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By Brianna Wiest
Imagine if you were to lay your organs out on a table. You’d call them “my heart,” “my liver,” “my lungs.” You would not call them “I.” If you could imagine taking your body apart piece by piece, you would be inclined to consider what would exist once the parts had vanished. What exactly is the part of you that you refer to as “I?”
The cognitive differentiation between body and mind is the simplest representation of our disconnect between physicality and personhood. This, of course, has also been the product of science and spirituality dissolving ties. The root of this is believed to be when Descartes began researching human anatomy and asked the Church (the governing body at the time) for bodies to use as cadavers – they agreed, but only if he would stick to exploring physicality, and leave spirituality to the church (he obliged).
When the Age of Reason came about, our “souls” were essentially rendered nonexistent, simply because they were non-local (they aren’t centrally, physically located somewhere). Yet, this was not always the prevailing belief.
The last known academic text to ever display the soul as part of the human body was “The Anatome Corporis Humani,” written by Isbrand van Dimerbroeck, a professor, in 1672.
It was the last book to illustrate the body and soul in such a way as science became more capable of distinguishing brain activity from the concept of the “soul.” As research evolved, so did our understanding of nervous systems, and thus what we considered to be functions of the soul, we began to attribute to something physical. Scholars eventually began to share the opinion of Sir Thomas Browne:
“In the brain, which we term the seat of reason, there is not anything of moment more than I can discover in the crazy of a beast: and this is no inconsiderable argument of the inorganity of the soul, at least in that sense we generally so receive it. Thus we are men, and we know not how.”
Regardless, what’s most compelling about van Dimerbroeck’s illustrations is that many of the functions he attributes to being “soul-bearing” are actually linked to ancient metaphysical beliefs. For example, his images suggest that the pineal gland (otherwise known as the “third eye”) is the physical root of the soul, and the spine is divided into 7 segments (the 7 chakras). As Eastern philosophy has its long-anticipated renaissance in the West, these concepts are having a revival in popular culture. Whether the product of misinformed science, or perhaps insight that we’ve been too narrow-minded to consider, the images below are, if nothing else, a humbling reminder of how conviction does not mean validity.