Does the soul, as it has manifested in literature, religion and music, have a cerebral basis? DR. ENNAPADAM S. KRISHNAMOORTHY, eminent neurologist, on the possibilities of mapping creativity and genius, inspired by Michael Trimble’s path-breaking The Soul in the Brain.
Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, grief and tears…
When we refer to our minds, we often touch our hearts, or our heads. Yet, the mind as a physical entity, one that can be localised in a scan for example, does not reside anywhere in the human body. Our feelings, thoughts and emotions do — they are represented in our brains. To try and unravel this conundrum, let us take a computer analogy. When we consider cognition and behaviour, our brain is the hardware, the equipment and processes that make computers work. On the other hand, the mind is an operating system that draws upon the hardware but does not have significant physical representation, much like the software in our computers. The mind, therefore, is a virtual entity, one that reflects the workings of the neural networks, chemical and hormonal systems in our brain.
Having accepted that the brain and the mind are a unitary organ with diverse functions, it becomes imperative that we consider the “soul”, traditionally an esoteric and controversial concept. A noun variously defined as “psyche, inspiration and energy”, the soul has many synonyms in the English language. Where the soul resides is, however, a matter of conjecture; a question that is both difficult to answer and difficult to objectively experiment on. However, if one were to consider “the soul” as the vital force that inspires, energises and stimulates us, then it may be possible to study its manifestations and effects in all human activity having those qualities.
The possibility that one could study the soul by associating inspirational human experience, religion, music, poetry and literature, with the brain, is tantalising to say the least. In his book The Soul in the Brain, Michael R. Trimble, Emeritus Professor of Behavioural Neurology at University College of London, expounds the neurological correlates of such inspirational human experiences that were once considered to be the exclusive purview of the heart. Trimble commences his book with the words, “If you fear that opening your mind will cause your brain to fall out, then this book is not for you. If you are unhappy discussing neuroscience in the context of poetry, music and, above all, religion, then again this text cannot be recommended.”
Basis of emotions
Trimble begins by exploring the brain anatomy of human emotion, implicating the Limbic System as the seat of human emotion. Seated deep within the brain and consisting of a network of critical structures, the Limbic System is the oldest part of the mammalian brain. There is considerable data today from brain imaging studies to show that this part is closely associated with emotional disorders. For example, the Amygdala, a multinucleated structure intricately connected with many brain parts, has been shown to both vary in size and to have different levels of neurochemical activity in various emotional disorders. The Amygdala is today the focus of much of the brain research that is concerned with human emotion and emotional disorders. Expounding on the neurobiology of emotion beyond these structures, Trimble discusses their links with other critical brain areas. He quotes extensively from the work of 20th century experts who have contributed to our understanding of emotional brain function, exploring brain anatomy beyond limbic structures that has a role in human emotion.
“While the hypothalamus was essential for the expression of emotion, the experience of emotion required the cortex, ‘the stream of feeling’ depending on strong interconnections between the cortex and the hypothalamus.” (Papez, 1937.)
Poetry and literature are areas that Trimble explores at some length in this book. He describes how the use of the language of poetry and metaphor produces heightened activity of the right hemisphere of the brain. Pointing out that certain neuropsychiatric conditions have strong associations with specific creative pursuits, he draws attention to the links between literary creativity and Bipolar Affective Disorder (Manic Depressive Illness), an association strangely not witnessed with another major mental illness, Schizophrenia. He quotes extensively from the works of several poets with Bipolar Affective Disorder such as William Cowper (1731-1800), Robert Lowell (1917- 1977) and Anne Sexton (1928-74). For example, Anne Sexton, who frequently took drug overdoses and finally committed suicide, wrote:
with capsules in my palms each night,
eight at a time from sweet pharmaceutical bottles
I make arrangements for a pint-sized journey.
I’m the queen of this condition.
I’m an expert on making the trip
and now they say I’m an addict.
Now they ask why.
Don’t they know that I promised to die!
to kill myself in small amounts,
an innocuous occupation.
One cannot help but draw a parallel with the famous Tamil poet of the Indian independence movement, Subramanya Bharathi, who was renowned for his extraordinary creativity, intermingled with profound emotionality supplemented by generous doses of nationalistic and religious fervour (see box). Indeed, the creative human brain has perhaps an excessive proclivity for emotionality; quite understandably, given that creativity is often inspired; and inspiration in all forms requires feeling!
Another meeting ground
Religion is another area that exemplifies this meeting of the “trinity”. Most dictionaries describe religion as “a way of life”; religious beliefs, practices and experiences have a strong cultural basis in their evolution. It seems inconceivable therefore that religious experience may have its basis in the brain. However, why are some people more intense in their practice of religion, while others are considerably less enthusiastic; or why do one’s religious attitudes, beliefs and practices change during one’s life span? Can this be explained by sociocultural factors alone, or are there more inherent biological determinants of these behaviours? For example, there are considerable differences in how siblings experience and practise religion even though their sociocultural ethos are similar, and we witness the entire spectrum from intense religiosity to strong agnostic tendency within a family.
