What is ‘the soul’ and why does it matter?

December 14, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

The following transcription came from a speech that formed part of a series of six public events within RSA Social Brain Centre’s project: Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain. The final report of this project, outlined here will be published later this month.

What Happened to the Soul?

Iain McGilchrist, RSA, 31 March 2014

There was a piece in the papers not very long ago by a quite well known team in America who do neuroimaging and they’re particularly interested in moral values. And they found that by suppressing activity in the right temporoparietal region they caused a failure to understand the nature of moral judgements.

Well, this wasn’t a surprise to me, anyone who knows my book would suggest that that was probably going to happen. They set up a scenario of Grace, hoping to put sugar in her friend’s coffee but actually by mistake putting poison in, and her friend died. In the other scenario Grace intended to poison her friend but put sugar in and the friend lived. In the normal state we probably think it was worse to intend to poison; but the good old left hemisphere on its own thought, in what is basically an autistic way, that the outcome was the important measure.

Well, that’s all very interesting. But then these neuroscientists, and I won’t mention their names to spare them their blushes here, finished up by saying, “If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, it’ll be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.” Well, I hope you can see that there might be a category mistake in there; everything that goes through human experience has its brain correlates, but of course it doesn’t mean that that’s all there is to it.

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Is good mental health ultimately about looking after your soul?

April 1, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there is much else besides (Eugene Gendlin). Perhaps the soul is what we mean when we reflect on that ‘much else besides’. – Iain McGilchrist



Monday night’s event in the RSA Great Room, “What Happened to the Soul?” by Iain McGilchrist, can be viewed above in all its unedited grit and glory.

This was the third event of six in the spirituality series, following from events one and two. Some more considered analysis on this third event will follow when we can quote from the full transcript currently being prepared, but for now, here goes:

It is always hard to judge the success of public events, especially when you’re part of them, but there have been many positive responses (‘tremendous’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’) from people whose judgment I respect, and the people watching had plenty to say on Twitter, though I suppose that might just represent moral support or twitchy fingers.

My impression is that the questions and answer session (from c35 mins in) was particularly spirited, and may be worth cutting to directly to get animated and engaged by the ideas, before returning to the more intricate substance of the talk, which of course contained lots of wonderful material to think about too.

Mental Health

I think the biggest issue, and one I hope to come back to, concerns the scope to think about some mental health problems (perhaps mild to moderate forms of depression in particular) as a form of ‘soul sickness’. This reframing is informed by Iain’s account of the role of suffering in ‘growing a soul’(though he was emphatic that nobody should suffer acute mental ill health for a moment longer than necessary) and what might follow for the appropriate use of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

This is a big and complex issue, and a large part of the potential practical value of reconceiving spirituality, as indicated by our three research workshops(the content of which will be shared in our final project report, due in October.). Iain is clearly by no means the only person working in the broad mental health domain to think something resembling ‘spirituality’ may be important it not essential for mental health.

As a Psychiatrist, Iain would not be so facile as to say such a reframing is always appropriate or that it always helps significantly. However, if thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.


A fuller account of that argument will follow, but for now, if you find time to watch the video, look out for:

  • “Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul…” (A perennial quotation of uncertain provenance!)
  • The need for ‘the soul’ as a concept – why the substitutes don’t cut it as a way of capturing certain qualities of experience.
  • The joke about the poor man repeatedly praying to win the lottery, whom God finally speaks to by saying: “Meet me half way, buy a ticket.”
  • Iain’s intensely metaphorical (almost – but not quite!- to a comical extent) answer to the very direct question from our Head of Business Development Esther McCarthy about whether the soul (if we have a soul!) survives bodily death.
  • The value of ‘deliberate ambiguity’ – is the vagueness of terms like the soul part of their value? Is there something about trying to define them too precisely that misses this point? Does that feel right and appropriate, or still somehow evasive?
  • What can we learn from ‘soul splitting’ in Harry Potter?
  • Body and soul: “duality does not entail dualism.”
  • When we remember a person, are we really remembering their soul? A question from John Field FRSA that wasn’t answered; is this a good way to grasp what the soul is?

If thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.

