Friday, June 9, 2017

Anatomists in Search of the Soul by George W Corner M.D. 1919

Anatomists in Search of the Soul by George W Corner M.D. 1919

See also Is There Life After Death? - 175 Books on DVDrom 

Heaven lay about us in the infancy of our race. When the mind's eye of the tribesman first opened a world of mystery, to him the haunts of good and evil spirits lay no farther away than the jungle just beyond his hut. The jungle explored, the river followed to its head, mountain summits still remained untrodden, and here for a while dwelt the gods. Olympus at last ascended and found to be a vacant peak, the mountain-climber came down, his disappointment forgotten, to tell of gazing across a vast ocean and of the Blessed Isles which seemed to lie therein, beyond the setting sun; and when mariners returned without news of such far shores, there were still the stars and the sun-god's chariot of fire, beyond the reach of any mortal traveler.

So with the inward mystery of man's life; at first a mere wraith of fancy or of fear, a vague image of the body it inhabited, the spirit could wander independently of the flesh, and oftentimes must be confined by bonds of linen to prevent its imminent escape through the gash of a desperate wound, or be held down with weights of iron upon the head. But even here, as into the jungle, the explorer came, and began an unending search for an ever-receding goal, a search which like that other led at first through regions nearest home; for two thousand years the pious hands of anatomists sought the springs of life in the tissues of animals, and even attempted to find in the bodies of the dead the organic seat of man's immortality.

The first civilized dissectors were those Sumerian priests and haruspices who drew auguries from the viscera of sacrificial animals. In this widespread rite it was the Iiver especially in which the omens were sought; while in the earlier thought of the races which practiced it, Assyrians, Hebrews, and Greeks, the liver was also considered the seat of life, of heat, and of whatever higher faculties distinguished man from the animals, and animals from lower nature. The Psalmist literally said “The liver of the righteous man shall be made fat.” . . . “My liver shall sing praise to Thee and not be silent.” The learned studies of Professor Jastrow suggest, indeed, that it was because of the importance attached to this organ as of sacred function, that the rite of liver-searching became so general and finally led, its original significance forgotten, to the immolation of animals with the more elevated conception of vicarious sacrifice. How in the first place the liver earned such important rank among the tissues, takes us perhaps into too dark a region of primitive symbolism, but where the philologist did not tread, a casual wanderer in this field may rashly enter.

Primitive man, opening the abdomen of a beast, saw much that explained itself. The stomach, the intestines, the kidneys, bespoke their own functions by their very contents or their connections, and being understood, were no cause for wonder. But the liver—largest and heaviest mass of all, blood-hued, and as it seemed, the source of all the veins; with spreading lobes and the strangely colored vessel of gall—offered an inviting mystery, and could not fail to be the seat of faculties less ignobly comprehensible than mere emunction or digestion. Was it not, then, the source of the blood, of bodily warmth, of Iife itself?

Centuries later, with the practice of dissection as a scientific method, other regions of the animal body were laid bare, and heart and brain began to present new mystery and new opportunity for the seeker of souls. In the Hippocratic writing “De corde,” the right cavities of the heart are represented as receiving the blood from the liver and driving it out again through the veins; but the left ventricle (found empty after death) contains the vital principle or pneuma, which is to be sent throughout the body by the arteries. The heart is thus the central organ of life and the seat of understanding. Other early Greek investigators, as Alkmaion of Croton, began to have glimmerings of the importance of the brain; but even these new organs could not entirely dispossess the liver from its old place of honor. New philosophies, like new religions, build upon the old.

There were metaphysicians as well as anatomists at work upon the problem of flesh and spirit; and there soon grew up that half-shrewd, half-false doctrine which is so clearly expressed by Aristotle, a doctrine which was still taught as fact in the Middle Ages, and survives in the etymology, though lost to the thought, of the present day. Life is of triple nature (says Aristotle); the plants of the field are nourished and grow; beasts feel and move; man reasons and remembers, and knows that he exists. Possessors of threefold faculties, we live and move and have our being, and for each faculty an organ is set apart. As the ancients knew, the liver is the place of the vegetative soul, drawing nourishment from the stomach, and sending it through the hepatic vein to the heart, where its more subtle portions are refined to form the sensitive soul, whose outward motions are felt in all the pulses. Over these lesser organs presides the brain, seat of the intellectual faculties, the “animal soul.” A blow upon the head, injury of the brain, may abolish for a time all consciousness, but the vital spark remains alight until the last beat of the heart.

