Discovering the chemical components of the soul
by Johanna Holbrook, guest writer; illustration by Lucy Holtsnider, staff artist
I rebelled during my first month of Neuroscience.
“Everything comes down to action potentials,” Dr. Bob Jacobs explained calmly from his podium. And the humanities-loving Eternal Idealist within me cried out in opposition.
Everything comes down to action potentials? So what we are essentially, is a collection of nerve cells that, when impelled to fire, release chemicals that determine our reactions to the external world. It was a rudimentary, simple explanation—too simple, I thought, to account for the vast, indefinite range of human emotional complexities. Could those conniving chemical marauders known as neurotransmitters accurately explain the numerous levels and varieties of love? Could they justify the intrinsic drive to create and self-express? Are they capable of indicating the sense of wonder and awe we feel as we gaze upon the stars, and the heightened awareness of our own consciousness?
I am not a strictly religious person. I grew up in a nondenominational household, using Santa as the primary Yuletide focal point and performing an occasional prayer for the sole purpose of bargaining (Dear God, I won’t hit my brother if…). But this is not to say that I am not a spiritual person; I have always believed in a higher force or power and a unique nature of the human spirit. Yet in a class full of hard-core, no-nonsense science majors, I felt a little ridiculous hinting at the existence of a—dare I say it—soul. Scientific discovery in the last century has rendered spirituality an archaic concept, a bedtime fairy-tale invented to soothe the insecurities of our impending mortality. Yet for me, an entity separate and distinct from matter seemed the only possible explanation for our unique, multifarious range of emotional responses to the world. Could the idea of a soul co-exist with or override scientific evidence and, if so, what would its relationship be to the concepts of body and mind?
Determined to dig up some answers, the Idealist in me embarked to the Oracles on the Mountaintop—Neuroscience professors Dr. Bob Jacobs and Dr. Lori Driscoll, permanently located in Tutt Science Center. One half of me burned with a newly ignited curiosity: Would scientific evidence ultimately undermine my spiritual beliefs? The other half was scared of the answers Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Driscoll might give—scared, because I secretly wanted life’s most profound mysteries to remain obscured. The moon was sacred, mysterious, before Armstrong’s footprint profaned its surface. I didn’t want that to happen to my personal beliefs. But in the end, the truth must come out.
My first question, in a nutshell: Could there be a soul?
“The intangible thing (soul) isn’t some other existence,” Dr. Driscoll explained. “It’s an action of the thing itself. The mind is what the brain does.” In other words, the concept of a soul or mind is analogous to the action a living thing performs. Put into poetic terms by Aristotle, “If the eye were an animal, sight would be its soul.”
An eloquent response. Still, I could not accept the conception of the brain as our sole identity. Where does the initial spark originate that compels a dancer to dance, a singer to sing? What motivates an artist towards that uniquely human desire to create something meaningful? This is not a biological necessity for survival, and yet, for some artists, self-expression is essential to their sanity. “It’s my outlet—the way I breathe,” CC sophomore and dancer Nora Alami confided. How can chemical reactions at the neural level explain artistic drive towards this highest pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Abraham Maslow’s psychological theory divides a human’s needs into five categories, with the largest and most fundamental needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization at the top. To both my initial disappointment and eventual fascination, Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Driscoll provided a rational justification that again usurped my Platonic harpings.
“Art is an imitation, or expression, of our perception. All creatures imitate, and art is imitation with a twist,” explained Dr. Driscoll. Dr. Jacobs added that we “seem to have a desire to explain things and express ourselves, probably because we’re social creatures. It’s all about communicating with others and creating a social network.”
So the compulsion to sing or dance may have initially come about as a means of social communication. But what is that “twist” to imitation described by Dr. Driscoll that uniquely defines human imitation as art? Could it be a desire for personal fulfillment that goes beyond the survival-driven need to form social networks and finds self-expression or learning as rewarding in itself?
Dr. Driscoll agreed that “the ability to see things astutely is rewarding to ourselves.” She explained that this desire to seek reward, however, is driven largely by the workings of the dopaminergic reward pathway. This network, running from the ventral tegmental area to the nucleus accumbens of the basal ganglia, is involved in the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which evokes that “feel good” sensation when we eat chocolate, listen to music, etc. It is this feeling of pleasure or, rather, the desire to obtain it, which drives reward-seeking behavior in most species.
