Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Relationship between brain and soul

Dr. Venkoba Rao, the renowned psychiatrist, said in a psychiatric conference that the relationship between brain and mind is that of dancer and dance. What I gathered from the statement was that with the death of a particuluar dancer his/her dance caeses to exist. Dr. Rao's statement implied that with the death of the individual brain the mind ceases to exist. The statement was opposite of what René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher, who is often titled "the Father of Modern Philosophy", said. Descartes’ main conclusion is that the mind is really distinct from the body. In the book Principles he explains that a real distinction is perceived when one substance can be clearly and distinctly understood without the other and vice versa. Descartes was ultimately arguing for the possibility of minds existing without bodies.

By using the term mind Descartes meant the soul. According to the Hindu faith soul is Brahman itself, the very self of the universe which descends down into the elements of nature through self projection and participates 'Itself' in the game of grand illusion (മഹാമായ). In the Hindu belief system there are two kinds of souls, viz. the individual soul or Jivatman, and the Supreme Soul or Paramatman, the originator of universe and human souls. In Semitic religions the soul is created by the god and supplied to the individual while in the womb. After the death of the individual the soul continues to live independently eternally. “For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.”(Ecclesiastes 12:7). In Qur'an there is only one verse telling about "ruh" which means spirit or soul. "And they ask you about the soul. Say: The soul is one of the commands of my Lord, and you are not given aught of knowledge but a little." (17:85 translation by Shakir. Yusuf Ali and Pickthal translated the word ruh as spirit) All these prove that the soul is a subject matter of religious faith. But I do not dismiss the human soul as nonexistent as brittle rationalists would do. So long as a human brain functions fully it manifests itself as a mind wherein a soul exists. In other words the human soul is a part of the human consciousness.

Most neuroscientists acknowledge that consciousness exists. Objective scientific studies of the human consciousness are deterred by a view that it is solely a philosophical problem, and so best left to philosophers. An interesting theory of consciousness at the physiological level has been proposed by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, together with the psychologist Christof Koch. According to them the visual consciousness should be identified with synchronized 35-75 Hz neural oscillations in the visual cortex which can be visualised by means of electroencephalogram. Crick and Koch suggest that these oscillations may provide a solution to the 'binding problem', a problem that the brain apparently needs to solve before it can integrate different sources of information about given objects. Suppose you see a green triangle and a red square at the same time. Different areas of the brain are responsible for colour and shape perception. So your brain will contain the information 'green' and 'red' in one place, and 'triangle' and 'square' somewhere else. So what enables it to tie 'green' to 'triangle' and 'red' to 'square'? Crick and Koch suggest that the 35-75 Hz neuronal oscillations involved with information about any one object will be synchronized with each other, but not with information about other objects. This theory is free of any speculations about mathematical insights or quantum mechanics. But it is unlikely to be the last word about consciousness. For one thing, it aims only to deal with visual consciousness. Crick and Koch allow that quite different physical mechanisms might underlie other modes of human consciousness, such as pains, emotions, and the other senses apart from vision.

Where that part of the consciousness called soul is situated in the brain? This question still remains unanswered. The question became less puzzling with recent discovery of "mirror neurons" in the ventral premotor area of monkeys by Giaccamo Rizzollati. At present I think that the altruistic part of the human soul is in the mirror neurons of the frontal cortex and the godly aspect is situated in the temporal lobe. V. S. Ramachandran suggested that absence of the mirror neurons may explain autism a cruel disease that afflicts children. Without these neurons the child can no longer understand or empathize with other people emotionally and therefore completely withdraws from the world socially. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ramachandran/ramachandran_p1.html If this suggestion is accepted one has to admit that autistic persons are devoid of altruistic part of soul. Another inference is that those animals having mirror neurons in their brains are having souls, of course lesser ones than human souls. Islam, Christianity and Judaism would vehemently oppose this inference for reasons which are self evident.

What about the Cartesian dualism of soul and brain? Most neurologists discarded dualism and are now monists. The famous neuroscientist John Eccles said that he is not a dualist but a trialist. According to him there are three worlds. The first world contains physical objects. The second world is of consciousness and its contents such as knowledge and experiences of mental activities like perception, thinking etc. His third world is that of knowledge in the objective sense wherein knowledge of philosophy, science, god and soul is.

I am a psychiatrist and dualist, not in the Cartesian sense, but in the Hegelian-Marxian sense. There are two worlds. The first one is the material world consisting of all objects including brains. The second one is world of ideas originated by the human brains. The human soul is situated in the world of ideas. The material world and the world of ideas are dialectically related. The world of ideas continually acts on the world of matter through human beings and the material world reflects on to the human brains helping them to form ideas. This is the dialectical relationship between the brain and the soul. The evidence from my field of work and knowledge for this dialectical relationship is the effect of psychotropic drugs and various genres of psychotherapy. The drugs are products of human mind. If a drug acts on human mind it becomes an example of mind acting on mind or brain acting on brain!

The dialectical relationship between the brain and the soul is modulated by the belief system which got installed in the brain. Beliefs are basically the guiding principles in life that provide direction and meaning in life. Beliefs are the preset, organized filters to our perceptions of the world (external and internal). Beliefs are like 'Internal commands' to the brain as to how to represent what is happening, when we congruently believe something to be true. In the absence of beliefs or inability to tap into them, people feel disempowered.

Beliefs originate from what we hear - and keep on hearing- from others, ever since we were children (and even before that!). The sources of beliefs include environment, events, knowledge, past experiences, visualization etc. One of the biggest misconceptions people often harbor is that belief is a static, intellectual concept. Nothing can be farther from truth! Beliefs are a choice. We have the power to choose our beliefs. Our beliefs become our reality. http://www.indianjpsychiatry.org/article.asp?issn=0019-5545;year=2009;volume=51;issue=4;spage=239;epage=241;aulast=Sathyanarayana