The New Moebius Strip: Biology Starts in the Other


The article delineates the link between Lacanian psychoanalysis and recent research in the neurosciences. Thinking of this link as a mode of rapprochement means recalling to psychoanalysis its main object: neither psychic development, nor gender formation, but rather the fantasy attempting to resolve the enigma of sexual difference. Only by returning to this object can psychoanalysis regain its position as a legitimate troublemaker in the nature/nurture debate.

This is a little manifesto meant to encourage Lacanian inspired scholars to begin to take seriously the recent advances in the neurosciences and to realize that what neuroscientists have to say on the matter could eventually revolutionize the nascent field of neuro-psychoanalysis, that is introduced by Mark Solms. In order to avoid falling back on old bumper stickers, I propose to flip things upside down and demystify the apparently anti-biological roots of Lacanian psychoanalysis.
It is not usual, for Lacanian, to call upon the neurosciences and animal experiments to help define the specificity of psychoanalysis. For them, the body and the signifier are so intertwined that is not possible to sort out their respective constituency. Moreover, Lacan’s most radical contribution has been to show that what resists the capture of the signifier is precisely that which science, despite its positivistic pretension, is unable to explain. The system of phallic signification, of language, of science, of social interaction, cannot discover what lies beneath what Freud has called “the bedrock of castration”. In other words, the system in which we are inscribed as human beings does not include an explanation either of its origin or of its function.

Lacan has therefore brought psychoanalysis almost to a point which defies the discoveries of the neurosciences. Lacan does not subscribe to Damasio’s definition of affective consciousness because the most fundamental experience of consciousness itself presupposes the division of the subject in language. “The feeling who one is” (Damasio 1999) can be at best compared to the distance that separates desire from the Oedipal fantasy, a distance that is afforded through the process of socialization that in turn guarantees the inaccessibility of this fantasy. Yet such a fantasy, or object a, is not the repository of a secret knowledge of what could bring fulfillment to the subject. Psychoanalysis reveals that this fantasy that propels desire to search for its metaphorical and metonymical representations, is only an artful montage of traces of past experiences behind which there is nothing to find.

In that sense Lacan has discouraged the scientific aspirations of his mentors, Freud and Lévi-Strauss. Both Freud and Lévi-Strauss were convinced that psychoanalysis and structural anthropology could get to the root of the fantasy of incest so as to discover once and for all the definitive link that would connect culture to nature. While Freud talked about “mastering the factor… of the great riddle of sex”, Lévi-Strauss spoke of a “universe that has signified from the start the totality of what humanity can expect to know. What is called the progress of the human psyche or knowledge can only consist in new ways of organizing… defining new relations and discovering new resources within the closed and self-complementary totality that the universe represents.” (Lévi-Strauss 1980, p. XLXIII, my trans.)

Yet Lacan died before he could see for himself that neurosciences offer insights which actually confirm his most radical hypothesis.
It is not that neurobiology pushes further and further away the discoveries of psychoanalysis, it is rather that the more we discover the ways the brain functions, the more we can circumscribe the object that pertains to psychoanalytic research. Unfortunately those psychoanalysts who favor this approach tend to be influenced by the results of animal and infant research, and to discredit Freud’s theory of primal repression, of dream interpretation and of infantile sexuality. These analysts also cling to psychoanalytic theories that have not succeeded in breaking down the nature-culture divide, and therefore are ill-equipped to discern what is unique in Freud’s discoveries.

This is why, a return to a Lacan more tolerant of the potential links between the neurosciences and psychoanalysis could help define how, where and why the continuum between animal and human neuropsychological behavior can be interrupted. Only then, can we understand specifically what is the object of psychoanalysis, and in turn what falls outside of its realm of inquiry. I contend that the question that revolves around “the great riddle of sex” might help redefine the scope of these disciplines that have recently overlapped with psychoanalysis, such as psychology, feminism and queer theory.

Lesley Rogers, professor of Neuro-Science and Animal Behavior at the Univ. of New England, Australia, reports in her book, Sexing the Brain, the following experiment:

Mother rats lick their male pups in the anogenital region more than their female pups, and the same is true in gerbils and ferrets. This preferential licking of males affects their sex-typical behavior as adults, and it also affects their physiology. The experimenter gave the female pups extra anogenital stimulation by stroking their anogenital region with a paintbrush several times a day. The females behaved like males as adults: they mounted other females, showed patterns of activity more typical of males and even secreted a hormone typical of males. It is important to note also that anogenital licking also stimulates growth of a region of the brain that develops more brain cells.

