Heaven is for neuroscience: How the brain creates visions of God


Sam Kean in Salon (image: Eugene Thirion's “Jeanne d’Arc” (1876)):

[S]ome physicians had always had a different perspective on where the mind came from. They’d simply seen too many patients get beaned in the head and lose some higher faculty to think it all a coincidence. Doctors therefore began to promote a brain-centric view of human nature. And despite some heated debates over the centuries—especially about whether the brain had specialized regions or not—by the 1600s most learned men had enthroned the mind within the brain. A few brave scientists even began to search for that anatomical El Dorado: the exact seat of the soul within the brain.

One such explorer was Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, one of the oddest ducks to ever waddle across the stage of history. Swedenborg’s family had made a fortune in mining in the late 1600s, and although he was raised in a pious household — his father wrote hymns for his daily bread and later became a bishop — Swedenborg devoted his life to physics, astronomy, and geology. He was the first person to suggest that the solar system formed when a giant cloud of space dust collapsed in upon itself, and much like Leonardo he sketched out plans for airplanes, submarines, and machine guns in his diaries. Contemporaries called him “the Swedish Aristotle.”

In the 1730s, just after turning forty, Swedenborg took up neuroanatomy. Instead of actually dissecting brains, though, he got himself a comfy armchair and began leafing through a mountain of books. Based solely on this inquiry, he developed some remarkably prescient ideas. His theory about the brain containing millions of small, independent bits connected by fibers anticipated the neuron doctrine; he correctly deduced that the corpus callosum allows the left and right hemispheres to communicate; and he determined that the pituitary gland serves as “a chymical laboratory.” In each case Swedenborg claimed that he’d merely drawn some obvious conclusions from other people’s research. In reality, he radically reinterpreted the neuroscience of the time, and most everyone he cited would have condemned him as a luna- and/or heretic.

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