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Why Psychology Lost Its Soul: Everything Comes from the Brain

By: , Posted on: October 4, 2016

Most functions attributed to the soul can be explained by the brain. Rodger Evans/Flickr, CC BY
Most functions attributed to the soul can be explained by the brain. Rodger Evans/Flickr, CC BY

Many people today believe they possess a soul. While conceptions of the soul differ, many would describe it as an “invisible force that appears to animate us”.

It’s often believed the soul can survive death and is intimately associated with a person’s memories, passions and values. Some argue the soul has no mass, takes no space and is localised nowhere.

But as a neuroscientist and psychologist, I have no use for the soul. On the contrary, all functions attributable to this kind of soul can be explained by the workings of the brain.

Psychology is the study of behaviour. To carry out their work of modifying behaviour, such as in treating addiction, phobia, anxiety and depression, psychologists do not need to assume people have souls. For the psychologists, it is not so much that souls do not exist, it is that there is no need for them.

It is said psychology lost its soul in the 1930s. By this time, the discipline fully became a science, relying on experimentation and control rather than introspection.

What is the soul?

It is not only religious thinkers who have proposed that we possess a soul. Some of the most notable proponents have been philosophers, such as Plato (424-348 BCE) and René Descartes in the 17th century.

Plato believed we do not learn new things but recall things we knew before birth. For this to be so, he concluded, we must have a soul.

Some people believe the soul has no mass, takes no space and is localised nowhere. Michelle Robinson/Flickr, CC BY

Centuries later, Descartes wrote his thesis Passions of the Soul, where he argued there was a distinction between the mind, which he described as a “thinking substance”, and the body, “the extended substance”. He wrote:

… because we have no conception of the body as thinking in any way, we have reason to believe that every kind of thought which exists in us belongs to the soul.

One of the many arguments Descartes advanced for the existence of the soul was that the brain, which is a part of the body, is mortal and divisible – meaning it has different parts – and the soul is eternal and indivisible – meaning it is an inseparable whole. Therefore, he concluded they must be different things.

But advances in neuroscience have shown these arguments to be false.

Stripping humans of the soul

In the 1960s, Nobel laureate Roger Sperry showed that the mind and our consciousness are divisible, therefore disproving that aspect of Descartes’ theory.

Sperry studied patients whose corpus callosum, the superhighway connecting the right and left hemispheres, had been severed by surgery aiming to control the spread of epileptic seizures. The surgery blocked or reduced the transfer of perceptual, sensory, motor and cognitive information between the two hemispheres.

Sperry showed each hemisphere could be trained to perform a task, but this experience was not available to the untrained hemisphere. That is, each hemisphere could process information outside the awareness of the other. In essence, this meant the operation produced a double consciousness.

Roger Sperry showed consciousness is divisible. Neil Conway/Flickr, CC BY

Thus, Descartes cannot be correct in his assertion the brain is divisible but the soul, which can be read as the mind or consciousness, is not. In his effort to prove the existence of the soul in humans, Descartes actually provided an argument against it.

Rather than endowing rats with souls, psychologists stripped humans of theirs. In 1949, psychologist D.O. Hebb claimed the mind is the integration of the activity of the brain.

Many neurophilosophers have come to the same conclusion as the psychologists, with Patricia Churchland more recently claiming there is no ghost in the machine.

The brain does it all

If the soul is where emotion and motivation reside, where mental activity occurs, sensations are perceived, memories are stored, reasoning takes place and decisions are taken, then there is no need to hypothesise its existence. There is an organ that already performs these functions: the brain.

This idea goes back to the ancient physician Hippocrates (460-377 BCE) who said:

Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency and lamentations. And by this … we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear, and know what are foul and what are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet and what are unsavoury…

If we listen to Plato, memory is a function that belongs to the soul. Daniel Gonzalez Fuster/Flickr, CC BY

The brain is the organ with a map of our body, the outside world and our experience. Damage to the brain, as in accidents, dementias or congenital malformations, produces a commensurate damage to personality.

Consider one of the functions supposedly – if we listen to Plato – carried out by the soul: memory. A major knock on the head can make you lose your memories of the past several years. If the soul is an immaterial substance separate from our physical being, it should not be injured by the knock. If memory were stored in the soul, it should not have been lost.

The neuronal activity in the brain is responsible for the cognitive and emotional dysfunctions in people with autism; it would be cruel and unethical to blame their hypothetical souls.

Manipulation of the brain is sufficient to alter emotion and mood. The soul is totally superfluous to this process.

