Humanity’s long Search for the Soul in the Brain

Graphic courtesy of Vimeo, Human Brain Project
Graphic courtesy of Vimeo, Human Brain Project
The history of Western neuroscience may seem a dry topic to an outsider, a litany of impenetrable Latinisms and anatomical diagrams. It is, in fact, a series of fascinating battles between different models of and metaphors for the way we think—foremost among them the concept of the “soul”, broadly defined in Christian thought as the incorporeal essence of a human being, and the basis for conscious thought.

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell|MOTHERBOARD

The idea that the soul exists within a specific part of the human brain is, of course, no longer the subject of widespread investigation in the secular field of neuroscience. “There is no hypothesis in that question, nothing that you can test—it is much too broad and not ’scientific‘ as such,” I was told by Sylvia McLain, a lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Oxford and prolific Guardian columnist.

The quest for the resting place of the soul served, however, as an important motivator for earlier generations of scholars, and continues to spur if not guide enquiry about the nature of our minds and bodies today. “Asking broad philosophical questions like ‚what is a soul?‘ can eventually lead to scientific investigation,” McLain noted. “Many of the early naturalists studied plants, animals, and the Earth to understand ‚God’s plan‘ or ‚God’s creation.’”

A 17th-century illustration of the human soul by Johannes Amos Comenius. Image: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, the brain was thought of not as a biological computer matrix, made up of hundreds of billions of “electrically excitable” neuron cells, but as a sort of psychic refinery, pumping alchemised fluids through the body at the behest of the soul.

Writing in 1567 with reference to trends in medical practice initiated by the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon centuries before, the French scientist Jean Fernel declared that the body was suffused with three “spirits”: “natural spirits” that arose from the liver and were transformed in the furnace of the heart to “vital spirits”, which were then distilled into “animal spirits” by the brain—specifically, within the intricate bundles of nerve cells known as the choroid plexus, which we now understand to be a source of cerebrospinal fluid.

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