Select Page

Looking into the soul

by Gerald Epling


Conceptual diagram of the soul.



Just what is the soul?  The soul has been described in many ways. You may have heard the soul described as the mind, the will and the emotions.  Alternatively, you may have read the Merriam-Webster Dictionary primary definition of the soul, which is:

“… the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life”

This first dictionary definition begins with the statement that the soul is immaterial.  If this is true, then there is no reason to expect that the soul could have any affect on our lives.  If the soul is immaterial then why worry about the existence of a soul or the lack of a soul?  In a complicating twist, the primary dictionary definition goes on to state that, “the soul is the animating principle, the … cause of … life.”  If the soul is what animates the body, then there must be a mind-body connection.  Clearly, the body has a material presence.  It seems reasonable to expect that anything that connects to the body, even an “immaterial essence”, must have a material aspect.  Perhaps, the second dictionary definition will help untangle the confusing aspects of the first definition.

The second definition of, “soul,” found in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is:

“the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe.”

Moving the soul from an “immaterial essence” to the status of a spiritual principle, seems to move any consideration of the soul into the realm of the spiritual, a difficult realm to investigate scientifically.  Consulting the writings of the apostle Paul, there appears a distinction between the soul and the spirit, albeit a distinction that is difficult to make.  Paul wrote;

“… It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow.” Hebrews 4:12

Based upon the insight of Paul, there is a difference between the soul and the spirit.  With a difference drawn between the soul and the spirit, it makes sense to consider the soul as something that can be considered from two perspectives, the brain and the psyche.

Perhaps, the best definition of the soul is the one that considers the soul to be composed of the mind, the will and the emotions.  This definition connects well with the neuroscience on several levels.  At the anatomical level, there is a strong link between the mind and the emotions.  The mind is associated with memory and the activity of memory formation.  Memory is formed with the help of a part of the brain that appears on on each side of the brain and connects to the middle area of the brain, the hippocampus.  Without the hippocampus our ability to remember new things, like a website name or a phone number, would be a shamble.  In the front temporal lobe areas, the hippocampus connects to the amydgala.  The amygdala is strongly linked with emotion.  So, here we see a material connection between the neural substrates of memory formation and emotion.  For this reason, I have rearranged the order of the three elements of the soul from mind, will and emotion to mind, emotion and will.  This brings us to the will, a tricky thing consider.  Often capricious in the pursuit of desire or seemingly difficult to predict in strength of attachment.  The will is strongly influenced by our experiences in life and by what we can remember.  The will is a sort of repository and evaluator of life experiences.  The will drives the mind every time we pursue a goal.  And this completes the circle of the soul.