In the first half of the next century science will confront its greatest challenge in trying to answer a question that has been steeped in mysticism and metaphysics for millennia. What is the true nature of self? As someone who was born in Indian and raised in the Hindu tradition, I was taught that the concept of the self – the “I” within me that is aloof from the universe and engages in lofty inspection of the world around me – is an illusion, a veil called maya. The search for enlightenment, I was told, consists of lifting this veil and realizing that you are really “One with the cosmos.” Ironically, after extensive training in Western medicine and more than fifteen years of research on neurological patients and visual illusions, I have come to realize that there is much truth in this view – that the notion of a single unified self “inhabiting” the brain may indeed be an illusion. Everything I have learned from the intensive study of both normal people and patients who have sustained damage to various parts of their brains points to an unsettling notion: that you create your own “reality” from mere fragments of information, that what you “see” is a reliable – but not always accurate – representation of what exists in the world, that you are completely unaware of the vast majority of events going on in your brain. Indeed, most of your actions are carried out by a host of unconscious zombies who exist in peaceful harmony along with you (the “person”) inside your body!
Nevertheless, many people find it disturbing that all the richness of our mental life – all our thoughts, feelings, emotions, even what we regard as our intimate selves – arises entirely from the activity of little wisps of protoplasm in the brain. How is this possible? How could something as deeply mysterious as consciousness emerge from a chunk of meant inside the skull? The problem of mind and matter, substance and spirit, illusion and reality, has been a major preoccupation of both Western and Eastern philosophy for millennia, but very little of lasting value has emerged. As the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland has said, “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”__
Why this post suddenly? Because I've been thinking about the idea of "soul", and whether we are more than just an aggregation of the the physical body, the brain and its interior functions. This soul or, less metaphysically, "consciousness" is what marks us out, but how is it linked to the body? Some scientists are beginning to tackle that question, which is what prompted this post.