With science, it has always been a question of matter over mind. The actual brain, gray and wrinkly and full of electrical activity, can be measured and mapped, so that’s fine. But the mind — the part of you that thinks it thinks, the feeling you have that you willed your arm to move or decided to order the salad instead of the burger — that’s just an illusion, just the by-product of nerve activity, neuroscientists say. Consciousness, they argue, is really just one big neuronal machine.
And the soul? Don’t even ask.
But these are the questions that nag at professor Dick Burgess. A neurophysiologist who has taught at the University of Utah for 35 years, Burgess is a longtime agnostic who wonders if there might be scientific proof for the existence of both consciousness and soul.
Next semester, Burgess will teach a course called “Spirituality and Healing: A Neurophysiological Perspective.” He gave a preview of the course two weeks ago at an Integrative Health Conference at the U., where he recounted the perplexing story of Uttara Haddur, a Hindu woman from Nagpur, India, who in 1974 suddenly began speaking in a form of antiquated Bengali, telling stories of people she said she knew from a village 1,200 kilometers away. Her name, she said, was Sharada.
University of Virginia Medical Center psychiatry professor Ian Stevenson traveled to India to study Uttara/Sharada and published his investigation in the 1980s, first in an article in the Journal of the American Society of Psychical Research and later in a book published by the University of Virginia Press. According to these reports, Uttara/Sharada’s stories checked out, referencing families and events that had happened in the early 1800s.
So what are the possible hypotheses for this story, Burgess wants to know. That it’s a hoax? That Uttara was suffering from multiple personality disorder? That this is a case of “soul possession”?
“This case is very difficult to explain unless Sharada’s soul is driving Uttara’s nervous system,” says Burgess. But he is always going to consider other explanations, he says. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be a scientist.”
Burgess was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but stopped going to church as a teenager and hasn’t been to church in decades, he says. “I won’t do anything on faith. I’m a scientist. I generate hypotheses. I say, ‘Hey, how can this be explained?’
“For many years I shied away from the soul because it had these religious connotations,” he says. “But why not just be bold, and take the evidence you have, without preconceptions, and see if you can integrate it into a coherent network that explains all these phenomena?”
Those phenomena, he says, include reliable sightings of apparitions, cases where trance mediums have spoken fluently in languages unknown to them, other cases similar to Sharada’s, and near-death experiences in which the nearly-dead reported out-of-body experiences in which they saw something — a shoe on a hidden ledge, for example — that they wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.
“The data available from these sources is relevant and compelling,” says Burgess. “But most academics are quite conservative.” He himself, he says, read about some of this work years ago “but I just couldn’t incorporate it into my thinking.”
For years, though, Burgess has challenged the generally accepted scientific belief that voluntary motor activity — making a fist, for example — is essentially no different, physiologically, from an involuntary movement like a knee-jerk reflex. The perception that we will ourselves to make the fist is just a perception, this line of thinking goes, “a byproduct of the activity of the nerve cells involved in setting up the voluntary movement.” The decision to make a fist, this explanation goes, is a result of nerve activity begun by other nerve activity, influenced by external and internal stimuli.
Burgess wonders whether something else — a separate consciousness, a soul perhaps — is what sets voluntary activity into motion.
One line of evidence, he says, is a case like Sharada’s — where “you can’t really explain the way individuals have behaved except to say that there is some other agency influencing their nervous system.”
Information about consciousness — perhaps separate from the soul, perhaps the same entity — might come, Burgess hopes, from studies of qi (sometimes spelled chi), the Chinese theory that a life force flows through our bodies, bringing good health when the energy flows freely and disease when the energy becomes blocked.
Burgess and a colleague are currently doing experiments to see if “external qi” — directed deliberately by a person toward someone or something else — can cause chicken nerve cells to grow differently in a petri dish. “The work is in progress, but it’s promising,” Burgess reports.
If successful, the experiments might show that consciousness is something real and separate from the brain, acting not only on nerve cells in the brain but on other cells as well.
“We don’t know what consciousness is,” he says. “If we knew what its properties were, then we might say, ‘Of course it might survive death because given its properties we can predict it will not be dependent for its integrity on being interfaced with the brain.’ But we don’t know now. We’re very, very early in this as a scientific endeavor.”
It’s not a very popular quest. Scientists are often uncomfortable with words like “soul.” Even scientists who are religious might not be keen on Burgess’ line of inquiry, preferring faith over proof.
“The danger to religious people is that people like me say the only way to verify truth is to use scientific methodology, especially unbiased hypothesis formulation. Are we the keepers of the truth?”.