A Premise

What makes us human: the “Mind” or the “Body”? (1)

I put Mind and Body in quotes because for some time I no longer believe in the existence of such things, at least in the terms in which they have been defined in the tradition of Western thought (Cartesian, so to speak), that is, a mind independent of matter (res cogitans) and an inert matter body (res extensa). I rather believe in the existence of a unitary organism (Spinoza, 1677; Lorenz, 1983; Crick, 1994; De Toffoli, 1991, 2001; Matthis, 2000) and that the terms “mental” and “bodily” can refer to sets of different observations, which depend on the vertex in which the observer is placed. I also believe that we can maintain (Solano, 2013, Chap.1-2) a distinction between symbolic systems (distinct feelings, conscious cognitive processes, verbal or iconic representations, sequential functioning, explicit/episodic memory) and non-symbolic systems (primitive emotions, unconscious cognitive processes, parallel functi

oning, implicit memory). The scholar who most developed this distinction is Wilma Bucci (1997, 2009), but we can find it in the distinction between alpha elements and beta elements (Bion), between asymmetrical and symmetrical (Matte Blanco), in Winnicott’s  concept of formlessness (1971). Both types of systems have a “mental” and “bodily” aspect, depending on the tools through which they are examined. So the verbal symbolic system is also the frontal lobes, so the non-symbolic system is also the amygdala (not: “it has the amygdala as its biological basis”, as if they were different entities). Believing to be more easily understood, and to create a connection with the previous thought, I will also continue to use the terms “Mind” and “Body” as synonyms of Symbolic Systems and Non-Symbolic System.

From bacteria to Bach

For a long time the Western tradition has considered the Mind (Soul, in religious thought) as what distinguishes human beings, especially in comparison with animals, which would be devoid of Soul. A hundred years of research and observations in the animal field have shown how this distinction is difficult to sustain: not only the most advanced mammals but also insects, down to bacteria, have appeared endowed with respectable cognitive and affective abilities: we can think the ability of orcas and dolphins to attach to their offspring, the ability of a dog to find its way home tens of kilometers away and to understand verbal commands; the extraordinary organization of murine communities; but also to the ability of termites to build extremely articulated and functional termite mounds, or of bacteria to organize lines of resistance to antibiotics, and even to punish with ostracism those who do not participate in the operation (Damasio, 2018, Chapter 1). Often these abilities, these skills are present outside awareness, though the absence of language does not allow us to be sure. Chimpanzees have appeared capable not only of  building original instruments, but also of passing the relevant information on to other members of their community (Damasio, 2018, p. 29). Denying the presence not only of emotions, but also of feelings (2) at least in mammals, is a thesis that is no longer sustainable (Damasio, ibidem).

Certainly no animal other than man will ever be able to write the Divine Comedy or the Goldberg Variations or to discover the principles of relativity or quantum mechanics. It can roughly be said that the maximum cognitive and affective abilities that an animal can achieve roughly correspond to the capabilities of a 1-2 year old human, while a 3 year old child is able to do things that no animal will ever be able to do.

However, it is precisely a quantitative, not a qualitative difference. We can only assert that in a continuum of capacity that goes from Bacteria to Bach (the title of a recent text by Dennett, 2017) the human being has reached the maximum levels. We can therefore discard the “Mind” (symbolic cognitive abilities, feelings) as a distinctive feature of the human being, resigning ourselves to our position at the top of an evolution common to all species (3). 

Machines like us?

A more current area in which the specificity of the human being is debated is the degree to which a robot can approximate a human being. In respect to cognitive abilities, the battle has long been lost, since they are now much superior in robots (as in computers), even if the (boringly sequential) way of achieving results is different from ours.

Since the release of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968, the general public has also come into contact with the issue of whether it is possible (and appropriate) to equip computers and robots with emotions/feelings. The topic was addressed in the light of subsequent technological developments in a recent novel by Mc Ewan (2019), Machines like me, which hypothizes the construction and marketing, though on a small scale (given the costs), of robots built to be as similar as possible to human beings (including sexual characteristics), endowed with extraordinary cognitive abilities, emotional skills and even values. At this point the text poses (implicitly) the problem of to which extent these entities can be considered “human beings”. Do they have rights? If someone destroys them, could (s)he be charged with murder? If our partner has sex with it, is it a betrayal or can it be assimilated to the use of a vibrator?

Mc Ewan does not seem to want to give a univocal and definitive answer, but shows how the attempt to reproduce a human being down to the smallest detail comes up against rather serious difficulties: the robot, imbued by its designers with somehow Enlightenment ideals, at a certain point on the one hand refuses its subordination to its owner (like HAL in A Space Odyssey), starting with the right to activate/deactivate it, on the other hand it mechanically applies the values that have been inserted by distributing the owner’s assets to beneficial associations. Not wanting to anticipate the consequences of this attitude to those who want to read the volume, let’s say that the robot does not realize how in this way it makes its position in the world rather problematic: it lack the reference to a Self, which is based in the human being on the Body, on the non-symbolic, on the memories contained in the implicit memory, which date back to the entire period of neoteny, of dependence on the caregiver, in a period of development, of evolution of the nervous system, which are engraved in the deep structure of each of us in terms that we could call somatic, unconscious, difficult to modify (4). This is the concept that was expressed by Freud with admirable synthesis, but remaining somewhat obscure in his time, when in The Ego and the Id (1922) he stated: “The Ego is first of all a bodily Ego”. We then add the specificities that make each human being different from any other due to genetics (always part of the body), specificities that multiply in the encounter with different ways of care, and with different structures in a broader sense.

Mc Ewan’s robots are all built the same, their “genetics” are identical. The emotions, the feelings, the values inserted are the same in everyone. It is true that they are gifted with an ability to adapt to the owner; but this capacity has nothing of the drama, of the pregnancy, linked to the total dependence of the infant on the caregivers (from a mmummmy with many ms) in the first period of life.

Robots do not possess the evolutionary drive towards homeostasis (Damasio, 2018), which means self-preservation and a drive to thrive: all based on the Body and common to other animal species, right from the bacteria.

To conclude

Jacques Press, a well-known psychoanalyst from Geneva who is a scholar in psychosomatics, recently (2020) took up the dilemma expressed by Faust at the beginning of Goethe’s homonymous work: “In the beginning was the Word”. But is it really so? Goethe/Faust comes to a different formulation: “In the beginning was the Action”.

The word, the Word, as Press tells us, is only the most superficial aspect, and certainly not the primum movens that animates the human being. But how to conceive an “Action” without an “actor”? Without a body that performs actions, from birth, well before language? “I therefore propose to state”, says Press: “In the beginning was the Body: a state of absolute disorganization which, therefore, is charged with the inheritance of the species and the potential of all abilities to come”.


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   (1) Several ideas present in this paper arise from my participation in the study group “The Unconscious” at the Roman Psychoanalysis Center, which includes: I. Baldacci, C. Busato, MG Chiavegatti, R. De Sanctis, M. Magnani , L. Solano, A. Palmieri, P. Passi, G. Verticchio.

   (2) Most contemporary scholars accept the distinction between emotions as a physiological level and feelings as a cognitive-experiential level of a phenomenon that as a whole can receive the denomination of affect.