The brain: How body makes spirit

We Westerners have traditionally viewed mind as separate from matter, spirit as separate from body. This assumption started with Plato and culminated in Descartes, who drew the sketch above. And the notion trickled down from the various philosophers into what we consider “common sense”. In the Graeco-Roman “leg” of our heritage, spirit and body were seen as equal in stature (hence Juvenal: “mens sana in corpore sano“). In the Judeo-Christian leg, body was seen as inferior. But the essential dualism between the two was mostly taken for granted.

Eastern traditions such as Hinduism, by contrast, have traditionally viewed body as arising out of spirit. So pure energy or collective spirit, Brahman, might take the form of individual spirit, Atman, and become the body of something, through the magic process of Maya. (Recall that the Sanskrit word Maya is the root of magic.) That magic could work in both directions, but the essential monism of spirit and body were and are mostly taken for granted.

Modern neuroscience lets us correct and refine both of these views. And this is the first of my tentative conclusions after studying the brain for the past year. We now understand that something as simple as a thought or an emotion or as complex as “consciousness” is an emergent phenomenon from a pattern of physical events.

Those events are action potentials, electrochemical signals that propagate through one neuron and jump across synapses to other neurons. The mechanics of such propagation inside each individual neuron and of the “hop” (or the non-hop) across the synapses are fascinating. But the magic, the Maya, arises — or emerges — when those patterns of action potentials become self-aware. And not just self-aware but “happy”, “aroused”, “aggressive” and so forth.

Dualism, in other words, is wrong. Monism is right, but runs in the opposite direction. Not from spirit to matter and back, as in the Vedantic model, but from matter to spirit and back again to matter.

This insight, once one gets used to it, is merely the beginning of a cascade of radical questions. Such as:

  • What is “personality”? Why and how is your emergent magic different than mine?
  • Do we have “free will”? When, and how much?

Those have to wait for their own posts.

52 thoughts on “The brain: How body makes spirit

  1. o.k.

    what is the original question?

    i think you are postulating somatic theories about the brain, correct? something along the lines of the james-lange theory?

    seems logical to me.

    • Then we are defining the indefinable, yes? The spirit being that “spark” which we often call a “soul”? Or is it something else? I struggle with the concept myself but I would call it “self-awareness” but that falls short or within a sort of “I think therefore I am” realm.

    • In this context, “spirit”, “mind”, “emotion”, “consciousness” and so forth are all interchangeable. They’re all emergent phenomena of patterns of neurons firing together.

      I’ve always hated the word “consciousness”, btw. So pretentious. Say “awareness” and everything is clearer.

      So yes, just being aware is a result of brain patterns. A tree has no brain and is not aware. A reptile has a very primitive rain and at most primitive awareness. Dolphins more. Primates more, etc.

      “Soul” is just an optimistic word we use for such awareness when we’re scared it might terminate.

    • @Andreas, I happen to like “consciousness” over “awareness” (maybe I am pretentious) but we are on the same page. We are not talking about an externally provided “spark” (the insertion, application, etc. of a soul by a supernatural being) but self-awareness.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this recently having learned enough organic chemistry to be foolish. On this blog I made an analogy (hoping that Olivia Judson would like me) that our genetic traits are like playing a chord on a piano (the 88 keys like a strand of DNA). The organization of the carbon spontaneously determines form. The form moves us around. The world modifies our form (food, peyote, weather). I’m left with the nagging question about the spark. What about the spark that distinguishes me from a bag of chemicals? Is it enough to just let the organic molecules organize themselves? I can see why my engine keeps running; I just don’t know what started it running.

    Wait, is there a difference between spirit and soul? I’m thinking about my soul. I have a whole thing about the soul.

    Free will? Have you ever been really sick and wished you could just die? Your soul will drag you through unpleasantness, despite the logic of doing otherwise. Like hope.

    • Your questions are so difficult they cannot possibly have an answer.

      So they can’t have any significance.

      I’ll just shrug them off, forget them and start again.

      That dealt with them, eh? 👿

    • @Mr. Crotchety,

      Have you ever been really sick and wished you could just die? Your soul will drag you through unpleasantness, despite the logic of doing otherwise.