The anatomical theories upon which all this was based were hardly modified until the Renaissance, except that discovery of the bile-forming function of the liver made that organ more or less comprehensible and so deprived it of its remaining share of the soul. The heart, needless to say, retains its old place of honor, if not in the scientific sense, at least in the speech of romance and of worship. Buried in our language are curious traces of this and even older philosophies; thus we say “frenzy” of an ailment of the mind, but the phrenic nerves and vessels are those of the diaphragm—a relic of a pre-Aristotelian view that the diaphragm, placed between liver and heart, was itself the seat of the intellect.

The higher functions once established in the brain, the search was narrowed, and every recess of the cranium was invaded. At Alexandria, in the third century before Christ, Erasistratus and Herophilus added to other great achievements an exact study of the human brain. The first was the discoverer of the meningeal coverings, and placed in them the intellectual faculty, but later transferred it to the cerebellum, partly, we may suppose, because of its marvelous structure still called arbor vitae, but also because he had seen the grave results of damage done to the cerebellum in animals. Herophilus went deeper, discovered the ventricles of the cerebral hemispheres, and gave to them the same interpretation, whence perhaps arose the quaint mediaeval division of the brain-cavities into cells of imagination, reason, and memory. But most striking guess of all was Strato's of Lampsacus, who found, so Plutarch tells, the pars princeps animae in the middle of the forehead, between the eyebrows. We need no flight of fancy to imagine his joy and awe, who must have been the first to drive chisel into the frontal sinuses. In the very substance of the skull, between brain and eye, where thought and vision meet, those dark caverns might well have seemed to him the abiding place of man's inner self.

But the inner self of these Greeks was in general no more than what we vaguely mean by the word life, without clear implication of anything immaterial. When the coming of Christianity, on the other hand, brought back in a nobler form that conception of the soul as an immortal entity, as a temporary dweller in the house of flesh, which is found alike in the thought of the savage and in the speculations of Plato, it freed the soul from the trammels of body for eternity, yet it bound the spirit subject to the flesh during the span of earthly existence; and herein it raised a strange new problem for the anatomists of the soul.

The Christian Fathers did not seek new organs for the new soul; anatomy was stagnant, and they went to pagan Galen for physicians' lore as trustingly as to their sacred codices for texts. To many, indeed, the intellectual or animal soul, already firmly seated in the brain, was itself the immortal essence, though others imagined this a fourth entity for which Galen could have given them no new organ had they sought one; wherefore, with Augustine, they let it be diffused throughout the body. Thus it was not toward the science of completed form the Latin Fathers turned, but to embryology, for they were greatly troubled to know in what manner the soul comes at first to join the body. Whether created anew by God, or having waited from the beginning among a great throng of the other unborn; whether inherited from the parents, or given to the child at the moment of its first breath, or infused into the unborn embryo, were questions of vast argument.

In the debate Tertullian and Augustine were foremost; but it is curious that with all their insistence upon spiritualities, the only evidence they had to prove the presence of the soul in the embryo before birth was based upon such purely corporeal grounds as the early development of brain and heart and the existence of muscular movements in utero. There is a quaint account of the formation of the embryo which appears in a long series of books, lay and ecclesiastical. Aquinas took it from Augustine, who knew it perhaps from some forgotten physician of the third century; Dante from Aquinas, and versified it in his Purgatory. Henri de Mondeville put it in a book of surgery, and from him Thomas Vicary gave it English words: “Thus is the childe bred foorth in four degrees . . . the thirde degree is, when the principals be shapen, as the Hart, lyver, and Brayne: the fourth and laste, as when al the other members be perfectly shapen, then it receyveth the soule wyth life and breath; and then it beginneth to moue it-selfe alone: so is ther xlvi. dayes from the daye of conception vnto the daye of ful perfection and receyving of the soule, as God best knoweth.”

It is obvious that the embryology of Augustine finds a practical application in the question of infant damnation; the spirit is almost eight months a prisoner liable to the penalties of unchristened death, but without opportunity of rescue by baptism. Here is no place for the tenderhearted—or for the anatomist. Yet to this day, when birth is impending in any household of the Church, the physician must be prepared to utter the hallowed formula, and in times of emergency, when two lives are committed to the hands of the surgeon, there takes place a dramatic repetition of the immemorial battle for souls. The unorthodox physician who has witnessed or taken part in one of these sudden tragedies will be driven to marvel at the power of an ancient dogma in the modern hospital; the basin of sterile salt solution becomes, by miracles of faith, a baptismal font, and solemn adjuration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit issues from the swathed figure of a nursing Sister. But those who believe must almost have heard din of warfare and have seen the glitter of archangels' panoplies.

We have had more than a hint that in all times past the search for the soul has followed the same path, every new seeker passing over the familiar ground traversed by his predecessors, thinking the object of his hope lay in some place beyond, still mysterious and unexplored. Yet at first thought no time would seem less likely to witness a
renewal of the old search than the middle of the seventeenth century, nor would any man seem less likely to pursue it than one whose very methods of reasoning were founded upon an attempt to abandon older ground. In 1543 Vesalius’ “Fabrica” had broken anatomy's age-old chains of tradition, and eighty-five years later Harvey's discovery of the circulation threw her shackles to the ground. After this the pulse-beat was not mysterious, and no more is heard of a soul in the heart or the arteries. It was otherwise with the nervous system, however, for not even the genius of Vesal could fathom the problem of muscles moving at the command of the will, nor tell how a pin-prick gets into consciousness. Moreover, there was nothing, as yet, in the new anatomy to replace or even to discredit the Galenic doctrine of the animal spirits, which taught that in the brain the more volatile parts of the blood are filtered out and sent ebbing and flowing through the nerves (believed to be hollow) to carry sensation and volition back and forth. It was in the minds of many that somewhere in the brain, at the starting-place of this living tide, must be the central point of existence; for all his originality, René Descartes too was moving in the well-trodden path when he made his famous assumption that the pineal gland is the seat of the soul. His reasons are hardly more than Erasistratus or Strato might have given: there must be some point at which body and soul are joined; it must be a single structure, and in the middle plane of the body, in order that impressions coming from double organs, like the eyes or ears, may be combined into a single thought; the pineal gland is the only organ in the brain which his dissections had shown to be so placed; it lies in the third ventricle, in the very spot where the spirits of the anterior cavities meet those of the posterior, and it is well protected from outward harm.

That Descartes' emphasis upon the middle of the head was in accord with the notions of the times we might bring many things to show. The most amusing illustration which comes to mind is in a book on hermetics and astrology by Robert Fludd, Doctor of Medicine at Oxford, “De supernaturali, naturali, praeternaturali, et contranaturali microcosmi historia,” 1619. In a full-page engraving is shown a man's head and hand in profile, with dotted lines connecting the organs of the five senses with mystic circles representing the material world. Upon the temples are two circles inscribed sensativa, imaginativa, and in the oval where they overlap, the sentence bic anima est. Upon the occiput are two other circles, memorativa and motiva, and again bic anima est. In the middle of the head (not far above the region of the pineal gland) are concentric circles, mens, intellectus, ratio; overlapping circles, cogitativa and aestimativa, and for the third time bic anima est; but from this middle soul there are dotted lines leading heavenward to radiant niches marked with names of angels and archangels, powers and principalities, thrones and dominations and the Persons of the Trinity.

Bartholin and Wharton, two of the best anatomists of the time, offered prompt objection to the pineal gland theory, on grounds no more subtle than Descartes' own. First, they urged, this little body, no more than twenty grains in weight, is too small to contain all the images of the soul. More to the point is their second objection, that the external nerves do not arise from the glandula pinealis, but from the spinal marrow, and thus anatomical study does not show how the animal spirits can pass into them from a structure so deeply placed. The third objection is based on the entirely untrue, but more striking notion that the cerebrospinal fluid of the third ventricle is refuse matter from the process of refinement of animal spirits, and hence Descartes
was locating the soul in a place of excrements. Other anatomists discovered the frequent presence of small gritty concretions in the pineal body, which somehow made that structure more sordid, less fit to be the seat of a great function.

These criticisms did not invalidate the methods, but only the results of the great philosopher's anatomy; and there seems to have been something fascinating about the Cartesian rules for discovering the soul that set all his friends dissecting as well. Two English relics of their search survive under the dust of libraries, which seems to lie thickest upon books of outworn philosophy. Sir Kenelm Digby found time, amid a life of experimenting in alchemy, of privateering in the Mediterranean, of promoting the most preposterous of all secret nostrums, writing cook-books, and of dueling, to visit Descartes and to write two thick treatises, “Of Bodies,” and “Of Man's Soul,” which are very treasuries of verbosity and of question-begging. Such a man, from pride of intellect alone, could not fail to take part in the search, and his solution was the septum pellucidum, the membrane or partition of cerebral substance which divides the right from the left lateral ventricle of the hemispheres. Digby's reasons, from first to fifthly, are too palpably Iike Descartes', but the last two are of a quaintness worthy quoting: “Sixthly, it is seated in the very hollow of the brain: which of necessity must be the place and receptacle, where the species and similitudes of things reside; and where they are moved and tumbled up and down, when we think of many things. And lastly, the situation we put our head in, when we think earnestly of any thing, favours this opinion: for then we hang our head forwards, as it were forcing the specieses to settle towards our forehead; that from thence they may rebound, and work upon this diaphanous substance.”

