In 1975, during a lecture tour in the United States, Jacques Lacan spoke at MIT before an audience of mathematicians, linguists, and philosophers. Noam Chomsky, the already famous by then American linguist philosopher and activist, attending the lecture, asked Lacan a question on thought.
Lacan's reply was possibly not what Chomsky expected:
“We think we think with our brains”, Lacan said. “Personally, I think with my feet. That's the only way I really come into contact with anything, solid. I do occasionally think with my forehead, when I bang into something. But I've seen enough electroencephalograms to know there's not the slightest trace of a thought in the brain.”
Now, amusing as this story might be, a question remains. What did Lacan mean? Did he really speak metaphorically, as many of his friends accompanying him in America insisted? If not, then what?
Well, let me spell it out from the beginning. I do not think that Lacan spoke metaphorically. In my view he spoke literally, perhaps too literally, but definitely too elliptically as well.
I think the key in understanding Lacan’s response is the actual meaning of the words he used.
Take the word “thought”, for example. What is it, exactly? What do we mean when we speak about a thought? At the time of this writing (1/Feb/12) Wikipedia suggests that thought “refers to mental or intellectual activity involving an individual’s subjective consciousness”. So, let us accept this.
Let us now think a bit more carefully.
Let’s imagine that I am thinking of a cat, say a cat I had seen last year in Spain.
Where is this cat now? It’s not with me, here and now, that is for sure. Possibly it is still in Spain.
What do I have here with me then? I have the thought of a cat, we said that.
But what do we mean? Is this thought an entity? Is the thought of this cat in Spain an entity sitting somewhere alongside other, similar entities such as that cat in Portugal or that other cat in Edinburgh?
And is the thought of this first Spanish cat self-contained as an entity? Does this particular thought begin and end with the cat, or does it “extent” somehow to include details about the day I saw the cat, the circumstances of my being in Spain --for example the time of the day or the weather-- or even other circumstances of my life --such as the friends I was with, the reason I was in Spain, more details about my life etc.?
And where exactly is this thought located? Is it alone or grouped together with other thoughts?
Is it grouped together with other thoughts about that trip in Spain, or with thoughts of other cats? Or will it be found together with thoughts that share other similarities? Or does it perhaps belong to all these possible groups together? And if yes, does it exist in many locations simultaneously?
And really, where are all these things? Are they in my brain?
One might be tempted to answer “yes”. And yet, it is not so straightforward. What does it mean “to be in the brain”? How can it “be” in the brain, if we haven’t even established where it begins and where it ends?
Would it not be better to say that the thought is a product of the function of that organ that we call brain rather than an entity “inside” the brain? Would it not be even better to say that a thought, strictly speaking, is something that obtains its meaning in the collective interaction of human beings? Because how otherwise can we conceive of thoughts of abstract entities such as “Spain”? Or "Portugal"?
Starts being a bit confusing, isn’t it?
Indeed it is.
Now, let’s return to what Lacan said.
I've seen enough electroencephalograms to know there's not the slightest trace of a thought in the brain.
Does it not make more sense now? Lacan (who, incidentally, was a medically trained professional as well) stresses the fact that what you see in an electroencephalogram is evidence of brain activities; you don’t see thoughts.
And, even if you think you can see thoughts, or words, in the so-called “superior temporal gyrus” as reported by the BBC, the only thing what you can actually see with this new technique is a track of blood flow in association to certain sounds.
Our thoughts, as thoughts, are out there, in Spain that sunny day, with the cat, or in the letter I have just sent, or with everything else I might have been thinking about; they are not “in” the brain.
Granted, they are products of brain’s functioning, but they are not identical with this functioning, however well you might decide to monitor it.
Well, that’s slightly different, don’t you think?