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The Soul's Dwelling Place: The Brain

Father Charles Ara said, “The brain is the violin and the soul is the violinist. They both need to work together in order to make beautiful music.”

The word “soul”, as translated from Old Testament Hebrew, means “all of your thoughts, feelings, personality characteristics, self, desires, and passions.” We feel our soul and share it in our connection with others in our day to day life.

William Shakespeare said, “The brain is the soul’s fragile dwelling place.” There is now evidence that this statement is quite true. Dr. Daniel Amen has performed thousands of SPECT scans revealing a brain-soul connection. The scans reveal that those who have healthy brains are compassionate, loving, thoughtful, goal-directed, and relaxed. Those we find impulsive, tense, angry, unfeeling, and unfocused are likely to be struggling with an unhealthy and/or injured brain. Peace with ourselves and God rest on the cornerstone of good brain health. (p. 6).

Interestingly, there is a brain-soul feedback loop that is quite powerful and impacts brain function and the condition of your soul. A healthy soul is imperative to excellent brain function and a healthy brain is required for the health and well-being of your soul. An injured or unhealthy brain does not run smoothly, and as a consequence, keeping your soul on track is likely to become challenging. This connection is enmeshed in all that we do. Understanding and appreciating this connection allows for an expanded knowledge of our own personal achievements and short-comings.

A spiritual connection to the divine has a healing influence on brain function and performance. When we have spiritual purpose and allow it to be our guiding light it augments the brain and our every day life becomes full and we are better able to understand and appreciate the value and worth of all life.

A Quick Primer on the Brain

The brain has billions of neurons (nerve cells) and each neuron talks with other neurons through synapses where neurotransmitters move across very small gaps that measure only at 0.02-0.05 microns. The brain contains more connections than there are stars in the heavens.

The adult brain weighs close to three pounds and consumes 20 to 30 percent of the body’s energy.

The brain is divided into lobes and is generally viewed as the back half and the front half. The back half of the brain is made up of the parietal (sensory cortex), occipital (visual), and back half of temporal lobes and does the work of discerning the world. The front half of the brain assimilates data that is incoming with past experience, plans future actions and administrates behavior. The frontal lobes are concerned with memory and processing what you see and hear.

Peering into the Soul (via the Brain)

Dr. Amen uses SPECT technology to study the brain. SPECT stands for single photon emission computerized tomography and is a complex nuclear medicine study that views brain blood flow and metabolism. When Dr. Amen studies a SPECT scan he pays close attention to three areas: 1. where the brain work well 2. where the brain works too hard 3. where the brain is not working hard enough. Interestingly, all brains do not look the same as there are variations among them. A healthy brain will show good, full, even, symmetrical activity. A healthy brain works in a balanced manner where all major areas work together.

Is the Brain Wired for God?

There are particular areas within the brain that can be “turned on” to create or enhance spiritual experience. Neurologists have known that there are patients with temporal-lobe epilepsy who often report spiritual experiences, are often preoccupied with religious issues, and tend to be obsessed with matters of the spirit. (p. 28) In 1997, a team of scientists (led by Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran) at the University of California, San Diego, studied what they believed was the discovery of a “God module” in the brain. They believed this “God module” may be responsible for the innate instinct to believe in God. They were able to study epileptics who had deeply spiritual experiences. This group of scientists found a circuit of nerves in the temporal lobes that became electrically active when the patients thought about God. The primary results revealed that spirituality/God/the Divine could be “hard-wired’ into the brain. The scientists concluded that a seizure leads to an overstimulation of the nerves in the “God module”; illuminating the fact that our brain does contain neural machinery in the temporal lobes. Dr. Ramachandran continued studies in this area and learned that the deeply religious (without epilepsy) presented with a similar response (as epileptics) in the temporary lobes when shown words that invoke spiritual belief. If the “God module” exists, it hints that those who are atheists may have neural circuits in the temporal lobe that differs in design. (p. 29) I believe that God created us to connect with him; and therefore, did wire our brains to experience a Divine presence.

Andrew Newberg, at the University of Pennsylvania, used SPECT studies to view the brain during meditation. Meditation was chosen to study because it is a spiritual state that can be easily duplicated in a lab setting. Newberg scanned the brains of Buddhist monks during prolonged meditation. The images disclosed unique changes in the activity of the brain as the mind of the monk arrived at a meditative state. Notable was the fact that activity decreased in the parts of the brain that were involved in producing a sense of three-dimensional orientation in space. When we lose a sense of place and it likely leads to a spiritual feeling of release into a place beyond space and time. This implies that a fundamental aspect of a spiritual experience of transcendence may be hard-wired in the brain. (p. 30)

The Prefrontal Cortex aka The Contemplative, Benevolent Brain

This is the CEO of the mind and is responsible for human success! It is referred to as the executive of the brain because of its involvement in planning, forethought, judgement, organization and impulse control. Also, the PFC acts as the in-house supervisor that guides, directs, focuses and controls our thoughts and behaviors. Our conscience, sense of right and wrong, and free will abide primarily in this are of the brain. The PFC is the most developed area of the brain and accounts for nearly all of the front 30% of our brain. The PFC is involved in communicating emotions; like joy, love, sadness and happiness.

Positive Prefrontal Cortex Characteristics:

  • Compassionate and empathic

  • Thoughtful and forward thinking

  • Learns from mistakes

  • Follows through on commitments

  • Ability to express yourself clearly

  • Ability to be still and pay attention to others

  • On time

  • Fully able to exercise free will

It is important to have a healthy Prefrontal Cortex so that you can perform in an honorable manner by allowing your soul to continue on a noble path. A healthy prefrontal cortex allows the soul to experience spiritual and emotional progress. This is the guiding light that leads you to find and follow through on what is worthwhile in your life.

Prefrontal Cortex questionnaire/checklist:

Rate yourself on each of the characteristics listed below, using the scale below.

0=never 1=rarely 2=occasionally 3=frequently 4=very frequently NA=not applicable

  1. Fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes.

  2. Trouble sustaining attention in routine situations (homework, chores, paperwork).

  3. Trouble listening.

  4. Fails to finish things.

  5. Poor organization for time or space (such as backpack, briefcase, room, desk, etc.).

  6. Avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort.

  7. Loses things.

  8. Forgetful.

  9. Easily distracted.

  10. Poor planning skills.