The anatomic location of the soul from the heart, through the brain, to the whole body, and beyond: a journey through Western history, science, and philosophy.Neurosurgery. 2009 Oct; 65(4):633-43; discussion 643.N
To describe representative Western philosophical, theological, and scientific ideas regarding the nature and location of the soul from the Egyptians to the contemporary period; and to determine the principal themes that have structured the history of the development of the concept of the soul and the implications of the concept of the soul for medical theory and practice.
We surveyed the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman periods, the early, Medieval, and late Christian eras, as well as the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modern periods to determine the most salient ideas regarding the nature and location of the soul.
In the history of Western theological, philosophical, and scientific/medical thought, there exist 2 dominant and, in many respects, incompatible concepts of the soul: one that understands the soul to be spiritual and immortal, and another that understands the soul to be material and mortal. In both cases, the soul has been described as being located in a specific organ or anatomic structure or as pan-corporeal, pervading the entire body, and, in some instances, trans-human and even pan-cosmological. Moreover, efforts to discern the nature and location of the soul have, throughout Western history, stimulated physiological exploration as well as theoretical understanding of human anatomy. The search for the soul has, in other words, led to a deepening of our scientific knowledge regarding the physiological and, in particular, cardiovascular and neurological nature of human beings. In addition, in virtually every period, the concept of the soul has shaped how societies thought about, evaluated, and understood the moral legitimacy of scientific and medical procedures: from performing abortions and autopsies to engaging in stem cell research and genetic engineering.
Our work enriches our shared understanding of the soul by describing some of the key formulations regarding the nature and location of the soul by philosophers, theologians, and physicians. In doing so, we are better able to appreciate the significant role that the concept of the soul has played in the development of Western scientific, medical, and spiritual life. Although ideas about the soul have changed significantly throughout Western history, the idea of the soul as being real and essential to one's personhood has been, and remains, pervasive throughout every period of Western history.