One of the most critical issues in science today pertains to the relationship of the brain to the mind. Is the mind merely a functional by-product of the brain’s evolution or is the mind, that rich polygonal stream of mental life known as self-awareness or self-consciousness, a disembodied entity that appropriates the comprehensive neural systems of the cerebral cortex to express itself? How are the two actually linked? What is the exact nature of their relationship?
As with most universal mysteries, there appears to be two very viable perspectives. The first is an exponent of the modern scientific movement of evolutionary psychology and falls under the jurisdiction of neuroscience, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that straddles biology and psychology and studies the neural basis of human behaviour and cognition. Its basic proposition is that the mind is merely a functional asset of the brain, one that cannot be disengaged from the physical body or continue to exist as a nonmaterial and disembodied entity after the latter’s death. In radical contradistinction to this is an esoteric and mystical view which sees the mind-brain relationship exemplified in the link between electricity and its generators. From this particular perspective, mind is equated with electricity and the brain with its generators: the mind can utilize the brain as an instrument to manifest and conduct itself in the phenomenal world in the manner that generators store, facilitate and transmit the flow of electric charges. The metaphysical angle might also be metaphorically descried by the nature of relations between computer hardware and software: computer systems can read and play digitally stored data on a mini-disk or other software apparatus but cannot spontaneously autogenerate the foreign data of their own accord. Deductive reasoning tells us that only one of the aforementioned two can be in the right. Which one is it?
Questions of this scale and type aren’t anything new. In fact, if we adhered to the frequently parroted adage that “there is nothing new under the sun” we would automatically see that the inexplicable connection between the mind and the brain has troubled some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known. It is an enigmatic debate that has gone on unwaveringly and unceasingly for time immemorial; it has diffused across centuries and disciplines, always dressing itself in cultural and socio-political colours appropriate for the hermeneutical and interpretative lenses made available at any one time and always making itself comprehendible through that other great battle, the one between theological and mechanistic keystones through which reality might be better objectified and understood. Before the Iron Age, when religious and spiritual experience was an indivisible part of life and as crucial to corporeal survival as what more tangible and mundane agricultural activities like planting and sowing corn was, contemplation of the “mind” was intimately bound up with the celestial deities which were thought to order and control the events on the earth as well as with the hope for immortality.
In ancient Egypt the psychosocial construct that comes closest to our contemporary notion of mind is the ba, a concept best construed as the intangible and non-physical aspects of being that comprise personality and account for individual differences in our consensus reality. Conceptualized as a theriomorphic creature with the head of a human and the body of a bird, the ba was theorized to survive bodily death and its highest function enabled the deceased uninhibited movement in the Afterlife. By juxtaposing the ancient Egyptian conception of the ba and our modern conception of mind, it becomes patent that for our primeval ancestors the seat of the mind (or soul) was the heart. If we can recall that morality or conscience is the progeny of the conscious mind, then it shouldn’t come as any big shock that physical possession of a vessel perceived to encompass it was deemed mandatory if the deceased wished to reach the Hall of Double Maat where he or she would be judged before the chthonic Osiris and his entourage. Hence a requirement of continued subsistence beyond death was the preservation of the heart, the alleged seat of the mind (or soul). This spiritual belief was reflected and vindicated by elaborate funerary formalities such as those that forcibly removed all viscera from the physical body save for the heart during the mummification process. There was a strange but intuitive rationalism to so-called ‘primitive’ theories and practices: that existence or subsistence cannot be without a conscious mind.
Little changed with respect to the localization of mind (or soul) until about the late seventh and sixth centuries bce when the Ionian pre-Socratics arrived on the world scene. This was a time of great scientific progress, particularly with respect to cosmogonic interrogations addressing the primordial substance (or materia prima) of which the entire world had hypothetically been hewn from along with the anatomical composition of matter. Great philosophers like Thales (c. 630-546bce), Anaximander of Miletos (c.610-546bce), Anaximenes (584-28bce), Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475bce) and a great many others all entertained creative and innovative theoretical underpinnings that tentatively represent a protoscientific view of life, but it appears that none strayed too far from psychospiritual conventions imported from primordial lands like Egypt and Mesopotamia. Indeed, what the ancient Egyptians had started by postulating that the mind (or soul) was to be found in the heart was dutifully adopted by Empedocles of Acragas (ca. 490-430bce) who sought to conventionalize the belief by parading it under more scientific jargon and eventually christening it “cardiovascular theory”. Just like his predecessors, Empedocles could not distance himself from the dogged fantasy that the mind (called nous by the Greeks) infused the heart and circulating blood. The first thinker that was audacious, dauntless, and adroit enough to depart from this misperception was the natural philosopher Alcmaeon of Croton (c. 500bce). Musing over all the possibilities Alcmaeon reasoned that mental processes must occur in the brain, a judicious observation that henceforward became known as the “encephalic theory”. These two radically opposed viewpoints, the cardiovascular and the encephalic, formed the basis of a fervent and controversial debate that ended when English physician William Harvey (1578–1657) systematically defined the properties and circulation of blood pumped by the heart to the peripheries of the human body.