      It was this sentence that prompted my question. I find the survival instinct fascinating. I am of a mind that it is the “parent” instinct, that all over so-called instincts are merely sub-routines under that parent “program.” In that sense, I could see that as a “spark” or “soul.”

    • Well, the “spark” naturally fascinates us, and forever will.

      There are several sparks to be puzzled about. 1) the big bang 2) the first “life” and 3) the first “awareness”

      As long as we talk about the brain we’re talking about spark nr 3.

      Your piano key metaphor is still the best I’ve seen to explain DNA and protein expression.

      So now I invite you to go to work and produce a metaphor for neuron patterns.

      I’ve thought of describing it as thus: Picture a large grid of light bulbs. Now somebody lights some bulbs but not others. They spell “Maya”. Now somebody lights a different pattern and it spells “hamburger”. The bulbs are individually “dumb”. But out of their patterns EMERGE words.

      The reason I didn’t use the metaphor is that some smart-alec would immediately say “see, who’s doing the bulb lighting, hmmm?’ And there the metaphor would end.

    • @Andreas, when I think of the Christian separation, I think “body and soul”. And the Eastern model seems harder to define yet easier to understand. Body and soul are one. Or, another way, the body springs from the soul (or spirit) which fits, to me, with “I think therefore I am.”

      But we are wandering off on a religious tangent, aren’t we? Can we separate the two?

    • If you were a Platonist and ideas were supreme, Mr. Crotchety, the spark might come from:


      But that would be wrong because form is not supreme.

      So you’re right to be puzzled about will, motion, chords, crystals, discrete energy levels and the like. And it is the human lot to remain so.

  3. I’ve agonised about this so much over the years. I don’t think it explains the mystery, though. It sounds rather like; let there be awareness – in other word, it’s not scientific. Or perhaps we have to explain awareness of awareness of awareness … It’s all too subjective.

    I’m trying to understand what you mean about the dualism of Christianity – or the Judeo/Christian leg, as you call it. I was once lectured very severely about the central Christian dogma, the resurrection of the body and the non-existence of the soul. Not that it caused me any sleepless nights.

    • The mystery need never be explained. Awe at the beauty of it is not diminished but enhanced by a scientific understanding of parts of it. That’s the Einsteinian worldview, and mine.

      Re the dualism: It’s merely the assumption (not the Assumption, mind you) that flesh is separate from spirit. It might or might not come with a disdain for the flesh, but you’ll find the separateness assumption in nearly all “Christian” writing.

      One might even start by looking at all that confusing about “father, son and holy spirit”. Lots of people have burnt at the stake because they got a nuance wrong about how the one part, a body, might or not relate to that other part, the spirit.

    • I am sceptical. Science does not deal in the matter under discussion,Andreas, only the beauty of the observable manifestation.

      I was told that the soul is a product of the classical Greek mind. I don’t know how justifiable that is. Be that as it may, the abandonment of the notion grows on one. It is more than naturalism.

    • That conviction per se IS a pattern of electrical impulses. Let me add a few neurotransmitters to your synaptic soup and you’d have some rather different convictions.

      Do you know what led you to that conviction btw? Or do you just really, really want to have it?

      See, there is an implicit demotion in the term “a set of electrical impulses”. If you share my Einsteinian worldview, then your awe at the magic and beauty of those sets of electrical impulses is not diminished by calling them that. I mean, how cool is it that one set of electrical impulses made Beethoven’s Fifth, another Michelangelo’s David, and another Bayes’ theorem?

  4. @Paul – “…….I’m deeply convinced that I am more than a set of electrical impulses……”

    I, on the other hand, see myself as an accidental collocation of atoms in a cold and meaningless universe.

    But then, I’ve always been low on self-esteem.

    • I like the humorous tone, but see my reply to Paul above:

      I might agree that you’re an “accidental collocation of atoms”, but I don’t see how it follows that the universe, or your collocation, is “meaningless”.

      You could look at your collocated atoms and esteem them rather highly indeed.

