Does the Bible Speak of a Brain?
DOES THE BIBLE SPEAK OF THE BRAIN?
Does the Bible or the witless Scarecrow in _The_Wizard_of
Oz_ mention the brain more frequently? If your answer was
the scarecrow, you are right. The Bible mentions a number of key
human organs, such as the heart, blood, bowels, liver, and kidneys,
but never mentions the most important organ of all, the brain.
This is not unusual, of course, unless you happen to view the
Bible as an inspired scientific textbook, in which case it would
appear to be missing a bit of vital information.
Of course, it is easy to see how a merely human observer could
overlook the brain. It lies hidden behind a hard bony shell and,
even when exposed, maintains a noiseless, placid appearance. Compare
the heart, which beats faster in reaction to anger, love, joy,
physical exertion, etc. Add to this the fact that the heart lies
near the center of the body and you arrive at the ancient conception
that it was the primary seat of one's emotions, moral direction
(or misdirection), and according to some, our decision making
ability. Indeed, how could early human observers have avoided
being impressed by the pounding heart and racing blood?
In similar fashion, the ancients were also impressed with the
"breath"--breathing being an easily observable external
trait associated closely with life, its speed and depth coinciding
with one's emotional and physical state. In fact, both the Hebrew
and Greek words for _breath_ were also used (in their
respective languages) to refer to one's _soul_ or
Historians agree that hundreds or even thousands of years passed
before the brain, rather than the heart, was recognized as the
most important organ in the body. An ancient Egyptian surgical
treatise [circa 3,000 B.C.] mentioned how head and neck injuries
affected a person's speech and the use of his limbs. This seemed
to surprise the author of the treatise, who repeated several times
that "the injury was in the head." Regardless of the
implications of such observations, the Egyptians, along with the
Mesopotamians and the ancient Greek poet Homer, continued to regard
the heart as the primary organ of the soul that harbored intelligence
and feeling. To prepare a pharaoh for mummification, his heart
(and other organs of his torso) had to be embalmed and buried
with him, but his brain was removed from his skull and thrown
Around 460-370 B.C., the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus
contested the heart-centered views found in Homer's _Iliad
_. Democritus wrote: "The brain watches over the upper
limbs like a guard, as citadel of the body, consecrated to its
protection," adding, "the brain, guardian of thoughts
or intelligence," contains the principal "bonds of the
soul." However, he also called the heart "the queen,
the nurse of anger" and believed that "the center of
desire is in the liver."
The Greek physician Hippocrates (a contemporary of Democritus)
enlarged the new brain-centered theory with clinical observations.
He wrote in _The_Sacred_Disease_, "Men ought to
know that from the human brain and _from_the_brain_only_
arise our pleasures, joys, laughter, and jests as well as our
sorrows, pains, griefs and tears.... It is the same thing which
makes us mad or delirious, inspires us with dread and fear, whether
by night or by day, brings us sleeplessness, inopportune mistakes,
aimless anxieties, absent-mindedness and acts that are contrary
to habit...." That the Hebrews took for granted that the
"heart, bowels, and kidneys" were the seats of man's
emotional and moral impulses would no doubt have raised a wry
smile on Hippocrates' face. But that is to get ahead of ourselves.
Plato [428-348 B.C.] in his dialogue entitled _Timaeus_ argued
that the intellectual part of the soul was contained in the head.
Then Aristotle [384-322 B.C.], Plato's student and successor,
reverted to the heart-centered view of the soul. Aristotle observed
the way that blood vessels from all over the body converged toward
the heart and how the heart reacted visibly to being touched while
the brain did not. Furthermore, the lower animals, like worms,
insects, and shellfish, all had pulsating heartlike organs but
lacked anything resembling the vertebrate brain. Lastly, Aristotle
pointed out that a chicken's body exhibited a life of its own
after being separated from the head. It was thus obvious to Aristotle
that "the seat of the soul and the control of voluntary movement--in
fact of nervous functions in general-are to be sought in the heart.
The brain is an organ of minor importance, perhaps necessary to
cool the blood" (_De_Motu_Animalum_).
Three hundred years later, the Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote
in a similar Aristotelian vein, "The dominant force in the
whole body is that guiding principle which we term mind or intellect.
This is firmly lodged in the _midregion_of_the_breast_. Here
is the place where fear and alarm pulsate. Here is felt the caressing
touch of joy. Here, then, is the _seat_of_the_intellect_and
mind_" (_On_the_Nature_of_Things_, Book III,
circa 55 B.C.).
