Neurology and The Soul
Reprinted with permission from “B’Or Ha’Torah” (Volume 10).
Published by SHAMIR - http://www.borhatorah.org
A most commonly asked question is whether there are conflicts between Torah and science. Actually, there are no conflicts between science and Torah insofar as the science under discussion is true science, as opposed to the popularized pseudo-science that is commonly foisted on a non-discriminating and unsuspecting public.
In fact, conclusions deriving from authentic and thorough scientific inquiry invariably agree with the Torah. The fact that most scientific conclusions are incomplete and provisional may mislead one to believe that Torah says things that science does not confirm. When we consider these supposed conflicts more carefully, however, we find that due to inadequate or insufficient data, the scientific “conclusion” is not really a conclusion at all—but rather only a hypothesis.
We must keep in mind that science is constantly evolving and developing, whereas Torah is complete. It is only natural, therefore, that many phenomena discussed in the Torah cannot be dealt with scientifically until the appropriate scientific discipline is sufficiently advanced to allow the necessary observations. On the other hand, when sufficient observations permit a logically valid conclusion, it invariably concurs with whatever Torah may say on the same subject. This is not really remarkable. Since there is only one reality, different valid means of examining reality should produce similar and complementary conclusions.
Existence of the Soul
A good example of this is the existence of the soul. We are unequivocally told by the Torah that life and consciousness are provided by a spiritual entity which enclothes itself in and is operator of the sophisticated computerized machine that we call the body. Torah is replete with information on the nature of souls. Interestingly, the existence of a non-material conscious entity responsible for operating the material body has also been demonstrated scientifically. The observations on which this conclusion is based are numerous, and some are rather complicated.
Perhaps the simplest and most significant observations were those of Wilder Penfield (1), the founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute and one of the greatest neuroscientists who ever lived. Penfield explored the function of the brain by electrically stimulating different regions of cerebral cortex in conscious patients undergoing surgery (with local anesthetic) for focalized seizure disorders. Penfield described the activation of motor cortex, an area of the brain responsible for transmitting all willed conscious movement to the appropriate levels of brain stem and spinal cord.
When he applied a weak electrical current to the “hand” region of this cortex the patient began to move his hand (on the opposite side of the body) back and forth. When Penfield asked the patient why he was moving his hand, the patient replied that he (the patient) was not causing the movement, but rather Penfield was doing it with his electrode. When Penfield stimulated the motor area activating the larynx, the patient uttered a syllable. When asked about this, the patient replied that he himself had had nothing to do with the sound and that Penfield had caused it.
Computer of Flesh
The only valid conclusion from such observations is that the will to move and the movement itself are not one and the same. The conscious will to move emanates from something that is aloof from the brain and is able to observe objectively the operation of what is nothing more than a computer made out of flesh.
There is an “I” (as in “I did not cause the movement”) who, when it has access to the computer (brain) can program movements. If someone else gains access to the computer, however, the “I” is fully aware that the machine is being run by another person. The “I” and the brain are, therefore, not the same thing. The “I” must be a non-cerebral conscious entity, i.e., a soul.
In other experiments, Penfield was able to evoke remarkable life-like memory experiences by stimulating the diseased temporal lobe in patients suffering from temporal lobe seizures. Patients were amazed at being able to re-experience events that had occurred long ago. However, they were equally aware of the fact that they were presently undergoing surgery at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Obviously, the “I” who was engaged in these experiences was something other than and aloof from the brain that was stimulated to “play back” these experiences from the past. The patients’ consciousness and memory experience were not one and the same, but rather the “I” was viewing the activity of the brain. Penfield reported that there is no place in the cerebral cortex where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe, decide or will. These are not functions of brain, but of the “I” or soul.
Studies of how the brain analyzes sensory input lead to the same conclusions. (2) The electrical responses of nerve cells in the visual areas of the brain to various visual stimuli have been studied extensively. Ganglion cells in the retina respond to highly specific visual patterns. Cells in the visual cortex that receive connections from the retina (by way of the lateral geniculate body) respond to complexes of the patterns that activate the retina.
Thus, each successive stage in the visual system synthesizes and integrates the patterns to which the previous stage responds. All visual information is, therefore, ultimately encoded in complex sequences of electrical responses in the highest level of visual cortex. Herein lies the catch. The brain is only capable of encoding visual information. There must be an “I” distinct and aloof from the physical brain that interprets the code. When we look at an object, we perceive the object. We don’t perceive sequences of electrical changes. We do not “see” nor are we even consciously aware of the action potentials, sodium currents, and other components of the Morse Code of the brain. There is, therefore, a non-brain entity that translates patterns of electrical changes into conscious perception.
The argument that perhaps another area of the brain (e.g. association cortex) is doing the translating is untenable since these other areas have the same physical and biological properties as visual cortex, and are therefore also only capable of encoding information in sequences of electrical activity.
Dynamics of Interaction
More recent studies have described the interaction between the physical brain (the computer) and its non-physical, non-cerebral operator. Some of these current findings are discussed by Sir John Eccles (3), in an excellent review of the subject. One experiment discussed in this book is that of Kornhuber and his associates (4). These investigators examined cortical electrical activity in humans before, during and after a consciously-willed movement. The technical difficulties in making such recordings and the ingenious method for overcoming them are described in the article.