Lessons Learned

  • Iain has earned a deserved reputation as a thoughtful polymath with a sound grasp of sciences and humanities, but occasionally I feel he over-reacts to the fear of being thought to be a reductionist. His resolute ‘no’ in response to my question of whether science could ever help us make sense of the nature of the soul struck me as an overstatement.
  • We didn’t quite establish the connection between belief in/acceptance of the soul and belief in/acceptance of ‘God’, and it would have been good to probe that important if obvious question a little further. Clearly Iain’s account of the soul is no ghost in the machine, but is there any sense in which a more dispositional perspective on the individual soul is isomorphic with respect to a universal soul?
  • In response to the classical musical clip from the 16th century, one guest later told me that while it was assumed we were all touched, move and inspired, he personally didn’t feel it moved his ‘soul’ particularly, and wondered whether there was a presumption of cultural identification with meaning that was misplaced for those who don’t share the cultural tradition (he’s a highly intelligent Australian).
  • Iain’s education and disposition makes his thought hyper-nuanced, but it can feel like the boundary between nuance and obscurity requires a third-party arbiter at times! Personally, I am never quite sure when it feels appropriate to press for further clarity. Perhaps this desire is what Iain would call ‘left hemisphere overreach’ – asking for too much precision- but there is something Protean about Iain’s thought that I, as one of his biggest fans, sometimes find frustrating.
  • With hindsight, I should have tried harder to focus on the issue of ‘What happened to the soul?’ rather than what became the focus: ‘what is the soul?’ The questions are closely connected, but the result was that we heard from Iain the philosopher and I could perhaps have done more to draw out the Scientist; it felt to me, perhaps wrongly, like having the two together would give the fullest picture of the soul.
  • Relatedly, I am very familiar with Iain’s bestseller ‘The Master and his Emissary’, which connects an analysis of neural anatomy and function to a theory of cultural history, but I should perhaps have taken more care to share some of the main ideas with the audience, which we examined closely for an RSA report last year: Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard. These ideas were implicit in much of the discussion, but a little unpacking of them might have helped to sharpen the key issues at stake.

In any case, I am pleased we have managed to draw attention to the cultural neglect of ‘the soul’, and I left feeling very glad we had hosted the event. Iain and the audience significantly moved along our thinking and opened up areas for further inquiry, not least on mental health.

On the other hand, and this is a positive point, there is something about these spirituality events that always leave me wanting more, as if the life changing revelation you naively hoped for is forever postponed until next time.


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, and tweets @Jonathan_Rowson.

We are currently considering ideas and speakers for our 4th and 5th (of 6) public events in this series, so do get in touch if you have any suggestions on questions or speakers.





Event on Monday: What happened to ‘the soul’?

March 26, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Hang on, didn’t we used to have souls?

I grew up thinking there were clear dividing lines between mind, body and soul, and I was happy to have all three of them. Perhaps it’s just me, but it feels like, imperceptibly over the eighties, nineties and naughties, the soul was secularised away.

Around this time I sensed that even the mind started giving away to the brain, which in turn collapses into a broader notion of our material body and nervous system, which then gives way to genes…and it doesn’t even end there…Perhaps the reason I came to be in my current role is that I acquired such a strong felt sense that our common sense notion of what makes us human beings is completely at odds with the scientific account, and my interest in spirituality may be because the front line of this battle for the integrity of our understanding and experience is our idea of the soul.

(Image from RSAnimate of Ian McGilchrist’s first RSA lecture)

Personally, I feel like I haven’t heard about ‘the soul’ in public life for years. It’s as if this fundamental part of us was gradually theorised out of existence, and we collectively and unwittingly ‘forgot’ about something that used to be fundamental to our understanding of what it is to be human.

‘The death of the soul’ is part of the process of secularisation (a complex notion though that is) and the conventional wisdom among most scientists and analytic philosophers is that the soul is a mostly religious and pre-modern folksy notion that makes no sense with respect to modern understandings of our evolved bodies and brains. If you don’t move in those kinds of intellectual orbits though, this news – the death of the soul- might come as a bit of a shock!

Moreover, for many, including our prior speaker in this series, Guy Claxton, soul-like phenomena relating to meaning and transcendence can be explained without ‘the soul’. Indeed, Guy would probably say the loss of ‘the soul’ did no real harm to our souls. Others would go further, and say moving beyond quaint metaphysical notions of the soul liberates us, and allows us to be more authentically soulful.

Sometimes words capture elements of experience that we lose forever when those words disappear.

But is that right? Even if we don’t adhere to a religious or even philosophical (technically ‘ontological’) account of individual souls, surely it’s not so easy just to discard the notion, and everything caught up with the soul without some loss of perspective. Sometimes words capture elements of experience that we lose forever when those words disappear.

And perhaps the soul is still very much alive. It remains meaningful to speak of ‘Schools with Soul’ for instance, to love soul music, and most of us know people or places that feel ‘soulful’. Moreover some, including many psychotherapists, would go further and say that many mental health challenges relate to the neglect of ‘the soul’ at a societal level.

