Thursday, March 22, 2012

Soul in the brain


When the old man entered my office I recognized him. He was a professor in the Arts College. I attended his lecture on the soul an year ago. He asserted that originator of the concept of immortality of the soul was none other than Plato. That was true. One of the main themes in Phaedo, Plato’s last dialogue, which depicts the final days of Socrates, is immortality of soul. But the professor asserted that Aristotle also faithfully followed Plato’s concept. At the end of his lecture I pointed out that Aristotle did not take up the Platonic project of proving the soul’s immortality. Indeed by defining the soul as the first actuality of an organic living body (On theSoul II) he seems to have precluded the possibility that any soul can survive the dissolution of the body whose actuality it is. The professor did not refute my point. 
I remembered all these when the professor was sitting in front of me. Professor’s wife complained that he forgets everything, even the food he has had taken a short while ago and asks for it again. Evidently he is suffering from dementia. Dementia is characterized by loss of memory and gross impairment of cognitive functions such as thinking, reasoning, problem solving etc. I asked the professor whether he remembered the lecture he gave in the city hall an year ago. The prompt answer was ‘yes’. Then I asked what the subject of his lecture was. He just said history! He was a professor of history, indeed. Other things he forgot. I asked him again what soul is. He fumbled and just repeated the word ‘soul’.
I asked: What you know about the soul?
Professor: The soul?
I repeated: Yes. What is soul?
Professor: I don’t know.
A rationalist may argue that the soul ceases to exist on the death of the body, but the neuro-cognitive evidence shows that the soul may disappear even before the death of the individual if dementia grapples him/her. Presently the professor could not say a word about his own soul.
The renowned Indian psychiatrist the late Dr. Venkoba Rao once said: “the relationship between brain and mind is that of dancer and dance.”  His statement implied that with the death of the individual's brain the mind ceases to exist. Dr. Venkoba Rao's statement was opposite of what RenĂ© Descartes, the seventeenth century French philosopher, who is often designated as 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 the term 'mind' Descartes meant the soul.
According to the Hindu faith soul is Brahman itself, the very self of the universe part of which descends down into the elements of nature through self projection and participates itself in the game of grand illusion or Maya. In the Hindu belief system there are two kinds of souls, viz. the individual soul or Jeevatman, 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 in the eternity. (And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:7). All these prove that the soul is only a subject matter of religious faith.
But, I do not dismiss the human soul as nonexistent as some rationalists would do. So long as a human brain functions in full it manifests itself as a mind wherein a soul exists. In other words the human soul is a part of the human consciousness.  
The intriguing question is: Where is that part of the consciousness called the soul situated in the brain? This question still remains unanswered. The question became less puzzling with recent discovery of "mirror neurons".
Giacomo Rizzolatti 
In the 1980s and 1990s neuro scientists Giacomo Rizzolatti, Giuseppe Di Pellegrino, Luciano Fadiga, Leonardo Fogassi and Vittorio Gallese were doing research on the brain of macaque monkey at the University of Parma, Italy. These neurophysiologists placed electrodes in the ventral premotor cortex of the macaque to study the nerve cells (neurons) specialized for the control of hand and mouth actions such as taking hold of an object and manipulating it. During each experiment the researchers allowed the monkey to reach for pieces of food and recorded from a single neuron in the monkey’s brain, thus measuring the neuron’s response to certain movements. They found some of the neurons they recorded from would respond when the monkey saw a person pick a piece of food as well as when the monkey picked up the food. The discovery was sent to the renowned science magazine Nature but was rejected for its “lack of general interest.”
A few years later the same group of neuroscientists published another paper, discussing the role of the mirror-neuron system in action recognition, and proposing that the Broca’s region in human brain was the corresponding region of the ventral premotor cortex of the monkey. Since then reports on mirror neurons have been widely published and confirmed with mirror neurons found in both inferior frontal and inferior parietal regions of the brain. The studies with imaging technologies of human brain in function have established mirror neuron systems.
Broca's area shown in blue
New born Macaque imitates human action
Cognitive neuroscientist V S Ramachandran wrote in  Edge: Giaccomo Rizzolati and Vittorio Gallasse discovered mirror neurons. They found that neurons in the ventral premotor area of macaque monkeys will fire anytime a monkey performs a complex action such as reaching for a peanut, pulling a lever, pushing a door, etc. (different neurons fire for different actions). Most of these neurons control motor skill (originally discovered by Vernon Mountcastle in the 60's), but a subset of them, the Italians found, will fire even when the monkey  watches another monkey perform the same action. In essence, the neuron is part of a network that allows you to see the world "from the other person’s point of view," hence the name “mirror neuron." Researchers at UCLA found that cells in the human anterior cingulate, which normally fire when you poke the patient with a needle ("pain neurons"), will also fire when the patient watches another patient being poked. The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others. I call them "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Lama neurons". (I wonder how the mirror neurons of a masochist or sadist will respond to another person being poked.) Dissolving the "self vs. other" barrier is the basis of many ethical systems, especially eastern philosophical and mystical traditions. This research implies that mirror neurons can be used to provide rational rather than religious grounds for ethics (although we must be careful not to commit the ‘is/ought fallacy’).
A better other name for mirror neuron is not “Dalai Lama neuron” but “soul neuron”. Human soul has two parts; viz. altruistic or empathic part and a religious part. I propose that the altruistic or empathic part of the human soul is the creation of the mirror neurons of the prefrontal cortex and the godly aspect of soul is installed in the temporal lobe. The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran suggested that absence of the mirror neurons may explain the cruel malady of autism. Without these neurons the child can no longer understand or empathize with other people emotionally. If this suggestion is accepted one has to admit that autistic persons are devoid of altruistic part of soul. Another devastating inference is that the monkeys having mirror neurons in their brains are also having souls, of course lesser ones than human souls. 

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