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How the brain creates visions of God

May 13, 2014

For most of recorded history, human beings situated the mind — and by extension the soul — not within the brain but within the heart. When preparing mummies for the afterlife, for instance, ancient Egyptian priests removed the heart in one piece and preserved it in a ceremonial jar; in contrast, they scraped out the brain through the nostrils with iron hooks, tossed it aside for animals, and filled the empty skull with sawdust or resin. (This wasn’t a snarky commentary on their politicians, either—they considered everyone’s brain useless.) Most Greek thinkers also elevated the heart to the body’s summa. Aristotle pointed out that the heart had thick vessels to shunt messages around, whereas the brain had wispy, effete wires. The heart furthermore sat in the body’s center, appropriate for a commander, while the brain sat in exile up top. The heart developed first in embryos, and it responded in sync with our emotions, pounding faster or slower, while the brain just sort of sat there. Ergo, the heart must house our highest faculties.

Meanwhile, though, some physicians had always had a different perspective on where the mind came from. They’d simply seen too many patients get beaned in the head and lose some higher faculty to think it all a coincidence. Doctors therefore began to promote a brain-centric view of human nature. And despite some heated debates over the centuries—especially about whether the brain had specialized regions or not—by the 1600s most learned men had enthroned the mind within the brain. A few brave scientists even began to search for that anatomical El Dorado: the exact seat of the soul within the brain.

Read full article written by Sam Kean at SALON.
Image above: Eugene Thirion’s “Jeanne d’Arc” (1876)

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