No Place Left for the Soul to Hide?

with Jez Nelson

Man : Right,now I need to draw some lines on your face.Three lines one on each side of your face and one across your forehead.

Jez Nelson : Lying horizontal,my head marked up waiting for the PET scan to begin.It's a peculiar feeling, knowing that these scientists at the Wellcome Institute of Cognitive Neurology are about to watch my brain in action.To detect the subtle changes caused by my thoughts,to watch my gray matter at work.Susan Greenfield,Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University explained to me how brain imaging techniques are revolutionising neuroscience and our understanding of what goes on inside our heads.

Susan Greenfield : The umbrella word for about four different techniques is so -called brain -imaging,and brain - imaging has been very exciting because it enables scientists now,and neurologists to study the human brain at work in a painless situation,therefore in a conscious subject or in a conscious patient.Now this has been invaluable diagnostically in seeing where things are going wrong,and in order for example to see changes in the brain that are very subtle,for example with depression you can see differences in activity of certain brain regions.Now by activity what I mean is how much oxygen or glucose different brain regions might be using.The differences in blood flow therefore that will be going to those different areas,and by exploiting that fact,by exploiting the fact that your brain is greedy for oxygen and glucose and that the hardest working bits will be the greediest,you can actually by the wonders of modern technology and computing literally see the brain light up.You can see a screen with a vision,if you like,of the human brain in a particular section and you can see different bits lighting up.

Jez Nelson : So seeing how the greedy brain uses more oxygen or more glucose when its at work allows neurologists to see which bits of the brain are active when we carry out particular actions or think about particular things.

Peter Fenwick : The impact that these techniques had was amazing.It is if you like the new phrenology of the brain, that is instead of feeling lumps and bumps on the scalp,what you do is you look at hot patches or patches in the brain where blood flow is greatest in the scans,and so the first dramatic advance is the fact that the brain is very modular.We have bits of the brain which observe functions which are very specific.If you have a verbal thought,it's in one area,if you have a spatial thought it's in another area,if you have a thought which carries emotion,then that will be a combination of areas and so on.

Jez Nelson : Peter Fenwick,Consultant Neuro - Psychiatrist. Of course,you don't actually see the emotion or the thought,all scientists are watching is the changes that result from that thought,and perhaps predictably it's not quite as simple as a different bit lighting up for each different type of thing we think about.

Susan Greenfield : The technique of imaging is awesome, and it's really progressed in leaps and bounds.The interpretation however is much harder.Now when people first started doing this they thought they might see the centre for this,or the centre for that,possibly lighting up,because we like to think that you have one brain function - one area and so on,and much to everyone's mystification,it seemed that far more brain regions were active at any one time,for any one task than would have been anticipated,that's the first thing.The second is that there's no one brain region for one function.Any one brain region will participate in many different types of functions,and similarly any one function, for example let's say vision,there's at least 30 areas in the outer layer of the brain alone that is involved in the function of vision.So we have no one on one matching,any one brain area can participate in many different types of things,it seems,and any function is divvied up among many brain regions.

Jez Nelson : Nevertheless,scientists have identified certain parts of the brain that are active when we're afraid,or when we find something funny,even when we have a religious or spiritual experience.

Susan Blackmore : There's lots of talk about a "God centre" in the brain.A part of the brain where you can produce mystical and spiritual experiences,but we're a long way from actually seeing what happens in a brain during those experiences.What we do know is that stimulating certain parts of the brains temporal lobe,can produce out of body experiences,sense of mystical unity and other traditional or mystical type experiences,and we do know that certain parts of the brain are more active in people who frequently have those experiences,but we haven't got as far yet,as tying the whole story together.I expect we will.

Jez Nelson : Dr Susan Blackmore is a Psychologist at the University of the West of England,she's spent over 20 years investigating the idea that there could be more to human consciousness than can be accounted for by looking at the chemistry of the brain.She's carried out rigorous experiments to see if it's possible to explain the nature of such things as out of body and near death experiences,and spiritual transformation.Her conclusion is that everything we experience whilst conscious can be explained by the workings of the brain and brain chemistry.        