Suffice it to say that a human subject was hooked up to scalp electrodes and told to flex his right index finger at will. About 800 milliseconds before the flexion of the finger muscles, a wide area of the cerebral surface in both hemispheres exhibited a slowly rising negative potential.
This was a rather surprising finding. The cortical area transmitting conscious-willed movement to the appropriate level of spinal cord is a highly restricted specific region of motor cortex. Since the right finger only was involved, one would expect to see electrical activity only in the left motor cortex. This generalized bilateral negativity over wide areas of cognitive cortex so long before the actual movement was interpreted as an expression of the will to move the finger.
This confirms Penfield’s behavioral observation that the will to move and the movement itself are not identical. Eccles considers this early-generalized negativity to represent the non-physical “I” telling the physical brain what it wants to accomplish, namely flexion of the right forefinger. This conclusion is based on the fact that the generalized negativity is without prior observable electrophysiologlcal cause and, therefore, its initiation must ultimately reflect the influence of something other than brain. At 50 milliseconds prior to the movement, the encephelogram shows a remarkable sharp focalization and concentration on activity to the highly restricted “finger” area of motor cortex on the left.
What directs and focuses the initially generalized electrical activity to just the precise region of cortex to initiate the willed movement? Again, Eccles invokes the “I,” since it cannot be explained on the basis of prior electrical events (which are wide-spread and non-selective). Thus, Kornhuber and associates observed the non-physical “I” programming its will into the cortical computer.
Not only has “will” been examined electrophysiologically, but also sensory perception. In a recent article, Roland Puccetti and Robert Dykes reviewed what is known about primary sensory cortex (5). The authors concluded that although it is clear and obvious to everyone that seeing, hearing and feeling are radically different experiences, there is no neuronatomical or neurophysiological basis to account for the differences. The cortex that receives auditory connections is identical in its histology, biochemistry and electrophysiological behavior to the cortex that receives the visual system or to the cortex that receives the sense of touch.
Pucetti and Dykes conclude, therefore, that differences in our conscious perception of these modalities (e.g. when a car backfires, we hear it rather than see or feel it) are not accounted for by corresponding differences in the appropriate regions of the brain. The activity of the sensory areas of the brain must be interpreted as seeing, feeling or hearing by something that is itself not brain but rather aloof from it. Their article is particularly illuminating since it includes a variety of critiques of their interpretation and their rebuttal of the criticism.
Although Torah and science both indicate that the essence of conscious human life is a non-material, non-cerebral soul, the quality of the information supplied by each of these sources differs considerably. Science can only confirm that souls exist but can provide no information as to their nature. Furthermore, science cannot explain how a non-material entity can interact with a physical brain. Science, due to its inherent limitations, can only deal with the externals of reality.
Torah, on the other hand, is the blueprint for reality, for as the Midrash (Bereshith Rabba) tells us, “God looked into the Torah and created the world.” Therefore, Torah conveys information concerning the essence of reality. In order to acquire knowledge of the essential nature of the soul, one must turn to Torah.
1) Penfield, W. The Mystery of the Mind. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975.
2)See any standard text of Neurophysiology.
3) Popper, K.R. and Eccles, J.C. The Self and Its Brain, New York: Springer-Verlag. 1977.
4)Kornhuber, H.H. “Cerebral Cortex, Cerebellum and Basil Ganglia: An Introduction to their Motor Functions” in Schmitt and Worden (eds.), 1974, pp. 267-280.
5)Puccetti, R. and Dykes, R. “Sensory Cortex and the Problem.” The Behavioural and Brain Sciences 3, pp. 337-375.
An excellent description of Penfield’s observations and conclusions is particularly useful for the intelligent layman can be found in “The Mystery of the Mind” by Wilder Penfield (Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, 1975). This text presents a short and very readable review of Penfield’s work and the development of his recognition of the existence of “mind” as opposed to brain. The book provides the background and rationale for the following questions:
p. 73: The challenge that comes to every neurophysiologist is to explain in terms of brain mechanisms all that men have come to consider the work of the mind, if he can. And this he must undertake freely, without philosophical or religious bias. If he does not succeed in his explanation, using proven facts and reasonable hypotheses. the time should come, as it has to me, to consider other possible explanations.
p. 114: In the end I conclude that there is no good evidence. in spite of new methods: such as the employment of stimulating electrodes, the study of conscious patients and the analysis of epileptic attacks, that the brain alone can carry out the work that the mind does.
Perhaps the best reviews of neuronal integration and analysis in the visual system are the following:
Hubel, D.H., and Wiesel, T.N. “Receptive Fields and Functional Architecture of Monkey Striate Cortex.” The Journal of Physiology, Vol. 195, no. 2, Nov. 1978, pp. 215-244.
Hubel, D.H. and Wiesel, T.N. Ferier Lecture: “Functional Architecture of Macaque Monkey Visual Cortex,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B, Vol. 198, 1977, pp. 1-59.
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