Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Brain, Body, and Soul

The mountains are stately, and the air is cool and dry. I've been waking up very early in the morning and going for long walks. I breathe in the air, deeply. Dry air is like medicine (shucks, it's better than medicine). I can almost feel it going through my brain and my whole body, rejuvenating me.

The brain is such a fascinating, delicate, and (it turns out) remarkably resilient organ. I have often said that we must pay attention to the amazing discoveries that are taking place today regarding the brain and the central nervous system. We have learned so much about brain injuries and diseases, as well as the many ways that neurological functions can be healed or at least reconfigured. Every day we learn more and more about the corollaries between psychological and emotional states and the various parts of the brain with their neurological and chemical components. The health and proper operation of the brain affects human behavior. And human behavior, in turn, can develop, alter, or help restore brain functioning.

Of course there are many hypotheses about all of this that are being proposed and tested. I cannot propose my own in a scientific manner, as I am not a scientist. Rather, I am a "guinea pig" in this ongoing study. Being a philosophical guinea pig, however, I cannot help finding the whole thing very interesting. I am also aware of the attempt of some in the scientific fields to relate brain functioning to the universally human realm of "transempirical" experience.

Neuroscience has been able to observe a correspondence between brain activity and various "spiritual" experiences. Some people would like to rush to the conclusion that this correspondence constitutes an explanation of the phenomenon of "spirituality," the human impetus toward transcendence, or even human consciousness.

Not so fast.

I think what we are finding is evidence of the profound, inseparable interrelationship between the brain (and indeed the "body" itself) and "whatever it is" that constitutes within the human being the foundation of those specifically human experiences of thought and action. We are speaking here of experiences such as consciousness, self-awareness, and the capacity to affirm the truth about principles, ideals, and realities that go beyond direct contact with the senses.

There is a great difference, however, between discovering a correspondence and discovering a cause. For example, every time I raise my hand, a shadow of my hand appears the wall. Here we observe a correspondence between the shadow and my hand. But we cannot conclude from this that the shadow causes my hand to raise. And (presuming that all we could see was the shadow on the wall) we clearly cannot conclude from the observation of the shadow alone that the hand does not really exist and that what people call "the hand" is really just a shadow.

So also, the fact that a certain configuration and functioning of the brain has been observed in studies of monks who are meditating does not prove that this apparently spiritual experience is nothing more than a kind of brain activity.

A classical philosopher like Thomas Aquinas would be fascinated by all of this new research, but not terribly surprised by it. He would see in it a confirmation of his own conclusion that the human being is a composite of "soul" and "body," and that the "soul" is both a spiritual reality and also the "form" (the pervasive, integrating vital principle) of the body.

As is so often the case with Aquinas, he provides us with a kind of "outline" and conceptual structure with which both scientists and philosophers can collaborate in building an ever deeper understanding of the mystery of the human person.

As you can see, I had a thoughtful walk today. :)