Susan Blackmore : Yes,it can be attributed to it,but that doesn't mean that you can understand it always by a reductionist process.I mean going down to the nitty gritty,nuts and bolts of the brain,won't always give you the answers,I mean if you want to say,why are people transformed by mystical experiences? You know someone sits on a mountain and gets this overwhelming sense of being one with the world and a loss of self,a disappearance of the sense of self.This can be quite a life transforming experience.Now I believe [because she can't prove it - LB] that it's all rooted in what's happening in the brain,but you're never really going to understand it unless you can talk about why we have an illusion of a self [Ref: D.Zohar "The Quantum Self"],how that illusion can dissolve,and so on.

Jez Nelson : So we can watch the brain changing its activity depending on the kind of things going through our minds,but as Dr Barry Smith,a philosopher of mind from Birkbeck College at the University of London explains,we perhaps shouldn't expect to be able to identify exactly what the scanned brain is thinking about.

Barry Smith : We can't look at the brain and study the brain and thereby read off what we're thinking about. This is rather like supposing when we've got a painting in oils that a full description of how the oil is put on the canvass and how the brush was presented across the canvass in a certain direction could tell us what the painting was about.But it won't.You could have a very elaborate,intricate description of exactly how the paint lies on the canvass,but you need to know what the painting represents,who the sitter was,if it's a portrait,and for that you need to know a relation between the painting,the painter and the sitter.There's no way that just looking at the details on the surface of the canvass can give you any information about what's thereby represented,and I think the same is true with the brain.If you look inside our brain,you'll know that we have to have those materials and we have to have them in a certain configuration and order,but it's not obvious that looking at that configuration and order tells us what that thought is a thought about,or what those memories are memories of.We might have to be in those states to have thoughts,to have memories,to be able to reason,but we won't know what they're reasons or thoughts about. (Ethereal electronic music plays)

Susan Blackmore : These techniques are wonderful in allowing us to see which parts of the brain are involved when we are doing different activities,but that doesn't tell us about subjective experience, how it feels to be alive,consciousness.We are a long,long way from understanding the relationship between what's going on in the brain and those experiences and we need to study both,until I think some kind of big step will be taken in science which enables understand consciousness better than we do now.

Jez Nelson : According to Peter Fenwick,what's needed is a new science [Ref: R.Penrose "ENM" & "Shadows of the Mind"] to explain the subjective [Ref: S.Greenfield Iotm11].

Peter Fenwick : In my view, it's because we need a new science,that's a science of the subjective a science of consciousness. (Ethereal electronic music plays)

Susan Greenfield : Up until now the study of consciousness,which is what you're talking about effectively,which is quintessentially a subjective phenomenon,has been an anathema to many scientists who thought it was something to do with the mystic,and therefore shied away from it, because scientists are brought up to be objective,to have impartial or impersonal access to something,where you can measure something,that's what we're all told at school that science is about, therefore coming up against something like love,or someone's feelings makes it very hard to quantify and to measure and to monitor,and to try and understand, because you can't hack into somebody else's first hand experiences of those things [Ref: Behind the Brain].I think increasingly,we are going to, as neuroscientists,be able to,not look at causality,not how one thing causes another,but how things match up,at correlations.I think increasingly,with brain imaging, especially when it gets better,both in its resolution of time and space,with brain imaging and also with adroit use of drugs, we'll be able to see experimentally - I'm not advocating of course,drugs of abuse here,I'm just trying to understand how drugs are working on the brain and can be use as an experimental tool,because we know that drugs change how people feel,and because we know how drugs work,to a certain extent on the neurochemistry of the brain,we can then "match up" these chemical events with what people are feeling,and I think,increasingly,if that is then matched up with various markers of their immune system,and their blood stream with brain scans,we'll get a feel for at any one moment what a type of consciousness is related to,correlated to,and you could call that,if you like,the sciences of the subjective,because really it's more just the science of consciousness.