So does a painter paint to attain the pleasurable rush of dopamine that the act of painting elicits? It makes sense, considering that different stimuli trigger the dopamine rush in different people. This discrepancy in responses could be a result of the combined effects of nature and nurture: for example, sophomore Nate Wilson believes that his upbringing in a musically influenced environment and his DNA both contribute to his musical inclination. It only makes sense that if your society values a particular trait or activity, exhibiting or engaging in such a thing would cause you to be more widely accepted by society, furthering social connections linked to survival. Thus, if your surrounding environment values academic achievement, doing well in school will most likely elicit dopamine rush due to the positive reaction you receive from others in response to your actions.
My former views were sequentially taking the boot. But my fascination was burgeoning tenfold. Could the dopaminergic pathway also provide the basis for more innately human responses, such as wonder and awe?
“Awe and wonder are special,” Dr. Driscoll explained. “The ability to appreciate beauty is something that has evolved, a byproduct of our increased processing capacity.” She described these emotional reactions as responses to symmetrical and asymmetrical patterns in our environment. Repetitive, habitual patterns, such as those reflected in a harmonious sequence of musical notes, often evoke pleasure and the perception of beauty. Almost all creatures are believed to respond positively to harmony and symmetry. An unexpected break in this pattern, however, can evoke feelings of wonder and awe accompanied by a sense of pleasure. Why do we find surprises so rewarding? It’s a break in the pattern that, when perceived, can induce dopamine release just as congruity can. This element of surprise is the basis of humor. But, as Dr. Driscoll explained, there is a fine line between pattern breaking being amusing and being offensive, or even threatening, to the observer, a distinction largely based on context (just compare your reaction to a friend shouting “Surprise!” at a birthday party versus someone jumping out at you in a creepy dark alleyway).
Near the end of her rope, the Idealist made one last desperate appeal: what about love? Could neurotransmitters truly explain that ephemeral, transcendental human phenomenon that bonds mother to child and causes inexplicable attraction between two individuals?
“Oxytocin and dopamine,” Dr. Jacobs answered succinctly. From what we learned in class, it presents the most logical explanation for our amorous sensations. Dopamine, the same neurotransmitter involved in the reward pathway, incites the feeling of “falling in love.” That’s the pleasurable rush you get when you see someone to whom you are attracted. Oxytocin, otherwise known as the Cuddle or Trust Hormone, enters later in relationships. It induces feelings of trust and facilitates social behavior. When you are being affectionate with your partner, your hypothalamus secretes oxytocin, thereby strengthening bonds of trust and affection between yourself and the other person. When the initial dopamine rush has died down, it is the oxytocin that helps create long-lasting bonds between two partners that aid in the preservation of matrimony (and, in cases of deficiency, destroys it. Lesson: hug your spouse).
So love is chemical. There is no soul. Point taken. However, in the absence of a soul, I couldn’t understand what might account for the conscious self. Humans are one of the few creatures that exhibit conscious awareness of themselves, but where does this sense of self-awareness originate within the mind?
Dr. Jacobs doubted that consciousness of one’s self was uniquely human, as cetacea, elephants and some primates also appear to demonstrate theory of mind. However, he explained that “the brain, at some point in its functioning, does appear to become aware of its own activity, but we are not privy at a conscious level to much that goes on . . . we become aware of brain activity after things have already been set into motion.” Inevitably, this brought to mind the question of free will. “We more likely than not have free won’t rather than free will,” he continued. “That is, the prefrontal ability to veto options it receives from subcortical structures. Humans, however, like to hold onto the idea of free will as it gives them the perception of being in control of everything.”
Of course, the validity of our perspective will always be limited because of this fact. It may be that we simply cannot objectively analyze the whole because we are part of the whole; our perception will always be skewed as an insider’s perspective. Because we are trapped within our own perceptions, I believe we will never fully know, no matter how far science takes us. There is no way of ever truly finding out if there is a “soul” or “higher power” precisely because our perception of the world is limited.
Yet ultimately, I suppose, neuroscience has regurgitated me as a skeptic. After being exposed to brain science for two full months, the Eternal Idealist has been remolded into a pragmatist, the concepts of “soul” and “higher power” revarnished in a poetic, figurative sense. While I was initially saddened that science can provide adequate explanation for creativity, the desire to learn, even love itself, I am simultaneously overcome by a sense of wonder and dopamine when I am reminded that these behaviors are the physical manifestations of action potentials. Regardless of whether an omnipotent force is behind their creation or not, the activity of an infinitesimal nerve cell in our cerebral cortex is the starting point for that rush of joy we feel when we listen to our favorite music. It is incredible, virtually mind-blowing, what evolutionary time has produced in terms of the human organism. In an age where science has the power to unveil mysteries that we may prefer to leave unsolved, this newfound sense of wonder at the genius of nature is what I hope continues to keep the Idealist alive within us all.