These remarkable results, Rogers goes on to say, show that sex differences in physiology, behavior and even brain structure depend on maternal stimulation of the pup’s anogenital region in early life. Different species may have different form of stimulation, but anogenital licking is important in several species. In natural settings outside the laboratory, both parents may contribute to gender development by providing different amounts of attention to female and male offspring. The mother rat responds to the presence of testosterone by being attracted to the pup’s urine, and the change in her behavior–not the direct action of the testosterone on the pups’ brains–affects the development of sex differences in the pups. Little attention has been paid to these findings. It is as if people are unable to change their minds to accept the new concept.

Biology is involved even in the indirect route of altering the mother’s licking behavior (such as: females treated with testosterone receive more licking from their mothers) because the mother is responding to chemical signals in the urine. But the route of causation is not a simple linear one from the pup’s genes to its hormones, to its brain and then to its behavior. The development of sex differences in the rats’ behavior is not orchestrated by an innate program, but involves the interaction of developmentally specified events and modification by experience.

Many inferences can be drawn from Lesley Rogers’ work. The work she describes is an allusion to the flexibility of gender roles and even in animals, feminine and masculine behaviors are not fixed but are deeply influenced by the Other. By the same token she provides us with a model–that I would call “Biological intersubjectivity”–which would certainly be welcomed by psychoanalysis at large. Yet I do not jump on the idea that such a study confirms the natural propensity of mothers to favor boys over girls, or even that it justifies the old patriarchal notion of a maternal instinct. I would simply suggest that Rogers and her colleagues offer the hypothesis that in the animal world intersubjectivity is primary, in the sense that in the case of rat pups, the slot of the signifier of the desire of the other in humans is taken up by the testosterone produced by male urine.

Rogers provides us with the biological model that matches Lévi-Strauss’ insight that the intersubjective structure of the unconscious transcends the divide between inside and outside. Lévi Strauss was therefore “close to nature’s plan” when he deduced from his anthropological research, that the gap between nature and culture was marked by an organizing principle that reached beyond the individuals themselves. It is not that men produce this principle, it is rather that men and women are produced by it.

I do not say that we can infer from this analogy a progressive continuum between humans and animals. On the contrary, the structures that underlie social life cannot be retraced to their natural origins–the natural origins of culture are marked by a blank. The ways the individual as a member of a given society will fill that blank with a myth that is both personal in its content and universal in its structure, are precisely what Freud attempted to address with his theories of infantile sexuality. And such a myth can only be unraveled retroactively–Nachträglichkheit–through the talking cure. In this sense the new discoveries of neuroscience on the functioning of memories, dreams, intelligence, behavior, etc., or the new findings of attachment theory, don’t directly impinge on what Freud has called “the great riddle of sex.”
Yet many schools of psychoanalysis have chosen to sacrifice their ties with the original project of psychoanalysis, in order to model their reading of object relations, transference and psychic development on the recent findings of infant and animal research. It may be much more productive to reverse the view of psychoanalysis as the vassal of science, and bring both scientific research and psychoanalysis to a point where they can acknowledge the asymptotic curve that both unites and separates them.
Lacan’s reading of Freud seems particularly consistent with this asymptotic curve. He calls upon cognitive psychology and neurological development for the sole purpose of strengthening his hypothesis that Freud’s drive theory can only make sense when interpreted through the grid of the symbolic order and the see-saw movement of the mirror stage. Such a conservative approach has paid off because the fairly ancient scientific references that he uses have been confirmed and expanded by contemporary research on the behavior of newborns. Unlike the animal, human beings cannot rely on the patterning of instincts to dictate their strategies of survival. Because human beings are born with a premature nervous system, they have no inner sense of how to adapt to their surroundings. However, because they are also endowed with a precocious ability to discern soon after birth the human face and to distinguish the sound of their mother’s voice, they are also biologically prepared to connect to the one who is deeply invested in their well being. In that sense, the conditions of newborn survival is not a given inscribed in nature’s plan. They depend on the desire of the Other, which in turn is dependent on a fantasy of what this child represents for her or him. Yet this fantasy is not merely an effect of a so-called “biological maternal instinct”. The fantasy may or may not match the reality. The future subject may or may not encounter in his mother’s gaze or voice the signifier that guarantees the primordial feeling of who one is. Lacan’s mirror stage amply demonstrates that humans’ unique neurological system already creates a situation that places them in a highly vulnerable position: their survival depends on the other. And this other is inscribed in a chain of signifiers that the child will have to decipher in order to gain his or her status as the Other’s object of desire. The becoming of the “ego” is fraught with uncertainties.