Personally, that makes sense to me. As I recently argued, I think our obsession with our ‘place’ in the world leads us to neglect our more fundamental ‘ground’, and that this neglect may prevent us from living our lives at their generous best.

It is therefore exciting to report that on Monday the celebrated author of the brilliant and extraordinary book ‘The Master and his Emissary’, polymath, psychiatrist and RSA fellow Iain McGilchrist will speak directly to these fundamental matters in his talk What Happened to the Soul? as part our series of events exploring the nature and value of spirituality in light of modern understandings of human nature.

Iain seems the perfect person to interrogate this question, in light of his background in sciences and humanities. He understands why ‘the soul’ cannot be what we used to think it was, but also why we may need it nonetheless.

I don’t want to steal Iain’s thunder, but from a brief call with him earlier today it sounds like the content of the talk will be very rich indeed. We might learn what it means to think of the soul not as ‘a thing’ but as a process or disposition; why it makes sense to say we can grow or extinguish souls, how individual souls relate to collective souls, and personally I was pleased to hear that Carl Jung might even get a mention or two.

As regular readers of this blog will know, we have paid close attention to Iain’s work before, but for those who want a quicker hit, here is a video of an RSAnimate of Iain’s last talk at the RSA, which is rapidly approaching a million and a half views.

The event is sold out, but will be live streamed. If you want to know more about your soul(!) you can tune in live and ask questions via #RSASpirituality.

The Divided Brain: Can we agree about where we differ?

February 26, 2013 by · 28 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I am bored by reading people who are allies, people of roughly the same views.  What is interesting is to read the enemy; because the enemy penetrates the defences. – Isaiah Berlin

While seeking advice on whom to invite to a workshop examining the potential practical relevance of the ideas in Iain McGilchrist’s critically acclaimed book, The Master and his Emissary, Matthew Taylor recommended writer, lecturer and broadcaster, Kenan Malik. In addition to significant media profile as a broadcaster and award winning writer, Kenan has informed opinions on a wide range of social and cultural issues, and a relevant background in Neurobiology, and in the History and Philosophy of Science. 

(Image via scoopweb.com)

So it’s a pity he couldn’t make it! But thankfully Kenan expressed an interest in receiving our recently released report Divided Brain, Divided World and over the last few days he has generously given his time and web platform to discuss some of the questions arising from it. I am very grateful for this contribution, and read Kenan’s initial posting in the spirit in which I think it was intended, namely critical inquiry; being interested in the substance of the work, but sceptical about the conclusions reached. 

Iain McGilchrist swiftly responded with an extended comment(4000+ words, plus a reference to another 4000+ word piece – the final feedback piece from John Wakefield, on pages 71-76 of our report) that he asked Kenan to promote to a full posting. Kenan kindly did so, and added his response to Iain’s comment in a fresh post Split Brains, Split Views: Debating Iain McGilchrist which led to a further comment from Iain and a further response from Kenan….which all sounds good.

the issue is not just about appraising Iain’s book, but trying to develop a relatively mature discussion on the relevance of neuroscience to social, cultural and political questions.

However, as somebody who gets on well with Iain and broadly believes in both the soundness and importance of his ideas, I was surprised by the combative tone he took in his responses to Kenan’s points, which felt much too strong, and which Kenan nonetheless generously accommodated and responded to in detail.



In Iain’s defence, Kenan’s first post could be viewed as provocative, not so much for the substance, but for the sources he chose to quote in support of his position. It makes sense that he drew upon the thoughts of Neuro-Nemesis Ray Tallis, whom I was very glad to include in the RSA workshop and report, and who wrote an extended critique of Iain’s work for our report (pages 51-53) but I suspect what Iain reacted to most vehemently was quoting (with tacit approval) Owen Flanagan’s review for the New Scientist magazine which I think Iain rightly refers to as ‘shameful’ (in this first reply to Kenan). This review featured a very strong negative judgement about a significant work of scholarship in a high profile magazine, and yet it appears to have been written very casually, without any significant attempt to engage with the book’s content. However, attacking Kenan for drawing upon that source does feel a bit like shooting the messenger.

Iain’s response might look odd to those not familiar with the ideas, so it’s worth remembering what is at stake is the coherence and relevance of a grand theory that might (or might not!) help to inform how we understand and tackle some of the major issues of our time. In our report we focus mostly on climate change, mental health and education, but from the 14 response pieces we published, you can see it also has potential relevance to, inter-alia, Behavioural Economics, Art, The Patent System and NGO campaigning.

