The brain and thought

No doubt we all like to think that we think, and many of us would like to know how it is that we think as we do. It appears that the question has ceased to be a purely theoretical one. It now seems that more and more of the powers that be [plus en plus de pouvoirs] also take an interest in our capacity to think. If, then, we seek to understand how it is that we think as we do, we do this in order to protect ourselves against the ways – either overt or devious – in which we are induced to think the way they would like us to. Indeed many people are asking questions of the manifestos put forward in various political circles, and of some of the methods of so-called behavioural psychotherapy, and of the reports issued by some computer companies. They believe they can detect in these things the possibility of aprogrammed extension of techniques that aim, in the last analysis, to normalize thinking. To simplify things without, I think, distorting them, it may suffice to mention one name, that of Leonid Pliouchtch, and one abbreviation, that of IBM.

Just as biologists believed they could not speak of the human brain without situating it at the end of a history of living beings, so I think it would be helpful to begin a presentation on the brain and thought by situating this question within the history of culture.


Today, although it is common knowledge that the human brain is the organ of thought, we ought nevertheless to recall that one of Antiquity’s greatest philosophers, Aristotle, argued that the brain’s function, in contrast to that of the heart, was to cool down the animal’s body. It was Hippocrates who argued that the brain was the seat of sensations, the organ of movements andjudgements, an argument assumed in the Hippocratic treatise On the Sacred Disease (i.e. epilepsy). Plato took up this theory in part (notably inthe Timaeus), but it is thanks to Galen that it became dominantin Western culture. Galen’s militant Aristotelianism didn’t prevent him from performing ingenious experiments on the nervous system and the brain in his attempt to verify the Hippocratic thesis.

The question of the brain was thus originally formulated as a question concerning the seat of the soul. Today’s version of the problem retained this formulation over the course of the centuries and then, in the wake of Cartesian philosophy,gave rise to a long succession of theories and polemics, which wehave inherited. A brief outline of this history is indispensable for determining the starting point of our investigation. This point lies in the nineteenth century, at the site of positivism’s struggle against spiritualism: the theory of cerebral localizations.

Too often this historical account is said to have begun with Descartes. But this involves a total misunderstanding. Descartes taught that the indivisible soul is joined as a whole to the body by a single organ – an organ that is the physical equivalent, so to speak, of a single point: the pineal gland (the conarion of the Ancients, our epiphysis). With Descartes there can thus be no question of seeking to unite a divided thought to a federal organ. Those who later did notunderstand that the pineal gland’s function was meta-physiological criticized Descartes, and continued to search elsewhere in the brain for the seat of the sensorium commune. The list of researchers is long and stretches from Willis to LaPeyronie. Even the invention of the guillotine served as anoccasion for eminent doctors – Kant’s correspondent Soemmering,for instance – to weigh in on the side of this or that theory. Pierre Cabanis (1795), […]

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