Last year, a Harris poll discovered that 64 percent of Americans believe in the survival of the soul after death, with 68 percent convinced of a heaven and 58 percent of hell. Many beliefs are discarded over time, but the existence of the soul isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. There are good reasons, however, to think it should.
For millennia, theologians, philosophers, and poets have spoken of the soul as the immaterial counterpart to the body and the home of your feelings, intellect, and will. It is the center of your consciousness and personality; it is your mind.
The idea of a soul is infused into our vocabulary, as in when we talk of “soul mates” or “soul-sucking jobs.” Even the science fiction trope of uploading minds, as seen in Inception or Transcendence, implies that there is an immaterial essence that is the real you; you have a body, but your mind transcends the physical.
But is it the real you? Does it even exist?
Neuroscientists using tools like an fMRI have repeatedly found that these things we have attributed to the soul are actually occurring in the brain. Here are three implications of recent scientific research that challenges the notion of a soul:
1. Your brain is a pharmacy
Just as drugs manipulate the brain, the brain itself also produces chemical cocktails that influence us. Love, for example, is classically understood as an action of the soul. But there are good reasons to see love as the domain of the brain, which handily produces a hormone called oxytocin. This complicated chemical helps form romantic attachments, mother-infant bonding, foster empathy, aid in memory, and increase trust.
So your soul mate might actually be your brain mate. The phenomenon that moves us to proposals of marriage or deep love of our offspring is happening in the brain.
2. You can have two brains
If you have an immaterial mind or soul that is the real you, then an altered brain — either due to an accident or surgery — should not change who you are. But what happens to the brain can and does tremendously alter the entire person.
Scientists have controlled severe epileptic seizures by separating the left and right hemispheres of the brain (the corpus callosum). The loss of communication between the hemispheres creates some unusual results, which has been described as having two brains.
By directing questions to one eye or the other — the left eye connects to the right hemisphere and the right eye to the left — doctors can ask split-brain patients specific questions or to perform tasks. In these studies, it becomes clear that the left side of the brain does not know what the right side of the brain knows (and vice-versa). Communication between the two has to occur outside of the brain, when information is passed visually or verbally.
This phenomenon only gets stranger: when neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran asked a split-brain patient, “Do you believe in God?,” the right hemisphere replied “yes,” but the left hemisphere replied “no.”
3. You think, therefore I am
When philosopher René Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am,” he probably hadn’t considered the development of Brain Control Interfaces (BCI). For a while now, scientists have worked to create brain-to brain-interfaces, with initial success coming in the form of a remotely connected human moving a rat’s tail. That was quickly followed by other research, with the most recent being two remotely connected human brains, with one playing a videogame through the hand of another person.
This technology has significant benefits for those paralyzed, but it also has ramifications for the will. It implies that willing is centered in the physical brain, not in an immaterial self. Your brain can light up my brain, willing me to blow up alien invaders.
For many centuries, the idea of the soul has been the best explanation we have for much of human experience. But we’ve never seen a soul in a lab or run tests on it. The brain, however, now provides a testable mechanism for explaining the idea of the self.
The force of these discoveries has even moved some theologians to rethink the soul, favoring instead a form of Christian materialism. From split-brain patients to brain-control interfaces, every new scientific discovery appears to be slowly taking away the role and necessity of the soul and giving it to the brain.