This vulnerable position, that is unique to humans, can be artificially provoked in animal experiments. Rogers also shows that rat pups’ brains increase in size when the pups are separated from their mothers for a few minutes a day. The experimenter connects this brain’s size increase to the handling of back and forth between the cup where they are placed and their mothers, which in my view does not make much sense. If we project back human psychology onto the pup, it would make more sense to link this brain’s size increase to the anxiety related to separation and to the fact that the pup must strive to find a solution to this trauma which stimulates its brain. The experimenter did not consider that the brain might stop growing once the pup has figured out that this is, in Freudian terms, a “fort da” experiment, and that eventually the pup would get used to this exercise.

For humans the situation is far more taxing for the brain. They are led to wonder: what does the other want? Where does the other go? What or who is more attractive than what I represent as this perfect object of desire? This anxiety triggers in the child the necessary stimulation to first identify the signifiers of the mother’s desire and then to identify her or himself with them. In other words, the child (as object) experiences the difference between what the mother wants, and the role he can play in that desire. This question of what the Other wants brings forth for the child the crucial question of the enigma of sexual difference, that is the cornerstone of Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. But here we must be prudent, because when we say “sexual difference” we usually mean the difference between boy and girl. It is on that level that Rogers challenges our common notions and shows the crucial importance of the impact of the other on hormones and on the brain. In that sense, Rogers agrees with Lacan, although for different reasons, that the category of gender is not a given but a construct or an effect of the expectations and behaviors of the Other. What Lacan shows, however, is that at the level of the unconscious, sexual difference is not primarily related to biological difference but to something else.

The distance between what the child is (as real) and what he represents (as imaginary) and what he fails to represent (the signifier of the desire of the other), opens up the possibility for him to discover a new order, a new realm of investigation. The psychic energy awakened through the signifiers of the mother’s desire opens up for the child the enigma of sexual difference, an enigma that can never be solved but can at least be organized by the clues provided by the mother’s signifiers. By following the arrows of the mother’s desire towards the signs provided by the paternal realm, i.e. the ego Ideal, the child will be able to situate himself or herself as a boy or a girl in the social world. But this solution does not take care of business all around, because the real of sexual difference, or the great riddle of sex, is not completely addressed by the social ideals involved in the dissolution of the Oedipal complex. It is not because the child is now identified with traits of her parents or grandparents that s/he can make substantial progress in figuring out this ineffable bond between what s/he feels from within (the auto-erotic yearnings), and the part of what the other wants (jouissance of the other) that cannot be exhaustively translated through the signifiers of the desire of the other. The formation of gender displaces the question without solving it.

To be clear: sexual difference here refers to sex and radical difference, i.e. the subject’s and the mother’s pursuit of pleasure is not all satisfied by either the child or by the father. So this excess in the Other poses a threat to the child because he or she can never be sure if the Other’s pleasure or displeasure may take the child as prey, which in itself is not an experience devoid of erotic gratification. The frightful attraction to the incomprehensible flip side of the signifier of the desire of the other brings about primary repression. Primary repression is an attempt to control the threat while keeping the possibility of pleasure alive.

So the question that presents itself is not so much what the neurosciences can do for psychoanalysis, but rather what psychoanalysis can retroactively do to problematize neuroscientific research. In other words, if the licking of the pups’-anogenital area, which in turn stimulates their brains, were taken up as a model to demonstrate the fundamental intersubjective nature of neurobiology for both animals and humans; and if, in humans, this stimulating licking were translated by the signifier of the desire of the other, we would still miss the true import of psychoanalysis. Indeed, if the signifier of the desire of the other hit the spot and guaranteed the status of the subject as the signified of such a desire, there would be no unconscious to speak of and neuro-cognitive psychology could exhaust all the different combinations of human intelligence.