The ability of psychotherapeutic drugs to alter mood provides another line of evidence against the presence of the soul. If you produce a chemical imbalance in the brain, such as by depleting dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin with tetrabenazine, you can induce depression in some people.

Correspondingly, many depressed people can be helped by drugs that increase the function of these neurotransmitters in the brain.

The brain is where thinking takes place, love and hatred reside, sensations become perceptions, personality is formed, memories and beliefs are held, and where decisions are made. As D.K. Johnson said: “There is nothing left for the soul to do.”

The author of this article is George Paxinos, Visiting/Conjoint Professor of Psychology and Medical Sciences, UNSW & NHMRC Australia Fellow, Neuroscience Research Australia. This article was originally published in The Conversation under a Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives license. Read the original article here.  


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  • Lukas Lapis

    I don’t want to argue in favour of an immortal soul, but the article is clearly biased, quiet materialistic and oversimplifies the issue. It does not even mention anything about affect or affective neuroscience. It mentiones Descartes as one of the most notable proponents of the existence of the soul, which sounds a bit exagerated to me. Descartes produced some quiete schizophrenic ideas and founded the notion of a clear devision of mind and matter, which, as the article correctly states, has been shown to be untrue by neuroscience. Yet still the author seems to have no problem with the idea of the body, including the brain, being a machine (also originally from Descartes if I’m not wrong), quoting P.Churchland with the statement “theres no spirit in the machine”.
    I’d like to argue with Iain McGilchrist (“The Master and his Emissary”) that we tend to compare unkown things to things we know in order to understand them, and that this is the reason we see the body and brain as a machine, the only thing we truly know, because we made it by ourselves. But the body is something different and we still are learning what kind of thing it is.
    Also, as Daniel Siegel notices, there clearly is an subjective experience in every one of us which most probably originates from brain activity, but is not identical with it and cannot be reduced to it. Here the whole is much more than the sum of its parts and Siegel offers the description of the mind as “an emergent process that regulates energy and information flow”.
    Finally I’d like to notice that the corpus callosotomy did not produce double consciousness. What it did produce, was a double mind, but the patients still had one single consciousness!

  • Brian

    And can you give us your explanation for the aesthetic aspect of music? See http://philpapers.org/rec/JOSWCM.

  • Curt Welch

    There is no soul. But why is there such confusion over it? Where does idea come from in the first place? Why is this confusion so universal across all human cultures?

    SImple. It’s because we can’t sense our own thoughts with our external sensors.

    The brain builds a map of the environment we exist in. Our understanding of the world we live in, is created and founded on, and limited to, the map the brain builds. The sensory data the brain receives from our physical sensors is the data the brain uses to build this map. We learn what the world is and and what we are through this data.

    But there is also data in the brain that does not come from the physical sensors. That’s the data the brain generates internally — the actions of the brain. Which also include our private thoughts and memories and dreams. These are all internally generated data.

    The data the brain generates internally, is also processed in the same way as the sensory data. The brain builds a big map of reality, from all the data it has to work with, the data from the external sensors, and the internal data generated by the brain.

    But, the external sensors, our eyes and ears, can not sense, what our own brain is doing. We can not “see” the firing of neurons. We can not hear, the firing of neurons. We can, however, see the pounding of our heart by how the skin moves, We can feel the pounding of our heat, with our touch sensors. We can hear the pounding of our own heart, with the help of a stethoscope. So the map of reality that the brain builds from our sensory data, includes the behavior of our internal organ the heat as part of that map. But it doesn’t include the behavior of our neurons in our brain as part of the same map, because our eyes and eyes and fingers, can’t detect anything when a tiny little neuron fires deep in our brain.

    Our thoughts, are nothing more than the firing of our neurons. But yet, the brain has NO DATA though it’s sensors, to indicate this is so. But yet the brain does have data that neurons are firing in the brain. So the fact that neurons fire, is part of the brain’s map of reality.

    In other words, the fact that we can not sense our private thoughts with our eyes and our ears, forces to the brain to build a map of reality, where privates actions of the brain, are NOT PHYSICAL. Because what we mean by “physical” is all the stuff we can sense with our eyes and ears and fingers.

    This is why the default map the brain builds for EVERYONE, includes “non physical thoughts”. And it’s this map, built that way, due only to the limitations of our sensors, is what gives everyone this automatic confusion from birth, that a key part of what we are, is “non physical” — that thoughts and ideas are not physical and as such, whatever it is that is creating those thoughts and ideas, must be non physical. And the part of us that is non-physical, is the part we call the soul.

