self in the act of knowing?” And in the following page: “… I see with certain skepticism the idea of solving the problem of consciousness.”

Apparently he remains in a dualistic paradigm in which, really, there is no solution to the problem of consciousness. I do not agree with Edelman (1992) that thought that the “late” Freud practiced a kind of dualism, not of substance but of properties, when considering that psychological properties should be taken solely on their own terms. To limit to the psychological aspects was actually a strategy, arising from the little information available on brain physiology at that time.

The Psychoanalysis arrives to the problem coming from the opposite direction, and perhaps it is time to share our findings with other scientists in the area. It is essential to make an opening toward multi- and trans-disciplinary groups, under penalty of being isolated in our speech. What is our contribution, then? We have a long experience in dealing with complex objects, even if we may not realize we have it. When Freud introduced the unconscious as a subject of study, leads the disruption of the base of the Cartesian paradigm, even trying to be faithful to Descartes. If the unconscious does not recognize contradictions, if not accept the denial, there is no time and distance, either, as shown in Matte-Blanco (1975), then we are faced with a complex object, even in the roots of our discipline. The first disciples also noted that and proposed the name “complex” for the set of causal factors of a particular clinical picture. Freud did not like this word, fearing that its use waived demand for details of multiple causes, in the idea that if “something has a name, then we know what it is…” In fact, while studying the unconscious, we do it with the conviction that it is part of a subject that is actually the object of our study, yet more complex, so.

Extending the idea of Freud and Solms (op. cit.), I think that consciousness is a property of the same status of vision and hearing: a sense towards inside that makes use of the map of the body (Damasio) and other sources not yet well studied, to organize the internal images we call thought. One of these sources are the role of mirror neurons in human learning, probably important also for the possibility of “putting yourself in the place of the other,” identify with the other.

This idea is consistent with the position of Maturana (1996) when he says that consciousness is produced in the interaction of the functioning of the neuronal network. It is interesting to remember here that Spinoza already thought that “conscience” was to have an “idea of ideas.” (Dupuy, op. pp. 61). So, Freud wanting to be Cartesian was actually Spinozist… What another world, much better, would we have today if the dominant philosophical system had been the one of this excommunicate author…

Awareness and Education

An issue that is added here is of how much conscience is needed to educate. Nicolelis (2008) seems to agree with Maturana and Varela (1984) when he propose the creation of “City of Science” where young people from the poorest and more discriminated regions of Brazil are included in the design of “Fellowship for life”, a commitment for entire lifespan (see http://www.natalneuro.org.br/). When the last authors show that there is no “transfer of knowledge” but this only happens by action of the subject in interaction with their “milieu” are saying that “knowing is living” and “living is to know.” A child learns to speak in about two years just by being immersed in a loveworthy environment that support. In this sense, the brain is a real “machine to grasp” and “learns”, i.e., changes, changes the subject and the world. Indeed we often learn “despite the teachers” as says, for instance, Kernberg (1996) that relate thirty ways to prevent the creativity of candidates in institutes of psychoanalysis, or as stated Pellanda, N. (1996, pp. 227) describing a teacher who complained that a student draw a tree: “But where did you ever saw a purple tree?” when just looking through the window of the classroom al class could see a glorious jacaranda entirely covered with purple flowers.

Or, as I said in Rovereto (2007):

“There is no transmission of knowledge like a transmission of a TV show that is captured on a TV set. Knowledge is re-created every time, inside the mind of every learner, through the action of each subject, and is highly dependent on the affections that are in its origin. Making this the living beings change themselves – including at the level of proteins: making new synapses, changing the architecture of their brain – in a way we found to be the poet Mario Quintana full of right when he says “We are no more the same after stumble the stone in the middle of the road.” Yes, we change physically and emotionally. Yes, we re-invent the wheel each time we add a little more in our memories.”

So, indeed, for learning to occur, the key is the existence of an enabling environment, where no questions are already answered and where the curiosity is encouraged rather than criticized. We are far of this in almost all our public and private schools and in our own institutions (as Kernberg says, above). I would emphasize the importance of initiatives such as Nicolelis, sensitizing the international community to obtain significant funds to achieve their already winning proposal for social inclusion through the teaching of science.

Among us, the fact that there are in SPPA a Study Group of Psychoanalytic Epistemology, among others, shows the evolution toward a vision of science more comprehensive and inclusive.

The place of psychoanalysis in the complexity and the question of consciousness

Conscience, conscious, to be aware, are words that seem to express things in our daily experience, that do not require further clarification. However, understand what is really “conscience” has resisted a rigorous scientific description. It seems obvious that there is a relationship between consciousness and brain activity; that the emergence of consciousness among the living beings is a result of evolution towards complexity of beings, there seems to be no doubt among scientists today; that there is a relationship between the brain grow and progressive increase in the computational ability of it, either; that human beings have a unique status among the living, still less. But why and how are still subjects of much debate.