I trust the minor contretemps will be swiftly forgotten, and I am glad the ideas generated by it have been useful. 

Four Questions to help people agree on where they differ:

On substance, I imagine there is limited appetite for further qualifications on the thousands of words already written about the matter in Iain’s book, in our report, and now on Kenan’s site. However, as I say in the introduction to the report, the issue is not just about appraising Iain’s book, but trying to develop a relatively mature discussion on the relevance of neuroscience to social, cultural and political questions. In this respect, I see four useful questions emerging from the discussions on Kenan’s site. These are all relatively philosophical in nature, but feel to me like the key sources of disagreement. 

1) Can you believe the brain is fundamental without being a reductionist?

Iain must be tired of saying he is not a reductionist. As I mention in the report, the value of his approach for those working on social innovation is that the link between brains and behaviour is not direct, reductive and causal, but rather mediated by phenomenology and values. Viewing the hemispheres of the brain as if it they had the qualities of experienced personhood, in which they pay particular kinds of attention gives you a very different reference point to the more conventional model, in which we view the brain as a kind of biological machine with rules governing inputs and outputs.

However, if you place the brain centre stage in any explanatory theory (as I think even Iain would have to concede he does!) people are going to assume it serves as a kind of touchstone. So the question is valid: If you are not reducing your explanation to the brain, in what way is what you are saying about the brain important?

Iain might say you need to understand how the functional and structural asymmetries in the hemispheres constrain attention, that our patterns of attention circumscribe what and how we value, which predisposes (rather than determines) us to act in certain ways. But such an explanation is likely to disappoint the questioner who is looking for the brain to build them some explanatory foundations!

Iain’s work relies on a sophisticated non-reductionist theory, but one that is nonetheless successfully surfing on a relatively reductionist Zeitgeist.

The charge against Iain is therefore that his argument relies for its rhetorical force on the epistemic esteem of neuroscience, but that esteem is grounded in a reductionism that he strongly repudiates. That curious equation is hardly Iain’s fault, but it does create some explanatory discomfort! Iain’s work relies on a sophisticated non-reductionist theory, but one that is nonetheless successfully surfing on a relatively reductionist Zeitgeist. 

2) Is the equivocation over brains ‘causing’ social phenomena resolvable?

Similarly, Iain appears to most to be a bit equivocal about whether the brain is driving social and political changes. He would probably say he has shown the optimal amount of equivocation! Consider part of his answer to Kenan:

“There is a constant dialogue between brain and environment, which is traceable, if one wishes to do so, at the level of the synapse, but is also traceable at the phenomenological level. Each helps to mould the other. And so the answer to the left hemisphere question ‘which causes which?’ is – right hemisphere fashion, ‘both and neither’. But out of that relationship everything that we know, or can know, ultimately comes.”

Still sounds pretty equivocal, right? But it also sounds about right to me. So is there a better way to express the relationship between our hemispheric division, in particular the growing the left hemispheric ‘dominance’ in a way that makes it socially and culturally relevant but not strictly causal?

Before taking that plunge, compare the question: Does climate change cause irregular weather patterns? The answer, of course, depends on what you mean by ’cause’…and good luck with that.

3) Is it appropriate to sharply differentiate the science from the metaphor?

It is widely accepted that it is almost impossible to speak about scientific ideas without resorting to metaphors and the role of metaphors in science is therefore somewhat unclear. For some, developing a good metaphor reflects a depth of understanding of what something is like, and how it works, that cannot be attained in any other way. It is not merely a superficial analogy, and yet it’s not the ‘thing in itself’ either.

Iain seems to want to pitch his argument somewhere between literal and metaphorical truth, but many want to force a binary between science and metaphor, which feels like an uncomfortable choice in this context. The answer to the question: Is your thesis science or metaphor? Appears to be ‘both’. Is that a satisfying answer?

4) How much does the ambiguity over agency matter? 

Given a certain definition of ‘persons’ (again, good luck with that) are the hemipheres like persons or is it truer to say they are persons? The latter option feels absurd, but we need further clarity on what kind of agency a whole person has that a single hemisphere doesn’t. In other words, is there an emergent property of additional agency that arises from the cooperation/conflict between the hemispheres in ordinary consciousness? Is is 1+1=2(working as one) or is it more like X+Y=Z?