Isn’t the difference between animals and humans precisely due to the fact that the signifier cannot exhaust the signals that emerge both from within and from without? The limited neurological ability to control movements, to reflexively avoid pain or seek comfort, and the extraordinary ability to be receptive to images and sounds, makes survival and adaptation hardly an obvious proposition. Therefore, processes of maturation and socialization cannot restore the biological connection that instinctively binds the animal to its caretaker and later to its mates. The disrupted instinctual life of the human being is therefore compensated–in the name of survival and adaptation–by the need to create order, whereas for the animal, order was created for it.

The enigma of sexual difference is therefore what resists such ordering. Freud did not say anything different when he traced all of psychic life back to his theories of infantile sexuality and the traumatic effect of the primal scene. Rat pups are apparently not perturbed when their mothers are licking their anogenital area. Yet for humans, the erotic stimulation of the oral, anal and genital zones can never be taken for granted. The lack of distinction between outside and inside–not apparently a question for animals–is never completely resolved in humans because at every stage of development, the lack of complementarity between self and other necessarily affords new experiences of anxiety, which re-awaken those earlier experiences where the distinction between self and other was even less tangible. Therefore the combination of sexual stimulation and anxiety challenges the brain to permanently discover new signifiers that can make the radically other closer to the same.

I am not sure that the complexity and size of the human brain can be linked to the psychic energy devoted to figuring out the mystery of what is not all captured by the realm of meaning and reliable expectations. Let’s reiterate here again that this mystery relates to sex only in so far as it is at the level of the ineffable, non signifiable erotic bond with the other that this enigma first originated. I certainly cannot presume that neuro-scientists are ready to tackle this hypothesis. But as a first step I suggest that the work of Rogers puts into perspective the specificity of psychoanalysis. The enigma of sexual difference, the bedrock of castration and its ramifications are, at the end of the day, the only “object” of psychoanalytic inquiry. Freud’s stages of development and the different phases of the oedipal complex remain relevant only insofar as they show how at different biological crossroads, the enigma re-appears only to be partially solved by gender and its cultural expectations.
It is therefore futile for psychoanalysis to try to compete with or submit to the plethora of infant research studies, which are in no position to confirm or disconfirm how the enigma of sexual difference plays out in the mother-baby relation. There is no question that most of these studies show what they intend to prove, or prove what they intend to show. The more we know about the brain, about the biological origins of emotions, about memory, about the cognitive unconscious, about the similarities between animals and humans, the more we will understand how the Freudian unconscious pulls the strings of these multiple findings, transforming them into a whole that is not only more coherent but also more compelling.

In conclusion, the enigma of sexual difference is only indirectly related to Leslie Rogers’ insistence that much of what constitutes masculine and feminine traits is the effect of the environment. This point is of primary importance, if we think of the links between biology, psychoanalysis, feminism and queer theory. From “sexing the brain” we can infer that it confirms that gender as a construct falls outside the scope of psychoanalysis. It is obvious that a patient will arrive clothed in a specific gender and will use a discourse that fits the role he or she plays. The question is no longer “is the girl born or made?” She is made through and through by biology, hormones, cultural expectations, etc. It does not matter if that girl tests positive for what is considered typical girl behavior. Her unconscious fantasy is devoted to a project, which does not include gender among its concerns. It has more important signifiers to track, since it must resolve what, beyond gender, can account for difference, because difference can disrupt all the certainties that have been accumulated so far. Yet it must be noted that hormones and cultural expectations are not expelled from the unconscious, since the unconscious itself is made up of the residues of what takes place in experience.

Psychoanalysis could stick to its phallic guns–that is the polyvalent signifier of desire–and not be bogged down in the “gendered” and hormone-laden discourse that necessarily informs the formations of the unconscious. If it does so, not only would psychoanalysis become re-acquainted with feminist and queer theory, but it would also encourage neuroscientists to take seriously the hypothesis that between the performance of the brain and the creativity of the mind lies the enigma of sexual difference. It remains to be seen, however, if neuroscientists truly have an interest in the mind or if on the contrary they would rather hide, like the neurotic, behind the fantasy that the unconscious does not exist, and that the brain will eventually give up all its secrets if they slice it in yet ever smaller slivers.


Damasio, A. (1999) The Feeling of What Happened (Orlando, Fl.: Harpers).
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1950) “Introduction à l’oeuvre de Marcel Mauss”, in Mauss, M. (1980) Sociologie et Anthropologie (Paris: PUF).

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis