“What is man that though are mindful of him?” – Psalm 8:4
What are we? How much of us is simply the result of brain chemistry? Is our consciousness an illusion? Is there any part of us beyond our body? Is our will an illusion and behavior determined? How much of our behavior is programmed by our genes? Are we more products of nature or nurture?
The sciences of neurobiology and psychology are in large part a quest to get to the bottom of the ultimate question of what we really are. As science gains ascendancy as the ultimate purveyor of truth in our society, materialism reigns. The entire concept of spirit separate from the body or mind separate from the brain is becoming anathema. Our consciousness itself has been declared as nothing more that the ghost in the machine of our body, the mind an emergent phenomenon of the brain, just as life is an emergent phenomenon of genes propagating themselves stubbornly in the face of entropy. This has posed many challenges for our perception of ourselves and particularly for our religious understanding. The more we learn about neuroscience or biology, the more mystery seems to shrink and the old explanations seem not to hold. Doctors, as students of the amazing machinery of life are prone to this materialist impulse and are generally more atheist than the rest of the population. Physicians in my field in particular, neurologists and neurosurgeons, tend to swing atheist more than any other specialty as we become the mechanics of the brain, a machine more central to what we are than any other part of the body. It is all too easy to look right past the ghost when you see brain disease or injury seemingly destroy the person within and replace them with an empty shell. In spite of all of this, personally I have found so much in biology and neurology that strengthens my faith and sense of wonder and awe about life.
One thing that is fascinating to me is that the material that we are is in a constant state of flux. What ever we are, it is not simply stuff as that stuff changes moment to moment. Life is distinguished from the inanimate by its ability to recreate itself and hold a pattern. Throughout our lives, the very material we are made up of is recycled or regenerated through time. Every few weeks we completely change out the cells that compose our skin. Even our bones are borrowing or depositing calcium throughout our lives. The machinery of our cells are constantly disposing of waste, replacing damaged portions, killing cells that are old or dysfunctional and making new ones. All this processes are kept in order by our genetic information. In essence the only thing that holds our form and keeps it from weathering away and degenerating is our DNA. This is the master set of instructions that our cells use to replace, rebuild, and develop us into the body we now have. It is the ultimate difference between the collection of elements that is us, and a rock.
However, there is much more to what we are than just the DNA blueprints. We are also formed by our experiences. I remember a moment at the beginning of my very first year of medical school that really brought this home to me. In anatomy we had to memorize every crater, every bump, every nodule, line and crevice in every bone in the body. As we learned about these landmarks, we learned that they form not as part of some genetic program, but as a reaction to stress forces from muscles pulling tendons and ligaments, triggering a reaction that caused the cells in that part of the bone to duplicate and reinforce the bone as needed. In other words, our actions determine the shape of our bones every bit as much as our genes. Our basic frame is in this way formed largely by our environment and experience. When a limb is paralyzed in children, the bones never gain that same shape. In fact, growth is stunted, as evidenced in adult polio survivors with limbs that remain child sized. The stress on the bones triggers a chemical cascade that switches genes off and on, the program literally rewritten by our experience.
While most of the cells in the body turn over several times within our lifetime, The neurons of the central nervous system are an exception. Like our skeletal frame, these cells provide the framework and wiring for our entire nervous system, and while the materials that make up the neuron may turn over, the neurons themselves do not (generally). Just as DNA holds the pattern of what we are, our neurons and their synapses, or connections, act as wiring to hold the pattern of our consciousness. Without memory, we lose our experience. We lose so much of what makes us us, as we can see in the heartbreaking process of dementia, where the person that was slowly disappears with the body otherwise intact.
While the neurons have very little turnover, the connections they make are not permanent. They are culled back by lack of stimulation with the same developmental stunting occurring here as in the skeleton. The heart-wrenching evidence of this has been shown in studies of children who have suffered severe neglect and social deprivation. These children have smaller brains on CT scans. Though completely physically intact, they have very low IQs. If kept in the dark from an early enough age, they become blind even with completely functional eyes. They are unable to speak or process the sound of voices into language because the developing nervous system never received the input.
The flip side of this is that stimulating our minds, learning to think in new ways and directions increases our brain’s capacity. We can make and strengthen new connections through our own experience and thought. We call this neuroplasticity. It means that we can, in some degree, increase our brain capacity through learning and study. Evidence seems to show that more education protects against developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. It seems we can develop the brain through training just as we would a muscle. Furthermore, relatively recent discoveries have overturned decades of dogma stating no new neurons are generated in adulthood. The memory center, called the hippocampus is generating new neurons to make new memories and connections thoughout our lives.
These newly generated cells are critical for preserving and making new memory and preventing dementia. Evidence also seems to indicate they are central to recovery from major depression. Recovery from depression, from a cognitive behavioral standpoint, is all about taking the automatic thought pathways we have built through a lifetime of habit and challenging them. It is learning and understanding how these thoughts are intertwined with how we then feel, how these automatic thoughts trigger anxiety and tension, depression and pain. Through cognitive behavioral therapy we learn how to challenge these thoughts and short circuit the tension and fear by creating new pathways to bypass and redirect the signal from the old ones.
This is all incredible news if you think about it. We have to ability within ourselves to improve our memory and our own ability to think. We have the capacity within ourselves to rewire our brains the way we would like them, not instantaneously, but over time with work and effort, and perhaps a with a boost from antidepressants. Each of us can be our own architect. We all hold the power to become the sculptor of our own brain. Getting back to the materialists, this begs the question, what exactly is it that is sculpting the brain in this case? I would argue that it is the mind. This is literally a biologic basis for agency, the mind driving the brain.
And yet, so many of our neural pathways are formed by happenstance. So much of what we do is simply habit. In this information age when messages, images, and information are coming at us almost faster than we can receive them, our brains are creating new neural pathways to accommodate the input. The first time hear a piece of music that invokes a certain reaction our brain creates a new neural pathway to process the song. It is the same with new images or any stimuli to the senses. With repeated exposure, this input always travels the path of least resistance. So the second time we hear the song, it will travel the same route and strengthen the channel. And before long, the new neural pathway become stronger and stronger, well worn, more solid. Out of these relatively fixed pathways a habit is born. Without real work, we can forever be dominated by these well worn paths, a natural reaction to our environment. Because of this, I believe self reflection and questioning are critical to maintaining agency. We need to challenge our preconceived and implanted notions. To become free, we need to stand up to habit and forge new and unknown paths.
The great medieval Islamic philosopher Avicenne described a very interesting thought experiment to prove the existence of the spirit called the floating man. He imagines a man falling through the air so he has no sensation, blindfolded and hearing muffled so there is no sensory input, basically all sensory input cut off and asks, could we still think? and the answer is undoubtedly yes! He may be conceptualizing more the mind than the spirit. So much of our common conception of the two is intertwined.
However, a large part of our consciousness is taking sensory data and integrating it. To do this we often intuit information that isn’t there and fill in gaps. We are very good at finding shapes in the clouds, faces in inanimate objects, all by integrating different pieces of data, light, color, contrast, motion into a comprehensive whole and filling in the gap.
For example, we all have a blind spot in our vision. It is the point in the retina at the back of the eye where all the nerve fibers gather together and exit the back of the eye. In our vision, when we put the picture of our surrounding together we automatically fill this space in, we don’t even realize it is there.
Another example is the amputee. Even though they are missing a limb, they continue to “feel” it. To some degree the mind defines itself by the sensory input it receives. When some comes up missing, it fills in gaps to maintain its map and orientation. Amputees can actually report horrible pain in the missing limb, the so called phantom limb syndrome.
Our mind has an inner world and representation that can augment or fill in for our senses to allow us to function. This inner working of the mind is fantastic and mysterious and what defines us as “us”. I personally am not persuaded that this part of us is no more than input, integration and poof, consciousness.
Intriguingly, neuroscience is now discovering how the mind and brain don’t function in isolation. They actually use the body to “think” with. One study showed children solve math problems better if taught to use their hands to solve it. Actors remember their lines better in conjunction with moving upon the stage. Another study showed that students asked to move their eyes in a certain way while solving a brain teaser were better at solving it. It seems our bodies are central to developing our minds.
Sensory deprivation of the sort Avicenne envisioned is actually used as torture. Experiments into the matter have shown that with prolonged deprivation of input, the mind starts manufacturing its own sounds and images. We need the stimulation. People have been driven to madness without it. Could this be why we learn in the Doctrine and Covenants that disembodied spirits awaiting resurrection look upon that state as bondage?
Our minds obviously have powerful connection and sway with the body as well. A very clear example of this is used every day in medical experimentation, the placebo effect. Simply believing strongly that something inert, like a sugar pill, will improve our health, actually improves our health. The effect is robust, reproducible, more effective the more we believe it. It is powerful enough that medicine is always struggling to try to outrun it by very small margins in drug trials to try to develop a proven effective treatment. Belief changes us physically. The brain and the mind are inextricably intertwined.
Jerome Kagan is a child development specialist who can be seen as the father of developmental neurobiology. He described the first biologically determined personality trait, called temperament, in long term observational studies of infants. Neuroscience has run with this hard and fast in an effort to completely pin the mind as a brain phenomenon, and while it is certainly influenced in many solidly proven ways, this isn’t the whole picture.
Kagan himself has fought through his career to minimize the idea that our mind is biologically determined, even writing several books. His answer to those who wanted to understand consciousness and all the inner workings of the mind through study of the brain is that it is simply isn’t going to happen. He likens these scientists to hunters.
“They had a very strong need to discover an unambiguous fact, this is a permanently true fact, and I call them hunters because that’s like you go out, you’re going to get a moose and that trophy is put up on the wall and there it is – forever.”
He classifies himself, a child development specialist (my kindred spirit!), more of a butterfly chaser.