Nonetheless in the time preceding that discovery it appears that the prevailing sentiments of the greatest physicians avidly influenced the dominant or conventional worldview. Hippocrates of Cos (c.460–370bce), a physician whose establishment of medicine as a separate profession from theurgy and philosophy and whose lasting megalithic contributions have been catalysts for his honorary “Father of Medicine” title and for the doctoral oath named after him, placed the science of critical inquiry on the right path by declaring that the human brain was intimately linked with both cognizance and emotion. While the conjectural perambulations of Hippocrates make a lot of sense to an intellect working within the cosmogonic frameworks of the twenty-first century, they did very little in the way of influencing either Plato (c.424/423 –348/347bce)or his student Aristotle (c.384 –322 bce). In spite of his great ingenuity, the clash of the two prevailing theories of mind-brain relationship so disorientated the “Father of Western Philosophy” that he ended up endorsing a very unusual paradox; he agreed that the immortal soul (or mind) must live in the skull but that one of its elementary outgrowths in passion could be confined to the area between the neck and waist. The great Stagirite fared no better than his teacher, erroneously placing the human soul (or mind) inside the physical heart.
Remarkably it wasn’t until the life and times of Galen of Pergamon (c. 129–200bce) that the next chapter in the history of medicine unfolded. Galen was deeply ensconced in an Aristotelian methodology which sought to understand or penetrate the confluence of “noumena” lying behind the murky draperies of the phenomenal world through observation and trial-and-error experimentation. Thankful for innovations in the fiend of anatomy made by the Alexandrine anatomists in the preceding century, Galen could bide his time dissecting the brains of animals like monkeys and pigs and observing their behaviors. He was swift to realize that there was a causal link between injuries to the head and mental activity. Moreover, by examining the hierarchical layers of the most complex piece of matter in the universe, he found that the former were anatomically divided into cerebral hemispheres by hefty spaces called ventricles. The aforementioned observations facilitated the spontaneous formation of a scientific hypothesis about the relationship between mental activity and the human brain: if some kind of damage to the brain could induce alterations or deficits in mental activity, then the configuration of ventricles in the brain must be occupied by free-moving “vital spirits” or “animal spirits” that generate mentation and bodily movement. It seemed a rational hypothesis to make with respect to the inadequate gamut of medical knowledge that was around at the time.
The advent of the Christian dispensation allowed scientific methodology to continue as long as it didn’t interfere, contradict, or appropriate the authoritative expositions expressed by Biblical Scripture. This worked well for Catholic and Orthodox priests and bishops wishing to divide themselves between conventional religion and science. Some of these men were prodigious thinkers in their own right. The bishop Nemesius of Syria (c. 390ce), for instance, complexified the hypothetical suppositions of Alcmaeon, Hippocrates, and Galen by ascribing specific mental qualities to the three ventricles of the brain; sensation and imagination belonged to the anterior region, memory to the posterior region, and reason and judgement to the in-between region. Nemesius’s physical theory can be seen as an innovative, unprecedented, and proto-scientific attempt to connect mental faculties with specific areas of the head and hence the brain. It was no doubt a diminutive yet colourful prelude to the full-blown obsession with phrenology which would reach the pinnacle of its powers during the nineteenth century. All sorts of bizarre phrenological notions materialized in the centuries leading up to the Early Modern period. The Persian polymath Avicenna (ca. 980–1037ce) thought it appropriate to ascribe sensus communis or what we call common sense to the anterior “faculty of fantasy” whilst Italian physician Mondino de Luizzi (ca. 1270–1326ce) claimed that it originated in the middle region of the brain. By the end of the Renaissance period, physicians, anatomists, and surgeons were working from premises native to either the primeval “cardiovascular”, the Hellenistic “encephalic”, or the exponent of Galenic medicine, the “ventricular”.
Up until the time of the Scientific Revolution uninhibited scientific inquiry was impossible because the Catholic Church meticulously monitored and controlled the extent to which God’s handiwork could be decoded. Anything that went in too deep was sheer hubris and blasphemy and attracted the unmerciful wrath of the patriarchs who demanded a renunciation of philosophies perceived as being irreconcilable with Christian cosmological beliefs. In championing a heliocentric system which explicitly challenged the Ptolemaic one adhered to by the church and implicitly questioned the latter’s self-appointed position as the only receptacle of knowledge, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was paving the way for the emergence of an unencumbered and unhindered scientific empiricism that hadn’t quite been witnessed since the days of the Ionian pre-Socratics. One of the many progressive consequences was that sixteenth and seventeenth century anatomists like Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), Thomas Willis (1621–1675), and Nicolas Steno (1638–1686) could now proceed with manifold dissections on deceased persons for the sake of garnering a greater understanding of the brain’s anatomy and function. New insights gained from this more liberal breed of experiments caused long-standing theories about the mind-brain relationship to collapse. Galen’s notion of “animal spirits” was overturned. So too was the anthropological take of the Christian religion that the large ventricles of the brain accommodate the intangible human soul (or mind). Helped along by William Harvey’s insights into the circulatory system, “cardiovascular theory” also went the way of the elephant birds, leaving “encephalic theory” as the sole contender vouching for scientific feasibility. Despite these great strides in human anatomy, understanding of the brain’s individual parts and their associative functions remained quite poor until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when Italian physiologist Giovanni Aldini (1762–1834) proved that artificial stimulation of uncovered oxen brains spawned discernible changes to physiognomy.
In hindsight, the Scientific Revolution did two important things: it inaugurated a new age of scientific naturalism and it garnered physiological and anatomical evidence to substantiate the “encephalic theory” in the eyes of the academic intelligentsia. Having established this, the next step in any reductionist approach to objectifying the relationship of the inner mental life to the outer phenomenal world would be to identify exactly where in the brain the mind resided. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was the first intellectual to make such a proposition; he identified the pineal gland as the seat of the soul (or mind), possibly because of its anatomical inimitability as the only organ within the brain that is not paired. Following the intellectual footprints left by the esteemed French philosopher, other anatomists and physicians came forth to grind their own axe. Thomas Willis (1621-1675) thought that the human soul (or mind) might live in the corpus striatum, Raymond Viessens (1635-1715) attributed the former to the centrum semiovale, and Giovanni Lancesi was convinced that the corpus callosum was the site of the soul’s clandestine throne. Disregarding the secularization of science and its complete decoupling from theological and ecclesiastical grounding, many Christian conservatives continued in trying to force a symbiotic partnership between scientific phrenology and Biblical Scripture. Some of them come across like something you might find in a contemporary textbook on esoteric spirituality or hear at a university lecture on metaphysical and speculative philosophy. Writing in the nineteenth century, the conservative phrenologist William Scott explained that the variant phrenological compartments of the brain were merely the vehicles through which variant states of consciousness belonging to a single, undifferentiated and transcendental being attained corporeal and tangible expression. His standpoint may have been conventionally prosaic for its own era but nowadays he would have the admiration of mystics and spiritualists from around the world!
Further developments in phrenological science during the nineteenth century spurred a theoretical bifurcation in experiential “encephalic” methodology that couldn’t be avoided: could the mind be localized to one anatomical feature of the brain or was it the product of consensus activity and interaction? Questions aimed at addressing this intellectual substratum of knowledge now belong to an academic field known as cognitive neuroscience. The compartmentalistic mindset dictating the scientists who work in this area of inquiry today is the same mindset which, in the early nineteenth century, synthesized a localizationalistic and encephalic model for the relationship between the brain and the mind by pairing underlying zones of the skull with mental faculties. Using advanced and noninvasive brain-imaging technologies, neuroscientists today mimic their phrenological forebears in seeking a neural, biological basis for religious, mystical, and spiritual experiences. Some want to know which areas of the brain spawn enriched levels of cortical activity during various states of mentation like reading, meditating, praying, daydreaming, relaxing, and so forth. Others are looking for neural sites activated when one is experiencing transcendental visions or undergoing peak experiences. A great many of us versed in neuroscience, psychology, and spirituality would recognize the just mentioned in the proliferation of popular books advertising expositions of the coveted “God-spot”. The old order of phrenologists were content in seeking the precise location of the mind within the body and successively the brain; the new ones have taken the eternal quest to a whole new level by pursuing the spiritual and religious function of the psyche in neural matter.
Where is all this modern research into neurotheology leading us? Is there an end in sight? What might we expect to find at the God-junction or God-module, and what light could these discoveries possibly shed upon the human condition or the relation of the human being to the greater cosmos? Are neuroscientists today conducting their research with these important cosmological questions in mind, or is their determination to link neural structures with experiences of the sacred merely a latent desire to wipe religion and spiritual apologetics from the map of objective truth and disenchant the breadth and depth of human experience completely?
I guess we’ll find out soon…