Of the many times that Freud used the word “conscience” in his writings, it appears that there has been none to define what it is, and many times he used in the sense of “moral conscience”. Like many others, he take for granted that everyone knew from experience, being necessary only to advocate the existence of an unconscious, considered impossible by definition, since “thought could only be conscious”, according to current psychology at the end of the nineteenth century. That “conscience” is a primary axiom in psychoanalysis seems to be indicated also by the fact that Etchegoyen (1987) has not found necessary to use this word in the title of any of the sixty chapters or 409 sub-chapters of his monumental treaty. But it is clear that when one psychoanalyst interprets to his analysand, he does it to the conscious of him, even searching for unconscious effects. Even today it causes discomfort to some scientists that prefer to admit “mental processes not conscious” just to avoid using the term “unconscious” that refers to Freud.

Mark Solms (op. cit.) draws attention that Freud had a different conception of mental activity; it was always unconscious and only indirectly perceived, in secondary and distorted form, by consciousness. Quoting Freud:

“In psycho-analysis there is no choice but for us to assert that mental processes are in themselves unconscious, and to liken the perception of them by means of consciousness to the perception of the external world by means of sense-organs [S.E. 1915, p. 171]

“But these two discoveries – that the life of our sexual instincts cannot be wholly tamed, and that mental processes are in themselves unconscious and only reach the ego and come under its control through incomplete and untrustworthy perceptions” [S.E. 1917, p. 143].

The continuation of this citation may contain an indication of why this part has been so neglected: Freud follows: “- these two discoveries amount to a statement that the ego is not master in its own house”. Together they represent the third blow to man’s self-love, what I may call the psychological one (op. cit.)” (Author’s emphasis)

Probably this is one of his five most quoted phrases in the literature and of scientific journals around the world, and served to strengthen the defenses against the shock of narcissism in us all. However, Solms has surprising statement when he says that

“The fundamental proposition of psychoanalysis is not that merely a region of the mind is unconscious. It is that mental activity is unconscious in itself [emphasis mine]. This implies that consciousness is not merely a portion of mental activity, but a reflection of mental activity, or the perception of mental activity (which is in itself unconscious). According to this proposition, the mental activity is not in a continue causal chain, with some links conscious and others not, instead, the proposal is that mental activity consists of a causal chain that is all unconscious in its essence, and that conscience represents this process a ‘incomplete and not reliable’ form” (Solms, 1997)

Just before had stated that he does not share the view that particular mental states lead to conscience:

“I hope to show that the question ‘How exactly the processes in the brain cause consciousness?” Contains a fundamental design flaw in the nature of consciousness. As a result, the question this way can never be answered.”

In this moment, he leaves, as Freud has done, any attempt to unite the two camps, even saying that wants to make a contribution to it, from a psychoanalytic point of view. In my opinion, there is no conflict between these two proposals, if they are viewed from the standpoint proposed by Varela (1993), as a result of a “enaction“: this author argues that knowledge occurs by action upon the world, as stated in the example of the kittens “blind” for not having learned to see, or rather, not have completed the seeing apparatus in its fullness. “In building his theory, he defends the notion of cognition as a product of both the ontogenetic experience, as the possibilities arising from the innate phylogenetic heritage.” (Terra et al. 2004)  Our structure at this moment is the result of our phylogenetic evolution, which gave us eyes sensitive to three colors, for example (different from birds or other animals that have eyes for two or four primary colors) plus our ontogenetic development: learning to see with those eyes that we were given to us through our action over the world.

Sacks (1984) gives a touching description of this phenomenon when reporting the sequelae of an accident suffered by him, the section of the crural quadriceps tendon in trying to escape from a bull, being alone when climbing a mountain in Norway. Away from medical help, it took days to be operated and many others to be released to move by the surgeon in charge. Then he reports the terrifying experience to feel like alien his own leg, immobilized in a plaster. Just realized that it was he in the moment of throwing it “out of bed” and finding himself felling together on the floor. Twenty years after it happened again to have cut the tendon of the quadriceps of the other leg, this time in New York, with early care and prompt walking. The lack of effect of derealization leads to reflect about the earlier episode, concluding that was the immobility that “erased” the existence of his leg off the “map of the body” (Damásio, 2000), or from the “Penfield Homunculus”. The new perception, then, is that the “Homunculus” is not static but highly dynamic, and the same effect of strangeness may be obtained with arterial occlusion of a member for a few minutes, with a sphygmomanometer. The perception of ourselves is dependent of our moving that triggers “feed-back” that, in turn, updates the map of the body. This is another evidence, in my view, of how the “embodied mind” is paramount, of how much not only the ego, but everything else is “first and foremost, bodily”.

Even today the majority of authors which deal with this issue try to avoid a “definition” of consciousness, just because it is a complex phenomenon that encompasses many dimensions, not always easy to explicit.