These questions arose from the following query by Kenan:

“What I am suggesting is that part of the conceptual problem in your argument is the constant elision between brain (or hemisphere) and person, an elision that allows you to attribute agency to a hemisphere while denying that you are doing so.  If what you mean (…) is that ‘the person embodying the left hemisphere is not aware of that hemisphere’s limitations’ in the sense that he or she is unaware of the limitations of ‘left hemisphere kind of thinking’, then I would agree with you, but it would seem to be a truism. But if what you mean is that the left hemisphere ‘is unaware of its own limitations’ as an agent in its own right, independently of the person embodying it, then it becomes far more than a truism. But it also becomes a highly implausible account of agency, consciousness and personhood. Your thesis, it seems to me, rests to a large degree upon this ambiguity in the understanding of agency.”

I think Kenan is right to raise this question but it is not yet clear to me how much hangs on it. Any thoughts? 


All of these questions were explored in our report, but they have all been given fresh impetus from the discussion with Kenan Malik and those who commented on the blogs, to whom I am grateful. And finally, I just saw that Iain posted an apology for overreacting to Kenan’s comments, so this important discussion is back on track in both substance and style…



Aren’t you being a little, y’know, Dystopian?

January 3, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

The Argentinian genius, Jorge Luis Borges once described Utopia as “a Greek word meaning ‘there is no such place’”

Could the same thing be said for Dystopia?

There have been plenty of dystopic visions of the future, most famously Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley’s vision of happiness pills and pervasive virtuality now feels closer to the truth than the ‘Big Brother’ of Orwell’s oppressive State, but I might feel differently if I lived in Russia or China.

More recently, towards the end of his epic book, The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist presents a non-fiction account of a world he believes we are, unwittingly stumbling towards. Later this month The Social Brain Centre will be publishing a critical examination of this work as a whole, featuring a dialogue with the author and reflections from various thinkers on the strength and significance of the ideas.

The central claim is that our phenomenal experience is gradually colonised through the left hemisphere’s preference for, broadly, familiar, non-living and measurable things that can be used for instrumental purposes. On this account we are gradually losing touch with what Iain calls ‘sources of intuitive life’, as our societies become a virtual ‘hall of mirrors’ in which that which is re-presented is ubiquitous, and that which is genuinely unique has less air to breathe. If you are not familiar with these ideas, you can enjoy a very pleasant introduction by watching the RSAnimate which now has over a million viewers, and please watch this space for our report later this month.

So is the world slowly becoming more dystopic? On the one hand, people like Hans Rosling, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley help to guard us against reflex pessimism, reminding us that we have never been healthier, wealthier, less violent and more innovative respectively. On the other hand you have fears of “the destructive power of a warming planet” (Obama) in Climate Change, fears for food and water security, the ever-present threat of terrorism, terrifying public health scenarios in which we all catch a deadly and hyper-contagious bug, and, relatively benignly, the sense that worldwide financial collapse is only ever a few bad decisions away.

However, such legitimate fears are not really what is meant by dystopia, which usually involves a vision of a world that is over-organised, and too sure of itself to realise that it has gone horribly wrong, and that it may have lost something of enormous value.

Indeed, chillingly, McGilchrist suggests that in so far as the world is becoming more dystopic, many of us are likely to remain oblivious:

“If I am right, that the story of the Western world is one of increasing left hemisphere
domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead, we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss.”

These thoughts of dystopia were prompted by watching the astoundingly brilliant satirical series, Black Mirror for the first time, just last night, over a year after most people were raving about it. I was particularly affected by the second episode, 15 Million Merits which can still be viewed on Four on Demand.

Painting such pictures of the future should induce constructive thought and action rather than despair. Gramsci famously said we need to have pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, while in our forthcoming report McGilchrist calls himself a hopeful pessimist.

I felt this dystopia was a particularly good illustration of McGilchrist’s view of what a world dominated by the left-hemisphere might look like. The picture is of a world almost completely dominated by screens, scores, adverts, and devoid of almost anything  natural or meaningful, in which everybody knows what they are supposed to be doing, but nobody really seems to know what is going on.

Painting such pictures of the future should induce constructive thought and action rather than despair. Gramsci famously said we need to have pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, while in our forthcoming report McGilchrist calls himself a hopeful pessimist.

Just as we accuse people for being ‘utopian’ when they are being naively optimistic about how things could be, so we should call people ‘dystopian’ when any of these visions of dystopia are taken too literally as predictions. The point of thinking dystopically is rather to shed light on our lives as they are currently lived, and the direction we are taking, or more to the point, the direction on which we are being taken.