Further, religiosity is an important component of many brain and mind disorders. The depressed, anxious or avoidant individual is almost desperate in his pleas for religious salvation, rather different from the intense ritualism of the person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The religious ecstasy of the person with mania is qualitatively different from the prophetic fervour of the person with paranoid schizophrenia or temporal lobe epilepsy. The hyper-religious individual with temporal lobe epilepsy has on occasion been described as a dramatic persona complete with religious symbols and a prophetic fervour, with an unshakeable belief that his existence had a special purpose for the world we live in. In his chapters on “Neurotheology”, Trimble also quotes patients with epilepsy, dementia and head injury who have religious experiences. The triad of hyper-graphia (the keeping of copious and detailed notes and diaries), hyper-religiosity ( an increased interest and practise of religious matters) and hypo-sexuality (a diminished interest in matters sexual) is well described in the syndrome of temporal lobe epilepsy; especially in long standing and poorly controlled patients with recurrent temporal lobe epileptic seizures. It is accompanied by an obsessional and viscous personality. Trimble points out that while the note taking and diary keeping is copious, it lacks, unlike the poetry of the person with bipolar disorder, creativity and appeal. This fundamental difference may reflect the different brain substrates that underlie these conditions.
“The content of the writing from hypergraphic patients with epilepsy often reflects religious or mystical themes.” (Roberts, Robertson, and Trimble, 1982.)
In his chapter on “Music and the brain” Trimble brings out the emotional nature of musical language.
‘Plato considers that music played in different modes arouses different emotions… Major chords are cheerful, minor ones sad; the ups and downs of life…”
While music and the brain is a topic that has been covered widely elsewhere, the uniqueness of Trimble’s contribution is in developing the links between the brain, mind and music. Pointing out that music and poetry have the unique ability to bring one to tears, often as part of a state of ecstasy, he goes on to explore the brain processes that may mediate emotional crying, which he points out as being a uniquely human experience. Why are we, the human race, so moved by art, poetry and music that we are reduced to tears, not those of sorrow, but of elation and ecstasy? In Indian lore, musical saints and savants are often described to reach states of ecstasy in the development or indeed deliverance of their favourite compositions, usually in praise of their favourite lord. The great composer Thyagaraja attained this state in the worship of Lord Rama; Purandaradas in the worship of Vitobha; Bharathi in the worship of his favourite Parasakthi; the list is indeed long. What brain and mind processes lead to these states of intense devotion and creative focus, combined with religious fervour?
The creative half
Trimble in his book quotes many studies that implicate right hemisphere activity in musical perception. It is widely understood that the right hemisphere is the “creative half” of the human brain. Interestingly, the right hemisphere also happens to be the emotional hemisphere. That right hemisphere dominant individuals are both creative and emotional may explain why those engaged in artistic pursuits express both qualities in ample measure. There is an impression among clinicians that Bipolar Affective Disorder (Manic Depressive Illness) is for example over represented in the creative professions; the biological basis for this may well rest in the right brain. Trimble himself has pointed out that the relationship between the brain and aesthetic experiences, rather than being the rule, may indeed be exceptional: “… not all patients with bipolar disorder become poets, of course nor are all poets manic-depressive” (p. 106). Further, it may be erroneous to conclude that these experiences belong to the brain alone. The mind, while an abstract construct in this the 21st century, remains an important part of clinical and scientific lore. The contributions of the mind to poetry, music, art and religion cannot therefore be ignored. Trimble’s work is commendable as a rare attempt to relate the highly technical specialty of neuroscience with something as abstract as art and in doing so fills an important void in scientific and popular literature.
“The neuroscientific community has generally shown little interest in exploring the finer aspects of human behaviour and thought, especially aesthetic experience and creativity.”
Intellectual debate about where the soul resides is likely to continue for eons. Through this important work we understand emotional experience and creative pursuits are vicarious markers of the human soul. We may then develop a persuasive argument that a critical mass of brain structures and their connections are associated closely with these vicarious markers of the soul. While this does not prove that these critical brain structures are where the soul does indeed reside; not even that the vicarious markers are a true soul representation; it is an important scientific link between profoundly moving human experience and the brain. One could still argue that the soul does not necessarily reside in the human brain and that we do not have adequate “proof of this concept”. Which does of course leave us asking, “Pray, just where doth the soul reside”?
What is the relevance of “Trinity Talking” concept to our lives, you may well ask. All of us come across people in society who excel in their creativity. Obviously these individuals have inspirational periods when their mind, brain and soul are in sync! The more productive the individual and the more evocative her/his productions, the more frequently is their “Trinity Talking” may well be one explanation. Indeed, going beyond the creative pursuits to other professions and trades, every one of us will possibly have at least one moment in our life, profession or vocations when we experience this spark of “enlightenment”, however brief. In these periods there is sudden clarity that often follows a period of confusion and turmoil. In these periods we often make momentous decisions and take definitive actions that may have an impact on our whole life. In these periods we experience true “self actualisation”. One may contend that the more frequent and more sustained these experiences, and more willing the person to explore and follow up on them, the more successful and productive he is. Clearly these are precious moments when our thoughts, beliefs and emotions meet with
With contributions from Niranajana Bennet and Aparna Rajagopal
Dr. E.S. Krishnamoorthy is Director & TS Srinivasan Chair at The Institute of Neurological Sciences, VHS Hospital, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Niranjana Bennet was a Psychology Intern at The Institute of Neurological Sciences, VHS Hospital.
Aparna Rajagopal is an advocate in New Delhi, with an abiding interest in literature and music.