Brain damage and personality change: evidence against the existence of a separate soul?
Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in front of my father in his nursing home. He has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. He looks at me with his big sad brown eyes, and I know that he hasn’t got a clue who I am. He can’t speak, but he looks around curiously and he smiles…in fact oddly, he smiles more than he used to, and what I can say is that he is most definitely not the same “person” that I have known all my life. There are traces of the “person” but much of it has gone or changed, and yet he is still there, alive.
This kind of scenario is something I have thought about before with respect to NDEs and forms the basis of a legitimate objection to the belief that NDEs are evidence that the soul is separate from the brain (Chad bought this up once in one of our discussions). The argument goes something like this: if the soul is separate from the brain then when the brain is injured through trauma or disease the “personality” should not change as it is not a “function” of the brain. So this invites the question:
Are Personality and the Soul the same thing?
This is very important for trying to get to the bottom of this question, and to be honest it will not be covered fully in this post. I have actually moved countries recently, from Canada back to the UK, due to my parent’s poor health, and in the process I have changed jobs. I am now working in research in obesity (which is ironic as I am not slim!) and in particular on a drug that targets a receptor on a neuron in the hypothalamus which regulates appetite. I am therefore having to learn a lot more about neurotransmitters and how they affect behavior. People who have genetic defects that result in defects in the pathway I am working on, experience extreme hunger…all of the time, even after they have eaten. This then drives their behavior and the behaviors we observe are what we may perceive as personality…we make judgments, that person has no self-control.
Some people who have brain damage can become much angrier. Again, this affects our perception of their personality. Often they experience more extreme ranges of emotions, since emotions are often the result of hormone changes regulated in the brain. Much of this is what defines our personality, and it is absolutely, without doubt, the result of processes in our brain. But is it our soul? Are the soul and personality the same thing and if so, is the brain therefore producing our soul?
I have my thoughts on this, and one piece of anecdotal evidence that might help us understand this better is from NDE accounts. When people leave their bodies and look at themselves, they often “feel” nothing for the body. People often describe being in a peaceful or observant state as though emotions have all but disappeared. Not all though, as some report fear as well. However, in general people appear to be more “objective” in an NDE, as opposed to subjective when inside your body experiencing “life”. I’m not quite sure how, but I feel this may go some way towards answering the question about personality and soul.
I’d be interested in other’s thoughts on this as it is a really tricky question.
With regard to my father, I have tried to rationalize his situation to align with my beliefs. Specifically I believe that the destruction of large parts of his brain from a disease, has resulted in a massively reduced capacity of his soul to “interact” with his brain, resulting in some of the changes I see. Moreover, if some NDE reports are to be believed, then memory is not actually stored in the brain, but in some “central universal repository” and if this is the case, then perhaps my father’s ability to access that repository has gone. Of course, this is me squishing observations into my belief system, and I fully accept that this “understanding” is totally subjective.
Either way, brain damage causes carnage for those who suffer it and those who love them.