The great novelty of psychoanalysis was to explore the unconscious mind, and its main merit comes from that. Freud, as already said, does not goes to the work of defining what is “conscious” or “conscience” but makes use of those words with the sense that the dictionary gives, for example, to say that the Ego is conscious and has a part unconscious, and Super-Ego is completely unconscious. In the decade of fifties of the last century there were, both in the SPPA, which I witnessed, as in most other societies, a clear division between the teachers who said and wrote as above and others that said that Super-Ego had a conscious part, identified with the moral conscience, which hinted the free will, and one which promoted the unconscious repression.

I fear that we, psychoanalysts, when we say that we are not interested in neuroscience, that only psychoanalysis is psychoanalysis and the rest is the rest, or anything, I fear that we are taking an attitude like “what I do not know does not exists” But Freud (1923) said:

“The difficulty of the work of research in psycho-analysis is clearly shown by the fact of its being possible, in spite of whole decades of unremitting observation, to overlook features that are of general occurrence and situations that are characteristic, until at last they confront one in an unmistakable form.”  [S.E. 1923, p. 141]

The Psychoanalysis born in Vienna of the nineteenth century, has a place in this brave new world? The answer depends on the psychoanalysts being willing to leave their safe havens in a purely mental, philosophical theory to accept that the mind does not exist without the body. It is not the question what the relationship “mind-body” is, as if they were two independent entities, separate and therefore able to establish a “relationship”. But if we consider, for example, that they are different manifestations of the same thing, there is no more the paradox. The proper question then is another: how do we know that we call “mind”?


When we change the observation point to see the world through the perspective of complexity, what changes in Psychoanalysis? Probably less than one might expect, by the simple fact that psychoanalysis has to deal with complexity since it’s beginning. Certainly changes the way to explain certain mental phenomena, to understand the difficulties of taking the authorship of the self we see in our analysand, changes the understanding that our interpretations are in fact disturbances requiring to autopoietic reorganization, leading the construction of knowledge and therefore, knowledge of self. But this does not exonerate us of the theoretical consistency of the epistemological rigor of the framework of the analyst. As remembered by Klimovsky (1987, pp. 276):

“…even if a hypotheses had very good practical consequences, clinical and observable, this does not demonstrate it as correct; logics know that, unfortunately, from false reasoning we may deduct true, [… but …] logic does not guarantee anything in relation to what happens if one part from falsehoods.”

By this I mean that these many hundred years of experience in clinical cases described accurately, they remain, even if eventually have to recast the “whys” of why have resulted right or wrong. The fact is that the “psychoanalytical setting” as historically proposed, is shown to be a propitious environment for autopoietic change of personal maturity and expansion of autonomy on the part of both participants in an analysis. Similarly as we can learn “despite” the teacher, you can “cure” a symptom “despite” the psychoanalyst, but obviously this is not a desirable situation. In any case it is important to remember that the structure of the analysand that is critical for their perception of his or her psychoanalyst, and that both form a “team” that or learn to work together or is determined to stalemate as process. Each interpretation, each intervention or even the lack of action only acquires meaning by the autopoietic elaboration of the analysand, while he intuitively mimicry the mental processes that are happening in the mind of the analyst. In turn, responses, conscious or not, above and under the threshold of conscience, provides feedback to the system making progress in self-analysis of the analyst, which unfolds along with the analysand (Pellanda, LE, 1996), in a process that Maturana calls the “structural coupling”

Returning to the start, feeding back the process of complexification started by Freud breaking with Cartesianism, even despite himself, we can say that it is no more expected that interpretation, mutative or not, are capable, by itself, determine the development of a psychoanalytic process. Today we see this process as determined by the structures of analysand and analyst, an interplay of disturbances that trigger changes in the personal autopoiesis of each. Being mental activity unconscious and the consciousness only partial and distorted information of the processes occurring in the whole organism, there is no dichotomy of “mind-body”, in that the involved observer perceives an indivisible whole.


Damásio (1999) O mistério da Consciência. Trad. Laura Teixeira Motta, Companhia das Letras, 2000.

Dupuy, J-P. (1994) Nas Origens das Ciências Cognitivas. Trad. Roberto Leal Ferrreira. Editora UNESP.1995.

Edelman, G. (1992) Biologia da consciência. As raízes do pensamento. Trad.  Jorge Domingues Nogueira. Piaget, Lisboa, 1995.

Etchegoyen, R.H. (1987) Fundamentos da Técnica Psicanalítica. Trad. Cícero Fernandes. Artes Medicas, Porto Alegre.

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N.B. –  This work is a chapter of a larger project under the general title of “Psychoanalysis in times of complexity” and includes insights obtained or expanded within the discussions of the “psychoanalytic epistemology study group” of SPPA, and 45 years in construction of knowledge that I share with Nize, making her a autopoietic co-author of everything I write. Grazie a tutti.

  1. ​*​
    With the name of the Macy Conferences, happened between the years 1946 and 1953, a series of ten interdisciplinary conferences that led to the founding of cybernetics as we know today. Under the auspices of the Josiah Macy Foundation, a philanthropic organization devoted to problems of the nervous system, was promoted the meeting of major scientists in a wide range of fields to discuss feedback and circular causality in biological and social systems (http://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macy_conferences)