  5. As someone who growing up was exposed to the vedantic viewpoint but having spent large part of my adult life exposed to the graeco-roman view in the west I have spent a lot of time pondering over the oriental and occidental difference in this age old existential question of mind over matter vs matter over mind.
    To start with its no accident that when the 12th monks created alcholic beverages through the distillation of matter they decided to call it “spirit” which is derived from the latin word “spiritus” whose root word is “spirare” which means to breath. So a spirit indeed something that is distint from the body and is purified and distilled.
    As you rightly point out in the vedic tradition there never is a debate if body ever supersedes spirit.. Brahman derived from the root word “brrr” which is the sound for “energy” of the universe (probably unleashed by big bang:-)) reigns supreme and the debate of duality is between atman (soul or self or personal spirit) being different than the brahman(whole or universal energy). Even this debate has ended with the Advaita (non-duality)philosophy which is now believed to be largely influenced by Buddhist philosophies that focused heavily on mind over body matters.
    I have a feeling that while in the short run these break through research from neuro sciences may indicate monism from matter to mind the research going on with particle physics, quantum mechanics, relativity and other areas may reveal the true nature of matter itself being nothing but “maya” (illusion) through perception and experiences resulting from neurons hoping in the brain. As the Bhagvad gita sloka goes :

    “Cancalam Hi Manah Krsna Pramathi Balavaddrdham
    Tasyaham Nigraham Manye Vayoriva Suduskaram”

    “The Individual self is the traveler in the chariot of the material body and the intelligence is the driver. Mind is the driving instrument and the senses are the horses. Thus, the self is the enjoyer or sufferer in the relationship of the mind and senses.”

    • I love your Vedantic elaboration.

      Regarding the etymology of spirit from breath: You also find it in the Greek pneuma. And did you know that German for “to breathe” is “atmen”? Ponder that for a bit. Atmen, atman.

      I think of that as a coincidence of metaphors, though. It’s natural to observe that the last thing a dying body does is to exhale, to “expire”. So our ancestors assumed that this special something, breath, must be the thing that gave life, and that now “left” and is somewhere else, perhaps being inspired, inhaled by another body.

      In actuality, it is our parasympathetic nervous system (regulating the lungs) interacting with our environment. It still comes back to neurons.

      Mr Crotchety in that piano key metaphor is onto something above.

      As you know, I’m also fascinated by the much more precise nomenclature Sanskrit has for the various states of mind: Buddhi, etc. The Gita is five states of mind, the Pandavas, against 100 others, the Kauravas.

      but I think we can now see those as synaptic patterns and understand them in terms of, say, “limbic system screams at cortex, tells hypothalamus to start hormone cascade, et cetera.

    • That is fascinating. I have always had a hard time taking the numbers that are quoted in the vedas or puranas or hindu epics or upanishads. They seem unrealistic, its hard to believe that gandhari would conceive 100 sons or a rishi lived for 1000 years.
      For the first time your explanation makes perfect sense to me. The metaphoric significance of those numbers to correlate synaptics patterns would be the ultimate revelation and be fantastic.
      For example last year I spent some time trying to understand the fantastic numbers used for defining epochs (yugas) in the puranas to see if it has any correlation with the 2012 mayan apocalype predictions. As you may know vedas talk about time as cyclical epoch with each yuga being multiple of 432,000 years. And a cylcle of 4 yugas are treated as 1 day in brahma’s life and there is similar cycle for each night. Brahma is supposed to live for 100 years. Somewhere there is the life of the universe and while its all invetwoven into mythology I am hoping modern science will validate some of these numbers .

      Can I look forward to some great posts on numbers in the mythos of these traditions and if there are matching equivalents in modern sciences that can reveal a great deal ?

    • Overconfidence at the outset is always a promising start for an intellectual debate.

      (It can’t be quite so “of course” as you might think: the question has already kept the best minds busy for a few thousand years, and now we’ve discovered some stuff that might let us progress.)

    • If you look closely, you’ll notice that my parenthetical remark effectively annihilates my overconfident claim.

      As to your parenthetical remark, precisely because this question as well as the one about the nature of personality have kept the best minds busy for thousands of years, I’m not sure I understand why you refer to them as “radical” questions.

    • Mea culpa. When I see “Cyberquill” as the author, I usually brace myself in irony mode, but something went awry this time. Yes, I do now see your parenthetical phrase. Well done.