Jez Nelson : A new science of consciousness.It's all very exciting,but somehow,it's also rather unsettling isn't it? When they've got it together,will neuroscientists at last be able to solve the problems that have perplexed us for millennia? The concept of the soul,of the individual.To what extent we have freewill or are governed by the fates as the ancient Greeks believed? Once again,it's possible that we may be labouring under a misconception of what science can and can't tell us. 

Susan Greenfield : I think there's a confusion of terms here.Let's unpack several words: Brain, Consciousness, Mind and Soul.Now many people put equal signs between those four words and then get very upset,you know,some scientists will say the brain is the mind,and other people say "well where's the soul gone,if all these horrible scientists start dissecting and pointing" and so on.Now I think that the problem here lies in exactly what we mean by those terms.So let's just unpack those. Brain for me is the physical organ.When we talk about the mind,it's a much more personalised aspect that we're emphasising,our brains we might argue are similar,you mind is different from my mind, yes? Now,my own view,is that there is a very simple way of regarding the mind,it's not some airy - fairy alternative, beamed in from Zog or somewhere.All it is,is the personalisation of the brain,and this is something that people hadn't realised so much.Just because brains look the same at the macro level,doesn't mean to say they're entirely the same.Your brain and my brain,everyone's brain is very different,because the neuronal circuits that are growing after we're born,will configure in very different ways from one person to another as a result of our experiences. Consciousness,to my mind,is something else.Now the mind can determine what kind of consciousness you have,but it's your ongoing state,it's the thing you're going to give up tonight,it's the thing you're going to give up if you go and see an anaesthetist.Consciousness is something that,like a light, is going on or off,or as I prefer,like a dimmer switch,is growing throughout your life. Then we come to the hardest one of all,which is the soul.[Ref: "SOUL" Video: H1]

Jez Nelson : So does that mean there is still a place for the soul to hide?

Peter Fenwick : Two questions.The first one is the soul one's sense of identity or is the soul something different? I think we're beginning to get a good idea of those brain functions which underpin identity.If one starts talking about soul,one's arguing that there is a principle which is involved with brain in some way,and which carries personal information about you when the brain dies.Now from the point of view of our current science,that's an impossibility.

Susan Blackmore : I think there's no place left for the soul to hide at all.Even though we don't understand an awful lot about consciousness,the idea of a soul doesn't help at all.As for the spirit,if by spirit you mean something that leaves the body,I think no place either.But there is a place for spirituality.There are people who live more or less spiritual lives,and by that I mean,lives not devoted to their own petty self,self-centred lives,but lives that are more open and let go of selfishness if you like.So I wouldn't wipe out all of spirituality,but I would say there's no hiding place for a soul.

Susan Greenfield : When people ask me about the soul,in a sense,there is that place in the Bible of Caesar's things,you know "render unto Caesar the thing that are Caesar's but unto God the things that are God".In a sense,I'm like invoking this argument of Caesar's things,in that,if you believe in a soul..... one point about souls is that they are immortal,if they're there.The one thing is that they are immortal which no one would dispute,so if one....if one believes in a soul,one therefore one is buying into this concept of an immortal soul.Now the brain is not immortal,it's going to die,no one would deny that.Has any one shown you a brain that has survived death,of course not. [That would be a contradiction in terms since death is defined by the death of the brain-LB] Now if we've said that the mind is the personalisation of the brain,that too will perish I'm afraid.So if people wish to believe in the soul,I respect that enormously,that's their view,and they have their reasons and their feelings for doing this,but they shouldn't confuse it with the brain and the mind, because that is a perishable thing.The soul is not perishable,and I think that consciousness which goes along with the baggage of the mind and the brain,sadly too,will go.So those three things are all interlinked,but the soul is not interlinked because it is not a perishable item. (Ethereal electronic music plays)





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Source:BBC Radio4 File Info: Created 24/7/2000 Updated 10/3/2013 Page Address: