One Soul or Many Neurons?

During an interview today with a woman whose son had passed away, I took note of her unquestioning belief in spirits and the human soul.  She told me stories about how she felt her son’s presence even after he had passed away, stories that made her believe even more firmly that he was still a presence in the world.  While looking at an old picture album that she showed me, I came across a goofy-looking school photo of him. The woman explained to me that her son had never liked that photo and that she believed he still felt that way.  While they were setting up a display for the funeral service, she and her daughter kept trying to glue that particular photo up on the display, but it wouldn’t stay on.  The woman felt that it was her son’s doing, that his spirit wouldn’t allow the photo to be put on display, that it kept taking it down.  While I know this anecdote is not evidence or proof of the existence of a human soul or spirit, what is undeniably true is that there are so many people who sincerely believe in the notion; some even see or claim to see or hear from the deceased.  It made me wonder: why would so many people believe in the notion of an immortal, non-physical soul or spirit if it were not true?  But then I remembered that until Christopher Columbus’s voyage, everyone firmly believed that the Earth was flat, that the notion of it being round was laughable.  I can’t help but wonder if the same will happen with respect to the debate over whether a person’s ideas arise from his  soul or instead from billions of neurons firing away in his brain, firings shaped by a brain structure inherited through genetic code and through interactions with the environment.

Our conversation and vote about from where our personalities, thoughts, and emotions arise has really resonated with me.  The two competing notions of their origins – a non-physical human soul vs. the strictly physical and chemical process of neurons “firing” — are so diametrically opposed to one another, which is why I have so much trouble wrapping my head around the debate.  I can’t help but think that in the future people will look back on us and think how ridiculous we were for ever believing in something as silly as a human soul, that the notion is as silly as the belief that the world is flat.  On the other hand, just thinking that makes me feel as if I’m too much of this world, or, in fact, “soulless.”

5 thoughts on “One Soul or Many Neurons?

  1. Well said Julie. On one hand, we don’t want to be naive and believe in something that can be explained by science. On the other hand we don’t want to be closed minded to possibilities, and it is hard not to be swayed by cultural norms or beliefs. What if there is both? Many parts make up a whole, right? And just because things can be scientifically explained it doesn’t make them any less miraculous.


  2. I agree that this is one of the most difficult topics to think about. The philosophy of zen makes the argument even more complex since Buddhist believe we are all part of one energy. There is no separation of the self from the universe. Could it be possible that we all share the same ‘soul’, that we’re all fundamentally connected? Now try to relate THAT idea to the many neurons theory! It makes my brain hurt.


  3. I’m currently reading a book called “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall down”. In the book, a Hmong child got seizure which the is commonly perceived as neuron firing problem in western science. However, the disease is acknowledged in Hmong culture as one’s soul has left the body and become lost. The conflict of neuron firing or soul becomes the central issue of how to treat the disease between parents and doctors. Because of the different belief, parents wouldn’t follow the directions of prescription of giving the right amount of medicine at right time because they believe the medicine is harm to the soul and can’t get the soul back. They would prefer ask shaman for help to call the soul back instead of using the typical method of treating the disease. Finally, the girl’s disease can’t be treated and can’t talk and experience development retardation which can be avoided if parents follow the prescription. Though the two perspectives of view will coexist for a long time, there might be a lot of people like the Hmong girl sacrificing for the collision.


  4. I feel it’s definitely many neurons. Emotions and personality are just the product of electrical and chemical signals. I guess this creates sort of a “cold” view of us as incredibly complicated pieces of clockwork, but I don’t really see how something as nebulous as the soul fits into the brain.


  5. This is an intriguing debate about what makes people who they are. It is incredible to think that the differences in the way our neurons fire and interact in the brain not only allow us the function in everyday life, but also how these chemical and electrical signals give each person their own unique personalities. It will be interesting in the years to come as we discover more about the brain to see how altering these connections can change a person’s emotions. It can be seen already that altering the brain connections through drugs and injury can have a significant effect on personality traits. Perhaps the emotional response and thinking process of having a deceased loved one tricks the brain into thinking they feel some kind of presence or connection after life. While it can be comforting to imagine a soul or spiritual presence in the brain that continues after life, no such evidence has been found leading me to believe that it is the complex network of neurons that make up who we are.


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