  6. i am not sure how many people combed through the lecture links you provided. all i know is that i did not 😉

    so since you are saying soma makes pneuma – if you have the time can you put one or two links to articles that speak to the science of it?

    it must have given you pause to begin with religious views on the topic, but perhaps you thought it would be brought up regardless so why not set the comparison from the onset.

    the point of your exploration is NOT to reconcile peoples religious belief systems with science as some are trying to do. i’m not sure how einstein did this, but i’m fairly certain he did not throw the baby out with the bath water.

    • I’ve got no specific links (in terms of individual lectures) for this post. These are just my ruminations after listening to all the lectures i cited in the other post.

      That said, Lecture 35 in Wang’s course is about the neuroscience of spirituality and religion. We might return to that subject. It’s not really the subject of this post, though. Believe it or not, I did not even think of this as being “about religion”.

    • spirit or pneuma is not a matter generally dealt with by scientists.

      are you sure some stress in your body in not causing your mind to inadvertently use more “bait the fish hook” buzz words than usual?


      thanks for the link.

  7. A neuron-to-neuron provoking post, Andreas.

    When analyzed from a matter-to-mind scenario, instead of a mind-to-matter one, biological evolution and its natural “awareness” evolution make perfect sense to me.


    That initial explosion. Or that combustible spark?

    What triggered their motion?

    You know, I’ve been spending some time taking my mother for IgIv infusions in a small room where six other people–usually from the ages of 25-65–are undergoing chemotherapy. Perhaps their grace and courage come from their diseased bodies’ neurons playing jump rope over their synapses, but when there, I am struck by something that emanates in mind and enters matter, diseased as it is.

    Your scientific explanation seems biologically, chemically, and physically sound until you see a child in the infusion center, all hooked up. Then, those of us who use reason rather than faith to try to understand these circumstances, find ourselves somewhat troubled. A least I do.

    Maybe not, though.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

    • What a room to be in, Cheri. I empathize your mom, the other patients, and their parents and loved ones.

      But there’s not contradiction in that room to mind-matter or matter-mind. You very much CAN think certain thoughts (positive ones, say) and thereby influence matter (hormones, say). All that I said above is that, even to think that positive thought, you still need the matter to think it with.

  8. HI Andreas, (you are many posts ahead of me) How do you manage all of this…can’t wait for your book…

    But I am a neuroscience freak myself and am curious about your describing thought, emotion or consciousness as “an emergent phenomenon from a pattern of physical events.” My question is what is the meaning of the term ‘physical’? Neuronal firing patterns have electrical and chemical components, meaning there are particle such as neurotransmitter molecules and electrons, but from a quantum point of view, even these particles are ultimately blips of energy blinking on and off in the zero-point field, the quantum mystery. The self organizing capacity of the whole Universe that allows the evolution of complexity at the particle level … electrons/protons/neutrons…hydrogen/helium/lithium…carbon/oxygen/nitrogen…amino acids/proteins/DNA …all the way to cells/muticellularity/complex life forms/humanoids… seems to be present throughout all of time and space and not an emergent phenomena. Self awareness may seem to arise suddenly in us curious humans, but perhaps it is just another phase of the unfolding. (See David Bohm’s “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”)

    “A tree has no brain and is not aware.” As a fan of Tolkien, I have no problem envisioning some form of the Ents. Perhaps the Universe is an amazingly complex organism in constant communication with itself revealing itself through differing modalities (sight sound touch taste and smell to start). The rainforest shamans speak of the plants communicating to them how to best utilize the plants healing capacities. The shamanic world has essentially been lost to those of us raised in the modern world, but perhaps the shamanic firing patterns reveal to the shaman a much larger world than the one we currently inhabit (and have created).

    Blessings to you and your family

  9. Matter over Mind…

    I hate to see Psychiatry win and Spirituality reduced to curable self generated delusional electric patterns.

    Not long ago, during a clinical internship, I was invited to observe the application of electro convulsive therapy (ECT); a reasonable method to correct pathological ion flux if matter is truly the ground of our Being. I asked to be excused.