    We understand the physical world by what we can sense about it. All the physical attributes we understand come from our sensors. We know the look of the object by our eyes, the feel by our fingers, the sound by our ears, the smell by our nonse. Each sensor gives us physical attributes that we use to understand the physical universe. But the brain has not data for our thoughts. No data to tell the brain what color a thought is, what sound it makes, what it feels like to touch it, or even where in the 3D reality it is located. We understand it, because it’s data in the brain like the sensory data, but the brain has no way to correlate physical attributes of our thoughts, with sensory data. So our thoughts remain defined by the brain as “having no known physical forms”.

    We learn later that the physical form of our brain is neurons. But learning to talk about what our brain is, does not give the brain the data it needs to change it’s map. The map is automatically built by data that is temporally correlated — data patterns that happen at near the same point in time. When a dog barks and we hear the sound at the same instant we see the movement of the dog, the brain links those two pieces of data together as the idea of a “dog barking”. The visual data of the dog and the audio data of the sound become associated in the map as “the same thing”.

    In order for the brain to fix it’s mis-wired map of thoughts as being non-physical, the data it is working with would have to be temporally correlated — happen at the same time. So we would have to have a thought, while at the same instant, SEE the neurons fire that create that thought. It has to be temporally correlated for the brain’s low level automatic map building circuits to rewire the false map and change it from “not the same thing” to “is the same thing”. So before we can innately understand that the firing of a neuron and our internal thought of a cat, are the same thing, we need to experience a real time brain scanner connected to our brain, so our eyes, can see the activity of our own brain — so that the firing of the neurons, causes data to instantly flow into the eyes, that represent the filing of the neurons.

    If you could allow a person to see the activity of their own brian in real time, their falsely wired map of reality, would be fixed — they would learn to “see” their thoughts as being physical. And the illusion of the non-physical soul, would vanish from their understanding.

    But we have no real time brain monitors commonly available for people to use — there is no easy way for any of us to see in real time, the activity of our brain. So we are all left with a “broken” map of reality that tells us that the private behavior of our brain is non-physical. And since this brain is a key part of what WE are, we see ourselves as having this key part of us which is separate from the physical part of us — our body. So we end up with a natural believe that there is mind body duality in this world.

    This illusion, I like to call the illusion of duality. It’s why people believe they have a soul. It’s why there is so much confusion over the idea of consciousness even when all the scientific data makes it clear we don’t. Understanding this illusion, is the solution, to the hard problem of consciousness. If you understand this illusion, you know the solution to the hard problem of consciousness.

  • bletsos

    Nice let’s call Psycholog, Brainology in order to exempt from the philosophical – metaphysical past that burdens our backs. How ….. by simply changing a mental construct (soul) with another (brain) or (mind) if you prefer! Psychology is the science of behaviour and we could also call it BEHAVIOUROLOGY as well, but in this case we would have to reinvent the wheel talking about black boxes …. Messed!

  • MichaelHere

    A ridiculous notion. my own hard-science thesis has been blacklisted by the media because I provide the basis for the fact there isn o such thing as a soul- it just keeps us in ignorance to pursue this idiotic abrahamic superstition BS. I released this in December 2012 and the media are keeping you extremely ignorant in service of their own stupidity/dollars.
    Reality:
    http://functionsofnature.com/

    Synopsis

    Time is a natural part of the environment and the sense of time is a perceptual
    sense identical or similar to vision, hearing, sound, touch and taste.

    Consciousness is the logical outcome of perceiving time within the environment. Just
    as advanced organisms can manipulate parts of their environment using
    arms, claws, feelers, appendages, etc, the brain has evolved
    to the point where it can perceive and manipulate time which is the source for what humans call the mind
    and/or
    consciousness.

    This work will show the close relationship between the basic
    structure of time, its relationship to the kinase CaMKII and how that
    relates to memory, thought and other aspects of consciousness.

  • Pat FZ

    Instead of looking to Plato and Descartes to explain what the soul is, maybe explore the wisdom found within the Hindu religion. If you did this, you would find that the soul is in fact pure consciousness, which science can’t explain. Trying to disprove the soul will always come down to explaining what consciousness is and what purpose it plays in human existence. The ‘hard problem’ is found in the fact that it isn’t something that can be measured and most likely will never be fully understood. Additionally, the newest consciousness theory ‘Integrated Information Theory’ is spiritual in nature.

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