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Posted by on Sep 26, 2007

Neuropsychology – Beyond the Soul: The Secular Sense of Self

Neuropsychology – Beyond the Soul: The Secular Sense of Self

Picasso Self-Portrait

Picasso: Self-Portrait

WNYC’s Radio Lab pod cast, “Who Am I?” aptly summarizes current scientific understanding of the neurology of self-perception. Traditionally, the sense of the self, along with intellectual capabilities, are thought to be contained in the soul. Apparently, our perception of self awareness appears to come from the right hemisphere.

There is a compelling story about a 46 year old woman who suffered an aneurysm and recovered as a person with a completely different self who happens to share the same history and memories of her previous self. The emergence of this new person was startling to her only child, her daughter. From being very proper and aware of social conventions, her mother became much less of perfectionist, someone who loves to sing, and is much more interested in sex. Her mother does not worry about death, although she doesn’t have a memory of a near death experience.

A neuropsychologist, Dr. Paul Broks, author of Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology, said that we are all just a car crash away from being a completely different person. Our self is nothing but the story the brain tells itself.

Dr. V.S. Ramachandran says that what is unique about us is our ability to tell stories. He believes that introspective consciousness began some time between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago. For example, a monkey can make associations with a color such as red but it cannot imagine something called a purple striped canary. Only humans can take images from the real world and make abstractions. Humans can conjure imagination. This allows us to manipulate ideas to the extent that we can imagine ourselves. The idea of ourself is a story that we can change from day to day, according to this perspective.

What happens when we sleep? Our brain produces our dreams as well as producing ourselves. There is a fascinating story, told by Robert Louis Stevenson, of training little people in his head to tell him a story in a dream that he could later write down to meet his need to produce stories to make a living.

There is also a very interesting story about the loss of a father and the son’s grief reaction which blurred the boundaries of identity between the two.

With all of this neurology, what happens to the concept of a spiritual soul that is our fundamental principle of identity? What about all of the intellectual faculties that are supposed to inhere in the soul? If what we call the soul is the result of neurological activity, what survives when we die?

Clearly this is another contrast between scientific modes of explanation and religious and philosophical modes of explanation. However, it is fair to say that just as geology and paleontology changed our notion of the nature and meaning of creation, neuroscience is about to take us and our notions of philosophy and theology on a roller coaster.

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