We think of our mind as a separate entity from our brain. And similarly, we think of our brain as not the same as our body. It’s cultural. It’s just the way we think. That Western civilization thinks this way comes from the famous French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650).
The Roman Catholic Church was Powerful
The belief back then was that the soul, mind, and body were all one, inseparable. We should add that it was a strongly enforced belief. You don’t believe, heresy, you die. The body was the Temple of the Holy Spirit. But Descartes wanted to study the human body, to do post-mortem dissections and learn about the body. This was forbidden by the Church. The Church could not allow a person to desecrate the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Descartes argued strongly that the body and soul were separate, and that after death, after the soul left the body, the body was no longer this Temple of the Holy Spirit.
Descartes’ Sort of Victory
Descartes eventually won the argument, though not so much during his lifetime. (He did, however, perform post-mortem dissections.). Western civilization had been debating this mind-body separate vs. unified question since Plato (427 to 348 BCE), that is, for a long time. Descartes stirred the pot, raised the argument again, during the Renaissance. Philosophers have continued abstract and concrete arguments about this area ever since, but in the meantime everyone, we common citizens, came to innately believe that mind and body are separate.
Saying It With Soul
This question is where the mixture become explosive. It pretty easy to win the argument that the body and the soul are separate. But that the body and the mind are one and the same. The tense part is the separateness, or not, of the mind and the soul.
Watching Our Brains in Action
A huge amount of scientific research has poured out during the past 20 years. Brain imaging techniques have been developed and used that can actually see the brain think, see the brain function. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), magnetoencephalography (MEG) and near infrared spectroscopy have allowed us to look at our living brains in action, to make images and even “movies” of our brains while they are working, that is, while they are thinking thoughts and feeling emotions.
Thoughts and Feelings
And here’s what has come to light, as it were. Every time you think a thought, every time you feel an emotion, your brain, or more specifically and accurately, some discrete area of your brain, is working, is metabolizing and is active. We now have these recordings, these images of brain activity.
Heart and Soul, I Fell in Love With You…
With due apology to Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser (who wrote this song in 1938). This part of this topic is the area that can stir some individuals to a remarkable level of intensity. People understandably are sensitive about their soul. Don’t mess with the part of me that’s going to heaven (or not). And the difference between mind and soul feels pretty abstract to many people. Many feel that I know what’s in my heart and it’s not what’s in my brain.
This Is Not Science vs. Religion
All this medical science is NOT set in opposition to religion. We assure you that we value our immortal souls as much as you do. Neuroscience has no way to study or talk about souls or religious beliefs. It’s likely, or at least quite possible, that this whole other spiritual world exists, heaven, immortal soul, and so on. (It is interesting, however, that everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.)
But the Scans See What They See
But the fact that God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world does not change what neuroscientists around the world have discovered and seen. That is, every time you think a thought, every time you feel an emotion, your brain is working, and working in a way that we can see. The active parts of your brain light up on a scanner. It’s there. It’s real.
But the Scans Don’t and Can’t “Read Your Mind”
But, happily, it’s not possible to read anyone’s mind. The scanner can tell what part of your brain lights up when you think a thought or feel an emotion, but the scanner cannot tell WHAT you’re thinking or WHAT you’re feeling. Thank God that part is very private (no pun intended).
National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, PubMed Central
University of California, Berkeley – Psychiatry Research
University of California, Los Angeles, Newsroom
Brain Research – Progress in Neurobiology
Wayne State University, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan
American Psychological Association