Looking into the soul

Conceptual Diagram of the Soul

Conceptual Diagram of the Soul

Just what is the soul? The soul has been described in many ways. You may have heard the soul described as the mind, the will and the emotions. Alternatively, you may have read the Merriam-Webster Dictionary primary definition of the soul, which is:

“… the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life”

This first dictionary definition begins with the statement that the soul is immaterial. If this is true, then there is no reason to expect that the soul could have any affect on our lives. If the soul is immaterial then why worry about the existence of a soul or the lack of a soul? In a complicating twist, the primary dictionary definition goes on to state that, “the soul is the animating principle, the … cause of … life.” If the soul is what animates the body, then there must be a mind-body connection. Clearly, the body has a material presence. It seems reasonable to expect that anything that connects to the body, even an “immaterial essence”, must have a material aspect. Perhaps, the second dictionary definition will help untangle the confusing aspects of the first definition.

The second definition of, “soul,” found in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is:

“the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe.”

Moving the soul from an “immaterial essence” to the status of a spiritual principle, seems to move any consideration of the soul into the realm of the spiritual, a difficult realm to investigate scientifically. Consulting the writings of the apostle Paul, there appears a distinction between the soul and the spirit, albeit a distinction that is difficult to make. Paul wrote;

“… It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow.” Hebrews 4:12

Based upon the insight of Paul, that there is a difference between the soul and the spirit, I will venture to consider the soul as something that can be considered form the perspective of the brain and the psyche.

Perhaps, the best definition of the soul is the one that considers the soul to be composed of the mind, the will and the emotions. This definition connects well with the neuroscience on several levels. One good connection is the link between the mind and the emotions. The mind is usually strongly associated with memory. Memory is formed with the help of a part of the brain that appears on each side of the brain and connects to the middle area of the brain, the hippocampus. Without the hippocampus our ability to remember new things, like a website name or a phone number, would be a shamble. The hippocampus connects to the amydgala. The amygdala is strongly linked with emotion. So, here we see a material connection between the neural substrates of memory formation and emotion. For this reason, I have rearranged the order of the three elements of the soul from mind, will and emotion to mind, emotion and will. This brings us to the will, a tricky thing consider. Often capricious in the pursuit of desire or seemingly difficult to predict in strength of attachment. The will is strongly influenced by our experiences in life and by what we can remember. The will is a sort of repository and evaluator life experiences. The will drives the mind every time we pursue a goal. And this completes the circle of the soul.

That Thing in Your Brain

Is your moral compass in your brain?

Have you ever wondered where a thought came from? Sometimes it is easy to go back in a conversation and see where you made a turn onto one topic or another. Following a conversation back in time is relatively easy because conversations include fully formed words. And words may be backed by thought and considered opinion. Although, there are some conversations that seem to support the assertion that talking is just a behavior with no other significance. But behavior versus intention is not the topic today. Today we will look into the “Black Box” of the brain and go beyond the brain to consider the mind.

Things that cross our mind are few in number when compared to the things that go into life experience. A lot of things occur in our day to day experiences that just never rise to the level of conscious thought. So, why do some things come to mind? This question was asked in a very careful way through a psychological experiment performed about three years ago. The experiment was set up to get at the neural support structure for someone taking an interest in the welfare of another. Here is the gist of one scenario that was used in this experiment:

“Grace and her friend are touring a chemical plant …” While at the plant, Grace finds a pot of coffee and pours herself a cup for herself and for her friend. Grace’s friend asks for sugar in the coffee. Grace notices something in a container on the coffee table that looks like sugar, but it is marked “Toxic”. Grace decides to pour some of the “toxic” sugar in her friend’s coffee gives it to her. In some outcomes the friend dies. In other outcomes the friend is fine, suffering no ill effect. In some of the moral dilemma setups, Grace knows that the sugar is sugar. In other setups Grace thinks that the sugar is indeed toxic. Different people are asked to consider whether or not Grace is guilty of any misdeed by placing the sugar in the coffee given one of the scenarios.

Here is where the experiment gets really interesting. About the time the participants in the experiment are pondering whether or not Grace has done a reasonable thing by adding “sugar” to her friend’s coffee, their brains are hobbled.

