Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Brain and the Soul

How about the brain? Where does it fit into the scheme of things. The brain is an organ of the mind. It is the organ which integrates soul and body and the external world. The brain as the most complex part of the body allows the body to adapt to its environment and to interact with it.

It supports the survival of the physical body. It has very powerful functions that must be controlled by the heart and mind. The brain has the capacity to take input from all the senses and creates an integrated but simplified view of the world. It contains an incredibly complex network of physical connections that allow us to respond to the ever changing environment almost automatically. It is where the instincts necessary for our survival are stored. It contains the means for regulation all the bodily functions. You can think of it as the manager of the body and its functions. Its focus is on the body and its needs and desires (passions). Without the higher mind humans would be no different than other animals only acting out of instinct. With the grace of God through the heart, the mind points the body towards God and His commandment of love. This is our purpose, to seek union with God so we can orient our whole being to God and carry out His will.

The spiritual path involves keeping things in their proper order: God, soul, mind, heart and then body. Our human struggle involves the condition where the body has taken priority an

d the depth of the heart is unknown and ignored. The body pursues its pleasures, which become passions, blocking us from a life of love as Jesus taught. This separation from God is what is called our sinful state.

The basic problem

Paul says in his letter to the Romans,

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. (Rom 7:18 -23)

So why are we stuck to do that which we do not want to do? How has evil captured our bodies and dominated our soul? We can find some clues in recent studies of the brain and what we know about how it functions.

In its many connections of neurons through trillions of synapses the brain has etched in it patterns that allow us to respond quickly to our environment. In these connections are captured responses that you need to change if you are going to be able to follow the

commands of the Lord. The devil knows your weaknesses and continually temps you based on these almost automatic responses.

Homer Simpson’s brain shown here characterizes the problem. Encoded in the array of connections are all of our desires along with our responses if we are denied them. You simply can’t let the brain as a part of your body to dominate your actions. You need to modify some of the brain’s programming to be able to overcome your sinfulness. You have to struggle to put the soul in charge.

You can look at your sinful tendency in two ways. First, it is the devil who tempts you. Second, it is your mental programming that produces automatic responses which are called your passions.

Next: The Passions


  1. I've always thought of the brain as part of the body and not the mind which I've always associated with the soul.

    As I read scripture and the fathers and modern Orthodox writers there appear to be several complementary but different anthropological models.

    Exactly where each of these things begin and end and relate to one another varies with the author and the topic: body, flesh, mind, spirit, soul, heart, intellect, intelligence, will, nous, nature etc

    Sometimes we talk in the west about the difference between emotion and reason as well, which adds to the confusion.

    And secular psychology also adds to this several competing models around consciousness, the sub-conscious, ego, super-ego, id, or words like "instinct", etc.

    While each of these can be illuminating in their own context, trying to gain a broad wisdom concerning them represents a particularly vexing quandary.

    There even seems to be a resistance to giving an adequate definition of some words like hypostasis; rather authors simply dance around the term because they find any definition insufficient. It becomes a sort of theological/philosophical place holder, like the number 0 (which in mathematics isn't actually a number at all).

    Interesting post. I always enjoy your blog.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I guess your point is that there remains always a mystery about the nature of the makeup of our being. We try as hard as we can to separate into parts what is a unity. Sometimes it helps us understand the different aspects of our being to do so though. I think we should be careful not to make it seem as if there is a clear definition for how we describe what is in total not fully understandable. My engineering background likes to organize things into machine like parts for my own understanding.
    I always try to emphasize in our catechism classes that the challenge is to have the soul regain the upper hand over the body and its animal passions. For me the soul is often a hidden aspect that needs to be brought out over the dynamic aspect of our mental functions. I do seem to have routine programs in my brain that make we go over the same faults time after time and modern understanding of the brain supports this notion. It's hard to undo our programed habits. beginning with faith, then practice of the Jesus Prayer along with full participation in the sacraments of the Orthodox Church is a proven way to work on this condition.
    It is a humbling process isn't it!

