Neurons and Soul
(or, more pompously, “Soul Physiology”)
This is an ambitious and playful attempt at identifying − by examining neuronal mechanisms, working modes of the brain, properties of the conscience and emotional life − the origin of our need for infinity. The origin of the clear perception that something in us transcends ourselves and expands in space and time beyond our limits: that clear sureness that we love calling “soul”.
Need for infinity. But infinity, precisely, not all, or everything... Because “all” implies an end, a limit that encloses. It is like a photograph, a cage, four walls to guard oneself. Infinity, instead, is freedom; it may be difficult, hard and full of obstacles, but it is always open to be navigated, discovered, conquered. Infinity blooms into further infinities, in ever new directions and dimensions: countless interpretations and viewpoints on reality, emotions, life, their variety and novelty.
The organization of our brain helps to understand where this longing for infinity, knowledge and freedom arises from. There is no photograph of reality in our mind, no drawing that fixes or encloses realty. Only relations are recorded there, and they are used to build reality by reproducing it, over and over again. No photographs of ourselves, or of our life and our past: we rebuild it over and over.
In our mind reality is but an intricate network of relations, over many planes and dimensions, independent and orthogonal; a network that includes ourselves, centered in material reality and in TIME. Time itself is invented, rather than perceived, it is reproduced within ourselves by building it as an intersection of experience, sequences, threads, that run, slow down, break and reappear.
The countless viewpoints onto a reality thus perceived constitute our reality, our time, our life. The complex interplay of perception, thought and emotion points to multiplicity as a crucial feature of neuronal processing. The other key feature, present in sensory processing as well as high cerebral functions, is the capability of cruising among data and information by following a thread and meanwhile capturing (being captured by) ever different comprehensive pictures.
When the contribution of multiple different cerebral circuitries is considered, multiplicity − and pursuing a path among many threads and intuitions − clearly appear as the keystone and the mode of conscience itself. Conscience as the capability of harmonizing the innumerable diverse perceptions / interpretations that bounce around our brain, into a “unitary”, complex and mutable, view, that is our ego as we know it, infinite, multifarious and complex, capricious, alive.
This way, we discover the esthetic (ecstatic?) attitude as a sensitivity to multiplicity, to harmonic convergence of different dimensions; as the pleasure of perceiving our own growing and expanding in ever new, unexplored territories, by means of a gaze that can catch abstract essentialities. Abstract essentialities that are as real as objtects are, as what we look at is, because our gaze is directed to what we can live, rather than what we can see. Esthetics, as a sensitivity to higher harmonies, also guide our behavior, and show us the link between ethics and esthetics, between beautiful and good: καλóς κ'αγαϑóς.
Here comes the soul, anima, as the subject of this outlook on reality. The subject of a legendary translation of things, facts and events; of love, commitment, work, sociality; of ideal as well as everyday life. A legendary translation that does not subtract concreteness or truth to reality, time, life, but simply animates (“anima”...) them, changes them from sobs into poetry, from sounds into music.
This text aims at scientific correctness. Indeed, it tries to be extremely scientific. A solid rule that has always guided scientific research − never confessed but inexorable − is that between two interpretations of experimental data the right one, the true one, the one to be defended even in the face of torture, must be that which is more beautiful. Thus, we tried and go further, beyond, as far as possible, on this road, in search for a truth that be not only beautiful, a truth that approached as closely as possible music and poetry.
Poetry; an ambitious target, is not it? But, given the topic, how could one content with less?
This is a three-level book.
The main body is a discussion of what our current knowledge of the functioning of the nervous system − and its capability of learning and changing − can explain about mental functions, affects, motivation, love, esthetics, ethics, ideals and our need for something infinite that transcends us: all that is generally referred to the “soul”. It is written in a conversational and sometimes imaginative way, but the notions and claims it contains, though sometimes far from demonstrated, are in all cases in agreement with current scientific knowledge (they are “true” in Popper’s conception of scientific truth − falsifiable by appropriate experimental procedures, but not falsified as of now).
The second level, intermixed here and there, is a “scientifically and politically correct”, though not exhaustive, description of how our nervous system and brain are structurally and functionally organized, and of the main mechanisms of information processing and recording, with notes on the mechanisms of emotional life, motivational control, learning. It is dispensable if one is only interested in getting a general picture.
The third level is intermezzo. Images and free thoughts, metaphors, suggestions, not necessarily needed to follow the line of reasoning, but useful to set the appropriate mood and mental climate to appreciate the argument.
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