In order to disrupt the activity of the brain, the experimenters zapped a certain area of the brain with a strong and varying electromagnetic field. The field that was used is known to be capable of disrupting the ability to use the brain for a period of time. Some experiments with this sort of device have shown that a person needs to really concentrate in order to quickly regain a manual skill, that was disrupted by this sort of stimulation. The disruption of brain activity is widely believed to be reversible. Interestingly, disruption of the brain with strong electromagnetic fields is sometimes used to treat depression.

The experiment is interesting on a couple of levels. First, is there an area of the brain that can be temporarily disabled and thereby disrupt moral judgement? Second, I have always wondered if zapping the brain with a strong electromagnetic field really does not produce any lasting brain injury. Who knows?

It is interesting that experimenters view the electromagetic disabling of the brain as a sort of reversible “lesion” or a reversible form of brain damage. The reversal of the brain disabling is probably quicker than the disabling the comes with drugs and certainly is reversible in contrast with actual brain tumors or lesions. So, all things considered, the knowledge that stands to be gained appears to outweigh the dangers, according to current thinking.

Returning to the problem of deciding the culpability of Grace in the “toxic” sugar story. The experimenters did find that zapping sections of the right side of the brain made it easier for participants to conclude that as long as Grace’s friend did not die, there was no problem. The authors of the paper present their findings as an indication that disrupting brain activity led participants to see the outcome as the important thing. That is, temporary, reversible brain damage leads people to be outcome based and not so interested in intent.

The ability of a group of scientists to link brain damage to a personal focus on outcomes over intention may be tied to the concept of deep calling to deep. Put another way, you can’t give what you don’t have.

Nancy Kanwisher shepherded the article of interest to press in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in April of 2010.


Young, L., Camprodon, J.A., Hauser, M., Pascual-Leone, A., Saxe, R. (2010). Disruption of the right temporo-parietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, U.S.A. [Online] Available: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/15/6753.full.pdf+html

Stress or Brain Enhancement?

The brain continues to grow and replace cells throughout your life, when the demands on the brain are reasonable.  Recent articles have made a lot of how the brain breaks down under stress.  It is true that tremendous pressure and stress that eats away at the mind negatively impacts the brain.  It is also true that learning something new can increase the size of the brain and support a healthy mind.  Making new memories trumps grueling stress.



Can Gamma increase your enjoyment of life?

Gamma is a pattern of activity in the brain that produces brainwaves in the range of 40 Hertz and above. Gamma is associated with overall organizational activity. By example, when a student enters a math class and takes a place, thoughts may go in a variety of directions. Ideally, the mind will begin to function at a higher level than alpha or beta. When someone begins to look around a new environment with the aim of gaining something from the experience, thoughts go toward higher-level themes such as …

  • What is the theme of this place?
  • How do I fit in here?
  • What is expected of me?
  • How can this experience help me?
  • How can this experience help others?

Lower levels of Gamma, around 38 to 42 Hertz, are connected with seeing a pattern of events and the ability to take the initiative to change the pattern. This is an interesting state of consciousness because low Gamma is associated with the waking mind. Lucid dreaming is also associated with lower levels of Gamma.

One way to approach Gamma is through the use of sound in a tension reduced, comfortable environment. When you use earbuds or headphones, Brain Driver can help you achieve Gamma.


Getting to Alpha is not hard, once you know what it feels like. Alpha is associated with a feeling of well-being and joy. One way to approach Alpha is through the use of sound in a tension reduced, comfortable environment. Brain Driver can help you transcend the noise of world around you and achieve Alpha.

What is Alpha?

Reflection is not just for mirrors. Pondering a problem or considering a course of action? Reflection tends to bring a distant gaze to the face as the mind focuses on an issue. The voice becomes silent for a moment or two. Just before the moment of clarity, the brain begins to produce the deep rhythm of Alpha waves.

Alpha waves and solving math problems do not go together. The logical, conscious activities of the mind are decreased in Alpha. So, what does Alpha have to offer? Alpha lets us make connections across the whole brain. Alpha may be connected to insights that are not bound by linear thinking. If you are interested in insights then you should consider spending some time in Alpha.