Dr. Henry More's “Treatise on the Immortality of the Soul” came from the seclusion of a fellowship in Christ's College, Cambridge. To him, as to Descartes, the soul is in the whole body, but that part of it which is called the common sensorium, wherein our five senses are joined in one understanding and reasoning faculty, must have a special seat in the brain. More would place it in “those purer animal spirits in the fourth ventricle of the brain.”

The “Anatome Corporis Humani” of Isbrand van Diemerbroeck, professor at Utrecht, printed in 1672, would appear to be the last textbook which discussed the question of the soul as part of a routine description of the human body. After this the soul disappeared from the scope of anatomy as heaven had vanished from the maps of terrestrial geographers. Acuter insight began to distinguish the study of the mind’s activities from pursuit of the soul, keener eyes began to trace the intricacies of the nervous system; and scholars came at last 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 crany 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.”

The sober hypotheses formed and discarded at one period of thought often remain alive in the belief of the credulous of a later time. Many pious enthusiasts still have great faith in the results of Piazzi Smith's attempt to prophesy the future by measuring the pyramids of Egypt; and in the same way the pineal gland is now having a revival of interest in Theosophic circles. In 1889, when Madame Blavatsky wrote her “Secret Doctrine,” she was not aware of Herbert Spencer's brilliant discovery that the pineal body represents an undeveloped eye which in a few little-known reptiles almost attains perfection of form; and since the structure was still as inexplicable (lacking this knowledge) as it was in Descartes' time, it was eligible for any function one might wish to give it. So, too, was the hypophysis or pituitary body; and in the new doctrine the latter was made the seat of a new, sixth sense, the power of comprehending unvoiced thought, psychic receptivity; while the pineal gland will be in later and higher races of our line the bodily lodging of the seventh sense, divine insight. Between these two structures there is a delicate connecting strand, whose invisibility to materialistic anatomists is explained by the statement that it is destroyed by shrinkage of the brain after death. Contrary to the usual rule, scientific investigation did not break down these views (as far as the Theosophists were concerned) in suggesting more prosaic derivations and functions of the two mysterious bodies; the proven relations of the hypophysis to bodily growth and the embryological explanation of the pineal as a third eye, when they came, were accepted as renewed evidence of their psychic importance.

When a devotee by special endowment and training acquires the sixth sense, he can observe the functioning of another's inner processes of soul: “When a man is in his normal condition, an adept can see the golden aura pulsating in both the centers, like the pulsation of the heart. . . . The arc of the pulsation of the Pituitary Body mounts upward, more and more, until the current finally strikes the Pineal Gland, and the dormant idea is awakened and set all glowing with the pure Akashik Fire. Once the sixth sense has awakened the seventh, the light which radiates from the seventh illuminates the fields of infinitude. For a brief space of time man becomes omniscient; the Past and the Future, Space and Time, disappear and become for him the Present.”—At this point the skeptic listener is tempted to quote Robert Boyle: “This seemingly rude lump of soft matter does for color and consistence look almost like so much custard; yet there are strange things performed in it!”

In this last strange recrudescence, we have an epitome of all searching for the soul in the body of man. If in this case the scientist is more likely to deny than to affirm, so has it always been. It is not the anatomist who has given us such dreams, but rather the mystic or philosopher who first created in his own thought an image of the soul, and set it down in whatever organ of the body seemed at the time most mysterious, most free from sordid function, nearest the inward fire. Into each of these false temples of the spirit the anatomist has come by turn, but by the very breaking of idols he has helped to win the soul a brighter raiment. By the paradox of time we also count among the builders those who were destroyers, Asclepiades and his followers of all ages, who sought by experiment upon the body to prove non-existence of the soul; and against whom the voices of the pious have never ceased to be raised. So might sun-worshipers have mourned, to know that a prism of glass would one day prove that great light to come from the burning of earth-like minerals; wherein we conceive of Majesty exceeding earth and sun.

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