  3. I don't see how the devil tempts us---he is not omnipotent or omniscient to be able to know where we are to get into our minds to tempt us. We are, as your article says, connected and controlled by our instincts---it is our very human nature that causes us to sin. By saying the devil tempts us, we are almost, in a sense, conferring the initial responsibility of sin unto the devil, thus relegating proper responsibility to him, and not to ourselves.
    And how is the brain "an organ of the mind?" The mind is the brain, the brain is the mind. The mind is just the brain doing its job; therefore, the brain cannot be "an" organ of the mind. It is *the* organ. :)
    And the brain cannot be controlled by the mind, for the mind *is* the brain. Your statement about the mind controlling the brain is tantamount to saying that a book (the mind), which comes from words (the brain), control the the book (the brain). Words do not control a book, but rather, words are a manifestation of the book and is the book; the two are so intertwined that the non-existence of one establishes the non-existence of the other. There are not two separate entities, but rather, one whole entity. The mind is the fruit of the brain, but *is* the brain, essentially.
    Also, heart and soul are technicially the same, and yet you make a distinction. The soul is what makes us human, and our heart, in the figurative sense, is what makes us distinct from the beasts. And this distinction really comes from the brain, so there should not be a distinction between heart, soul, mind and brain; everything arises from one: the brain. We are human because of our brains, we are distinct from mere beasts because of our brains, we are empathetic because of our brains, and so forth.
    Overall, however, a very thought-provoking article. I enjoyed your efforts. Hope to read some more of your work, and am looking forward from hearing your responses to my own. :)
    Thank You!

    1. I wonder if logismoi can help explain the "demonic" forces tempt us? I find the use of the term fascnating in Easter Orthodox spirital literature in large part becauswe I experience them all day long.

  4. The main issue in your comments is the understanding of the distinction between mind and brain. The mind is a part of the soul and is not physical, while the brain is a physical network of cells designed to allow the soul to connect with the body for physical action. In the brain are many physical connections of cells which include habits and instincts. Some of the instincts are for our self preservation and are therefore very good but others are habits that lead us to sinful actions, actions based on physical desires and not on God's will. The result is "My will be done" rather than "Thy will be done".
    The mind is more than anything physical. With it we can still (ignore the physical activitybof the brain) the physical stimulations and be lifted to an infinite spiritual plane that give greater meaning to everything physical. It is more than a book in relation to words, it is the writer or interpreter of the words. It's not just a container of physical matter.
    In regards to heart and soul the Church Fathers usually use heart ton refer to the center of the soul. It's difficult to get total clarity when dealing with spiritual terms. There is always a mystery that is beyond human mind.

  5. Greetings. Please forgive me, if my post is a little inappropriate, but
    I have a worry. I have always had an extremely active imagination, vivid mental images and dreams.
    I was baptized as a child, but I am by no standard a good Christian. I used to be a Sunday Christian throughout most of my life. Only recently I started with serious reading of the scriptures, daily prayer and fasting. I guess I am a selfish person and that too was based on selfish motives, as my despair grew unbearable. I have had many failures and at one moment I felt I simply cannot put up with them anymore. Continuing with this kind of a life is impossible.
    As a child, I had scary voices in my head. My Mom took me to the confession and I received the holy spirit three times. The voices went to a more quiet state for about 20 years, I guess. Although, perhaps they were running somewhere on a more subtle level and set me up for various failures. I continued being a big trouble maker and have caused myself sufferings many times. I have had episodes of extreme depression. I have tried cannabis, but it cast me into a fit of paranoia and some sort of dark world and I do not understand, how other people find pleasure in it.
    My Mom succumbed into religious fanatism in my late teens. She possibly misunderstood several concepts of Orthodox Christianity, but I will never know for certain. Maybe she was simply ill. By worldly standards she ruined her life completely in her pursuits. I would like to let her rest in peace and just forget about her. Her explanations of the Orthodox Christianity appeared to me as crazy and when I always secretly thought it was a complete BS. Extremely irrational things she said. I never dared to directly oppose her, as her word was a dogma.
    I started reading myself not very long ago, at the age of 26. To my great delight and surprise I discovered that rational and orderly explanations, which do not directly oppose scientific knowledge etc, are plentiful in Orthodox Christian sources.
    I have been trying to root out my sins and passions more or less for past 3 years. Also would like to give up smoking cigarettes, as this bad habit is seriously starting to frustrate me.
    This spring, these voices have returned and disturb me when I try to fall asleep, sometimes interrupt my prayers. This is extremely disturbing. They have threatened me with things I fear, cursed, told blasphemies, told to kill myself.
    I am not always sure, whether this is an evil influence or a product of my imagination. Probably thoughts I have secretly thought in the past and never even dared to admit I am thinking such thoughts, although it appears so that they live a life of their own independent of my will. I like logic and order. The fact itself that I hear it seriously troubles me. I probably fear going mad as well.


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