Is your mind located in your brain? A strange question you might think. But philosophers and physicians have been arguing over this since the 17th Century. Philosophers would claim the matter is not yet decided. But popular opinion is against them. Most of us now assume that we think and feel within the complex processes of brain-in-body.
People used to believe that rationality and consciousness were located in a divinely implanted ‘soul’. Both Eastern and Western religious traditions prompted the idea that each person had a supernatural essence dwelling within them. This essence was not simply designed for the span of years a body might exist, but was immortal. As a result, religious treatment of mortal life was framed in preparation for an eternal existence.
Thus the body was considered a rather troublesome receptacle. It burdened the soul with its passions and fragility. It was to be disciplined in order to avoid risk to the soul’s reason and morality. Before the 18th century, no-one could conceive that the damp grey matter of the brain could contain much of significance. And since the brain-in-body had little use in eternity, why pay attention to its health and vitality in the short years of a single lifetime?
Within my Christian tradition, we do not now refer much to the soul. Not because we no longer believe in God, but because we are reluctant to finally judge what we know of mind, brain and soul. As a result, a spiritual ambivalence about health lingers. We have yet to catch up with the full implications of this question of the location of the mind.
But perhaps we should be more confident. Is it not time to tease out a fresh spirituality? We know much about what makes us well. We know that the health of our limbs, organs and our biochemistry is integral to how we feel and think. We know that relationships with family and friends provide both stress and comfort; that our place in society carries affirmation and oppression; that the air, water and earth around us may bring health or sickness.
A spirituality of the whole person in the context of their environment will seek the best from each of these in affinity with our revelation of God. A fresh approach to spirituality is just what we need right now.