    • Alas, I fear that this attitude is widespread. What I’m signaling here is that, however I might have felt once, I prefer “is” to “ought”, or reality to what I’d “like to see” (as opposed to what I’d “hate to see”, as you put it).

      But there’s more: I’d also like to suggest that once one opens up to the miracle of reality it becomes JUST AS, if not MORE, astonishing and awe-inspiring than we thought amid our age-old platitudes.

  10. The fact that flux and emission happen when ‘I’ think do not establish causality just coincidence; when ‘I’ think IT is seen as waves of electrochemical flux upon the shore but it doesn’t follow that ‘I’ AM that; thought is what ‘I’ DO, flux is what you SEE; ‘I’ could be a fish in that ocean and just be making waves with my Being.

  11. How can either of you be so sure, Exuvia and Andreas?

    On the one hand Andreas asserts that all awareness arises from the activity of neural networks and on the other Exuvia asserts that awareness cannot be identified with the activity of neural networks.

    If Andreas seeks to demonstrate awareness in the activity of a neural network, what precisely is he looking for? It is not a question of examining the process of sleep or anaesthesia because we do not consider consciousness or the lack of it, but the phenomenon of awareness in the conscious mind. How does he accommodate the changes in the neural network wrought by the investigation itself? This belief in the spontaneous appearance of awareness is itself an act of faith in the current state of our knowledge. Dare I say that Andreas is biased in favour of what he would “Like to see”. The focus should be on such paradoxes as the appearance of neural activity before awareness of a decision [I’m sorry i forget where I read about this].

    You dislike the term “Awareness”, Douglas. It is useful in this context to distinguish “Consciousness.” Why do you regard the debate about religion (the word you use) as closed? Does the term mean something special to you?

    And Exuvia, if you are so sure of the separation of body and spirit, why exclude from yourself consideration of mere physiological phenomena?

    • You dislike the term “Awareness”, Douglas. It is useful in this context to distinguish “Consciousness.” Why do you regard the debate about religion (the word you use) as closed? Does the term mean something special to you?

      I dislike it in terms of this discussion, not as a general concept. As I said before, I prefer “consciousness” in this context. I am not sure I made a statement that could be construed as considering the “debate about religion closed”, I probably intended it to mean “unimportant to me”. There is at least one person who thinks we (humans) may be genetically disposed toward creating and/or believing in the mystical:

      I lean toward something similar. We are a curious species and want answers to “life, the universe, and everything” and I think that led primitive man to create myths and religions to explain all the unexplainable.

    • Richard, I think religion is a touchy subject for some. At least, in my experience. I admire people who believe and adhere to the teachings they align themselves with. My view of the subject is quite complex and not easily explainable.

  12. @Andreas – …….I prefer “is” to “ought”, or reality to what I’d “like to see”…….

    A problem with using words like “is” or “reality” in metaphysical discussions is that these two words are often used by the scientific fundamentalist (arguably of a breed of the same ilk as the religious fundamentalist) as a stick with to bash his more imaginative adversaries.

    I believe that we, with our intellectual but merely self-conscious minds, do not have the capacity to know what “is” is, or what “reality” is. Those (like the infamous Richard Dawkins) who loudly assert what “is” is, and what “reality” is, arguably know no more about what “is” is, or about what “reality” is, than does any ant you see running along a sidewalk.

    At the very least, reality is, as you said, likely “…..more astonishing than we thought amid our age-old platitudes…..”.

    On the other hand, “reality” could be only what Richard Dawkins says it is, since we cannot know for sure that it isn’t. In which case we can die happy.

    • You’re right, Philippe, in that we cannot usually know what “is” is. All we can do is try to find out.

      What I’m saying is that, whenever I’m being honest with myself, I KNOW whether my motivation at that moment is trying to find out the “is” of something or whether I just find the implications too unsettling and go with the “ought” for my own comfort. So I can choose “is seeking” over “ought coddling”.

      All in the appropriate context.: I enthusuastically play the whole Santa Claus and tooth fairy thang with my younger kids, who enjoy the “ought” of SC and the TF, although I’m guessing that my “older” one is starting to get ready for the “is”.

      This reply to your comment may not have made any sense whatsoever, I realize. I need coffee

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