On the Brain, the Soul, and the Afterlife

Central to all the Abrahamic religions is the doctrine of an afterlife. Adherents of these religions believe that after this earthly life, people will continue to live on in another state – for an eternity. This doctrine has influenced many human activities, as well as inspired many beliefs. The earthly existence is considered a transitional phase – a temporary abode in which individual destiny in the afterlife is determined. Some people will go to heaven and others to hell. Those who go to heaven will never face suffering again.

It is a comforting notion. It is also a notion that has been essentially refuted by recent scientific research.

The notion of an afterlife necessarily postulates the existence of an intangible, immortal part of the human. This part of the human is commonly called the soul. Now this soul supposedly contains all the intangible parts of a human – self awareness, feelings, intelligence, emotions and personality. When the physical body dies, this intangible soul supposedly continues to live on – into eternity. Depending on the person’s activities before death, the soul is cast into either eternal rewards or eternal damnation.

In the past, it was nearly impossible to test the “soul hypothesis”. This is because little was known about the human mind. However, nowadays, through such technologies as CAT (computed axial tomography) scans, PET (positron emission topography) and the more familiar MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), scientists have managed to table out the entire brain, together with all the functions of its various parts. This is because the brain is an electrochemical system, and shows higher electric activities in the areas that are active. Through the brain scans, it has been established that virtually every function of the human has a corresponding part of the brain. Some functions correspond to specific parts of the brain, while others correspond to diffused areas of the brain.

There is no single dimension of the human that lacks a controlling brain part.

Further studies into the brain have shown that when a particular brain part is disabled, the corresponding functions simply cease. For example, when the Broca’s area in the frontal, left lobe of the brain is destroyed, the person stops speaking – a condition called Broca’s aphasia. If, however, the right parietal lobe is stimulated, the right angular gyrus may become excited, and an out-of-body experience results. A massive damage to the left brain hemisphere will result in a person with severe depression. Individual happiness can be enhanced by activating another part called the septum. Surprisingly, religious experiences also have a corresponding brain part: the temporal lobes. Epileptic attacks on these lobes has been known to make people hypereligious. And so on and so forth. Suffice it to say that all human experiences have correspondent parts of the brain.

Now a question arises – since all human experiences are apparently dependent on the physical brain, how can they survive death? After all, in death, the brain disintegrates completely. The parts directly responsible for emotions, personality, consciousness etc get destroyed. Claiming that these human facets survive death hence is like claiming that a person can continue to see even after the eyes have been removed. For just as sight is a function of the eye, consciousness and personality is a function of the brain.

Thus, although the notions of a soul and an afterlife feel comforting, objective research seems to show that the soul is a myth. And if the soul doesn’t exist, neither does the afterlife. We have only one life, and thereafter, complete, utter oblivion – for an eternity.

It is a disturbing thought. It is also the closest thing to the truth.