“Butterfly chasers fall in love with a certain aspect of nature, they know that all facts are transient, science is always changing but they’re in love with this aspect of nature. And they want to find out something about it, even if it’s a brief glimpse. So they’re in a forest, they’re looking for a particular butterfly and if they find it and can see it for 30 seconds, that’s enough for them.”
It has become vogue for neuroscientists, hunters at their core, to try very hard to reduce subjective experience to the area of the brain that lights up on a PET scanner or functional MRI, to the brain activity itself. Yet Kagan argues fear is not electrical stimulation of the amygdala, fear is fear. Its a subjective experience, not the physiologic and measurable effects or triggers of that experience. Scientist’s, the hunter types anyway, really do not like the subjective and often brush over this distinction, and yet it seems to me subjective experience, while unmeasurable and unquantifiable, it is unarguably a real phenomenon and the more interesting for it. It’s a butterfly.
The materialist hunters are up against an interesting paradox. Can we ever truly understand and fully comprehend our consciousness or our brain? It was a computer scientist, Emerson Pugh, who summed it up this way, “ If the brain was so simple that we could understand it, then we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”
These neuroscientists have actually isolated the geography of our religious experience in the brain. The fruits of the spirit– love, joy, peace, wonder and awe, the ineffable imbued with deep meaning– activate an area right within the temporal lobe. LSD or Peyote can stimulate the area externally. There is even a rare type of seizure, called ecstatic seizures, that localize to the area. These were described firsthand eloquently from personal experience by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian author, fervent religious believer, and epileptic. He states-
” For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life.
I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I really attained god and was imbued with him. All of you healthy people don’t even suspect what happiness is , that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack.”
In fact, Dostoevsky himself stated the belief that Mohammed in his great vision of God must have had epilepsy because he recognized the experience. No word on what he would have made of Joseph Smith’s visions. Curiously, though he knew and recognized this event as a seizure, It did not cause him to reject the singular spiritual reality of his experience. Even though the seizure was an event happening within his brain, he was convinced that it was a physical event within his brain that gave him a very priveleged glimpse of the face of God. Far from throwing doubt on God’s existence, this experience drove him forward in the face of all kinds of obstacles, trials and discouragement. He was no stranger to doubt and wrestling with God. These seizures helped form the foundation of his faith.
The folly of discounting subjective experience as unreal with a materialist explanations is that the electrochemical impulses in the brain simply do not mean that what we are sensing from those impulses is in any way not real. It would be silly to say that because you measure visual impulses in the occipital lobe as you look at an apple, olfactory impulses as you smell it, gustatory impulses as you taste it, that the apple does not exist as more than a chemical reaction in the brain. Similarly, Dostoevsky saw the ecstatic and profound euphoria he experienced preceding his siezures as an inborn gift that put him in touch with a higher truth that people cannot ordinarily experience. He did not see them as simply brain chemistry run amok.
So, with the center of spirituality firmly localized in our mind and brain, where does that leave the spirit? Well, if lines between the brain and mind are blurred, I would argue the spirit is also, making the soul complete.
Joseph Smith taught that
A very material difference [exists] between the body and the spirit; the body is supposed to be organized matter, and the spirit, by many, is thought to be immaterial, without substance. With this latter statement we should beg leave to differ, and state the spirit is a substance; that it is material, but that it is more pure, elastic and refined matter than the body; that it existed before the body, can exist in the body; and will exist separate from the body, when the body will be mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection, be again united with it
Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith. p207
The spirit is something unmeasurable and unquantifiable. It’s existence is necessarily a matter of faith. Yet, if I am to believe that we can be brought back from death and continue existing as we once were, there has to be some kind of holding of the pattern of memories and experiences we had in life to continue on. The spirit by Joseph’s definition could hold parallel neuronal memory circuits to maintain our consciousness beyond this life and a DNA like code to hold the pattern to rebuild us into what we were in the resurrection. A material spirit can serve as a scaffold. What exactly is the spirit and what is its relationship is with the mind and body? As mere mortals, we really can do little more than guess. However, the idea of spirit as matter makes sense to me. It seems that just like the scientists, we Mormons have a quite a materialist streak ourselves, redundant though the spirit may seem to neuroscientists.
Could it be that the connection between body and mind, the organizing factor, the driving force of life is what our spirit or intelligence actually is? Certainly reductionists will claim that no, there is a physical explanation for the unfolding of development within our DNA and the cell. They would claim my sense of awe is just the God of the gaps. Yet I find consistent wonder in this question- Why is life so relentless, building in complexity over time in order to adapt and survive? What gives life this amazing ability to weather stresses and threats to keep living, to evolve and adapt? This is where I and reductionism are at an impasse. It is a great why, and the materialist answer I hear– It just is, let us go on figuring out the how and leave us alone.
For me as a physician I find extraordinarily life affirming the LDS doctrine of the physicality of a God with a body, in whose image we are created, with the potential to progress and gain all that he has as God. What a wondrous thing we have in our soul, the totality of our mind, body and spirit. I believe that forever entwined in one beautiful whole, our soul will grow and progress throughout eternity. Indeed, this is the core of my faith.