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.