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A-Z of thought: Soul

Malcolm Jeeves

Two of my favourite hymns unequivocally proclaim the importance of 'My Soul'.  'Praise my soul the king of heaven' runs the first line of an older hymn. 'Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord' begins a more recent one.  But what is my soul?

Throughout much of history there was a shared view that, in addition to our physical body, we each possess a separate immaterial soul or mind. Precisely where it lives was vigorously debated. For Aristotle the soul was in the heart, a view shared by the church father Tertullian. For the 1st-century anatomist Galen it was in the ventricles of the cerebral hemispheres. Descartes identified the pineal gland as the place where the soul made contact with the brain. English physiologist Thomas Willis located the soul in the corpus striatumin the centre of the brain. Giovanni Lancisi located the soul in the corpus callosum.

If I had believed that, it could have posed problems when, for 30 years, I studied patients with a rare neurological condition where the corpus callosum was absent from birth. Were they soulless?

Today the converging neuropsychological evidence points unequivocally to the conclusion that specific mental processes correlate to specific regions or systems in the brain. Selective brain damage can lead to loss of specific abilities such as face recognition, speech recognition, speech production, colour vision, old memories-and can also change things like the ability to act morally.

Despite the widespread belief that we all have an immaterial and immortal soul attached somewhere, somehow, to our material and mortal body, the message from neuroscience and psychology underlines the unity of the human person.
Over the past century, biblical scholars have urged us to recapture a Hebrew-Christian view of the human person, stressing our psychobiological unity and emphasising an 'embodied' understanding of the soul - that we are 'living souls', not that we have souls.

So I can still sing with enthusiasm, 'Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord,' remembering that it is not just a bit of me but the whole of me that is telling out the greatness of the Lord.  And this emphasis on embodiment takes seriously the apostle Paul's teaching to the Corinthian Christians (Corinthians 15, especially 42-44).

So I look forward not to being a disembodied spirit or soul but truly an embodied person in which my personal identity is retained but my embodiment is radically changed-sown perishable and raised imperishable, sown inglorious and raised in glory, sown in weakness and raised in power, sown physical and raised spiritual. What a glorious hope!