Joseph Smith taught that
A very material difference [exists] between the body and the spirit; the body is supposed to be organized matter, and the spirit, by many, is thought to be immaterial, without substance. With this latter statement we should beg leave to differ, and state the spirit is a substance; that it is material, but that it is more pure, elastic and refined matter than the body; that it existed before the body, can exist in the body; and will exist separate from the body, when the body will be mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection, be again united with it
Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith. p207
As you may have guessed by now, one of my pastimes is comtemplating what exactly the spirit is, and what its relationship is with the mind and body. It is an endlessly fascinating subject for me. The idea of spirit as matter makes sense to me. It explains how we can have a physical correlate for memory in the hippocampus of our brain that transfers and interacts with the spirit. One distinct aspect of Mormon theology was the central importance of the spirit coming to Earth to receive a “physical” body. Why we need it or would want it is a grand question which I have pondered much.
The great medieval Islamic philosopher, Avicennes described a very interesting thought experiment to prove the existence of the spirit called the floating man. He imagines a man falling through the air so he has no sensation, blindfolded and hearing muffled so there is no sensory input, basically every sensory input cut off and asks, could we still think, and the answer is yes. This may more represent the mind than the spirit, but separating the two out is difficult.
One central function of the mind is to assemble consciousness. The large part of consciousness is taking sensory data and integrating it. To do this we often intuit information and fill in gaps. We are very good at finding shapes in the clouds, faces in inanimate objects, all by integrating different pieces of data, light, color, contrast, motion into a comprehensive whole and filling in the gap.
For example, we all have a blind spot in our vision. It is the point in the retina at the back of the eye where all the nerve fibers gather together and exit the back of the eye. In our vision, when we put it all together we automatically fill this space in, we don’t even realize it is there.
Another example is the amputee. Even though they are missing a limb, they continue to “feel” it. The mind it seems defines itself by the sensory input it recieves, when some comes up missing, it fills in gaps to maintain its map and orientation. They actually report pain in the missing limb, the so called phantom limb syndrome.
Our mind has an inner world and representation that can augment or fill in for our senses to allow us to function. This inner working of the mind is fantastic and mysterious and what defines us as “us”. I believe this part of us is more than input, integration and poof, consciousness. We are unravelling the mysteries all the time about how nerve cells develop, migrate, connect, through use of genes and proteins, growth factors, neurotransmitters. The mind blowing thing about this is, that for all its complexity, the brain develops in its patterns and complexity intact an startling percentage of the time. We develop this ability to think and perceive through our life.
One intriguing aspect we are now unravelling is how the mind doesn’t function in isolation. It actually uses the body to “think” with. One study showed children solve math problems better if taught to use their hands to solve it. Actors remember their lines better in conjunction with moving upon the stage. Another study showed that students asked to move their eyes in a certain way while solving a brain teaser were better at solving it.
Sensory deprivation is actually used as torture. Experiments into the matter have shown that with prolonged deprivation of input, the mind starts manufacturing its own sounds and images. We need the stimulation. People have been driven to madness without it. We have learned the extent of this need from some disturbing cases of mistreatment of children by mentally ill parents. Some sickeningly neglected children have been found, locked away in a dark room with no stimulation for years. Though completely physically normal, they have very low IQs. They lacked the ability to develop language. If kept in the dark early enough, they were blind with functioning eyes. They are unable to process the sound of voices because the developing nervous system never received the input. It seems our bodies are central to developing our minds.
Our minds obviously have powerful connection and sway with the body as well. The most obvious example of this is used every day in medical experimentation, the placebo effect. We have learned that thinking we have something that will improve our health actually improves our health. The effect is robust, reproducible, more effective the more we believe it. It is powerful enough that medicine is always struggling to try to outrun it by very small margins. Belief is physically changing. The brain and the mind are inextricably intertwined by the nervous system.
Could it be that the connection between body and mind, the organizing factor, the driving force of life is what our spirit or intelligence actually is? Certainly reductionists will claim that no, there is a physical explanation for the unfolding of development within our DNA and the cell. My sense of awe they would claim is just the God of the gaps. What I want to know is how does it run so perfect? What gives life this amazing ability to weather stresses and threats to keep living, to evolve and adapt? This is a great question that reductionism can’t touch. It is a great why, thus their answer, it just is.
I find it easier to believe we have a spirit and that there is an organizing force behind life. I believe our spirit functions as the latticework or frame, that the mind and body are just stronger versions of an eternal self. I believe the spirit “brain” fuses and interacts with the physical brain. I can see how the body augments that fusion and experience immeasureably. I strongly believe that the core of our being, our spirit drives our growth, progression, and has an endless thirst for knowledge.
We learn from The book of Abraham that we rejoiced, shouted for joy, as spirits prior to this life at the chance to gain a physical body. It seems without this the world was indeed closed off to us. Perhaps we lacked the ability to gain the same level of sensory input. Our matter was finer, but feeling less. We knew that without this life we were stuck. We could not progress to a higher level. Joseph F. Smith, the sixth president of the LDS church, saw in vision the spirits in the afterlife, awaiting the resurrection. He states that they looked upon this loss as bondage. Death was suffering in this sense, at least until reunited with the body, something we believe will happen to everyone thanks to the atonement of Christ.
For me as a physician I find the LDS doctrine of the physicality of God, with a body which we are created in the image of, and our ability to progress and gain glory, in fact all that he has as God extraordinarily life affirming. What a marvelous thing we have in our soul. It is our entire being, mind, spirit and body and I believe it will grow and progress throughout eternity. This is what I love most about Mormonism.