But even though philosophers like Aristotle and Lucretius were
heart-centered, the tradition of Greek _physicians_, beginning
with Hippocrates, remained brain-centered. In the 3rd century
B.C, Herophilus and Erasistratus dissected thousands of bodies
and demonstrated that nerves were different from blood vessels
and that they originated not in the heart, as Aristotle thought,
but in the brain or the spinal cord. Then almost five hundred
years after Herophilus' day, the Greek physician and philosopher
Galen [130-200 A.D.] experimented and established brain physiology
as a science. He demonstrated that the brain played the central
role in controlling bodily and mental activity.
However, because of the influence of Aristotle on medieval scholars
and the added bonus that his view of the primacy of the heart
agreed more with biblical descriptions than brain-centered views,
heart-centeredness survived until the 16th century. As Martin
Luther, the father of protestantism, put it, "Faith is under
the left nipple." (According to "folk anatomy,"
the heart lies under the left nipple.) Or notice the feeling of
uncertainty voiced in Shakespeare's _Merchant_of_Venice_:
"Tell me, where is fancy bred, in the heart, or in the head?"
And in Balzac's "Heartaches of an English Cat," the
"aches" have nothing to do with heart disease. After
the 1700's, new figures of speech arose, based on an appreciation
of the _brain's_ central importance. Today we are more likely
to warn someone not to "lose his head" rather than to
be "strong of heart," and we admire people with "brains."
Now compare the Bible. It was written at a time when Hippocrates
and other Greek physicians knew better, but throughout the length
and breadth of it, emotional and moral behaviors are related foremost
to the heart, the bowels, and the kidneys, rather than to the
Of course, the Bible speaks of the "head." It is a place
to be anointed and crowned and where the priests wore their miters
(turbans), but such practices were shared by _heart_-centered
cultures, so they cannot be used to support any theory that the
authors of the Bible recognized the primary importance of the
There is one verse in the Bible that has been cited as some form
of recognition of the brain. [ref002]Daniel 2:28
speaks of "visions of thy head upon thy bed." Of
course, even if this were an instance of brain-centeredness, it
should be remembered that historical scholarship assigns the book
of Daniel a date of composition later than any other book in the
Old Testament. Also, the verse merely refers to "head-visions,"
and it could be referring obliquely to the fact that one's eyes
are in one's head or, perhaps, to the fact that one sees images/visions
in his head. However, in neither case does that imply that what
is in one's head is anything more than a screen for visions to
play themselves out upon. That hardly gives full recognition to
what lies inside one's head.
Of course, the Bible refers to the "mind." However,
aside from implying that the mind is not identical with the heart
(cf. [ref003]Mt. 22:37
; [ref004]Mk. 12:30
; [ref005]Lk. 10:27
), the Bible does not go on to state where the seat of the
mind is located. Neither are "mind" and head used in
conjunction with one another. Other ancient cultures also referred
to the mind without specifying to which organ it was related.
It appears to have been an entity like the soul-breath, whose
location was never specified. Nevertheless, certain organs, to
them, seemed especially capable of influencing and directing one's
emotions and morality, and those _were_ specified.
The ancients (including the Hebrews) all agreed that one such
organ, the primary one, in fact, was the heart. They used the
word _heart_ repeatedly, attaching enormous _emotional
_ and _moral_ significance to its behavior. The Bible
emphasizes how the _heart_ "deviseth a man's way,"
"inspires speech" "believes," "is joyful,"
"is deceitful," "is good" ([ref006]Prov. 16:9
; [ref007]Mt. 12: 34
; [ref008]Rom. 10:10
; [ref009]1 Chron. 16:10
; [ref010]Jer. 17:9
; [ref011]Lk. 6:45
). This resembles what the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians,
and Greeks (those Greeks who were not physicians, Homer and Aristotle)
believed and taught. Besides the heart, the Bible also focuses
(to a lesser extent) on the emotional and moral significance of
the bowels and kidneys. Here are some of the verses in the King
James Bible in which the Greek and Hebrew terms for bowels and
kidneys are literally translated:
My bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon
him, saith the Lord ([ref012]Jer. 31:20).
Be ye straitened [restrained] in your own bowels ([ref013]2 Cor. 6:12).
I long after you in the bowels [affection] of Christ ([ref014]Philip. 1:8).
(T)he bowels of the saints are refreshed.... (R)efresh my bowels
in the Lord ([ref015]Philemon 7:20).
(S)hutteth up his bowels of compassion ([ref016]1 John 3:17).
Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins [Latin,
renes, which means kidneys, a literal translation of the Hebrew]
My reins [kidneys] also instruct me in the night seasons ([ref018]Ps.
Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end; but establish
the just: for the righteous God trieth the heart and reins [kidneys]
Yea, my reins [kidneys] shall rejoice when my lips speak right
things ([ref020]Prov. 23:16).
I am He [God] which searcheth the reins [kidneys] and hearts ([ref021]Rev. 2:23).
The Talmud (Berakhoth 61a) says that one kidney prompts man to do
good, the other to do evil. The kidneys (among other organs, _yet
excluding_the_brain_) were especially reserved for Yahweh and
sacrificed to Him as a burnt offering ([ref022]Lev.
3:4-5). Even if the Hebrews regarded this insight into the kidneys as
"pure poetry" (which is doubtful, based on historical
comparisons, and since figures of speech have to originate from
_ideas_), it is a poetry that no longer survives or interests
mankind. In fact, in the above verses the Hebrew word for _kidneys__
has been translated _soul_ in modern English Bibles to avoid
cumbersome explanations of why the ancient Hebrews attributed moral
significance to a person's kidneys. Or consider the twin biblical
notions that "the life is in the blood" and "without the
shedding of blood there is no remission of sins" ([ref023]Lev.
17:11-14 ; [ref024]Heb. 9:22 ). Because of such ideas, the ancient Hebrews sacrificed in
a bloody fashion many thousands of animals, and Christians came to view
Jesus' "blood" sacrifice as necessary for the forgiveness of
sins and the drinking of Jesus' "blood" (in symbolic and/or
mystical fashion) as partaking of his "life." This is in obvious
contrast to scientific consensus, which agrees that human "life"
is _not_ primarily "in the blood" but in the _brain_
and nervous system. Indeed, one's primary "life" ends with
the total and permanent cessation of brain activity, even if no blood is
shed in the process, as in cases of poisoning, asphyxiation, or
electrocution. In fact, as the comedian Lenny Bruce used to jibe, "If
Jesus had been executed in the twentieth century instead of the first,
Christians would be wearing little electric chairs around their
necks." Maybe so, but if you were a _fundamentalist_ Christian,
I suppose there would still have to be a spear in the side of an
electrocuted Jesus. There's gotta be some "blood" shed for
forgiveness. (I am not seeking to mock religion but merely posing
questions to those who claim the Bible can be interpreted both literally
and scientifically.) "Science" in biblical times was based
on _apparent__, not literal, truths. The earth _appeared_ to be
the flat, firm foundation of creation. The heavens _appeared_ to be
stretched out above the earth like a tent or canopy. The heart, bowels,
and kidneys (and not the brain) appeared to be intimately linked with
one's emotions, morality, and decision-making processes. Even ancient
creation accounts (Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Hebrew, etc.) reflected
this attitude toward "science." They thought that God (or the
gods) had created all of the animals and plants as they then
_appeared_ and that their offspring would not _appear_ any
different no matter how many generations should pass. Thus, for the
ancient Hebrews, crude "scientific" theories, based on
superficial _appearances_, dictated the Hebrew view of reality and
their subsequent figures of speech. According to an article in
_Psychology:_A_Journal_of_Human_behavior_, Warren Gorman and
Lawrence Edwin Abt questioned 110 females between the ages of eighteen and
twenty to determine the concepts they had of the form and function of
their bodies. Their article "Is the Brain the Most Important
Organ?" (Aug. 1964, pp. 2-11) contained some interesting
questionnaire results. For instance, when asked, "In Children, what
is the most important organ? In adults?... In old people?..." the
subjects rated the heart the "most important organ" in old
people and the sex organs the most important in adults, whereas in
children they rated the brain, heart, and digestive organs as
"equally important." (Only five subjects out of 110 responded
"brain, brain, brain" to the three parts of this question!)
When asked, "What is the most important function of the body?"
the subjects answered "breathing," with "circulation or
heart function" next. These first two questions of the survey along
with their replies demonstrate how easy it must have been for the ancients
to have overlooked the primary importance of the brain. Even 20th century
questionnaire respondents continue to overlook the primary importance of
"brain function"! However, the response of the subjects to the
next question left no doubt that a side gap exists between ancient and
modern views of the brain. When asked, "What part or function of the
body is most intimately lined with your emotions?" the brain easily
achieved first place. Such a result demonstrates how deeply modern
scientific knowledge has penetrated our culture and superseded
heart/bowel/kidney-linked descriptions of human emotions found in the
Bible and other ancient works.[ref025]2
1 For much of the historical data on how
the brain eventually came to be viewed as more central to one's
life and "soul" than the heart, I am endebted to _Neuronal
Man_ (New York: Random House, 1985), an English translation
of Jean-Pierre Changeux's book _L'Homme_Neuronal_.
2 If the results of my inquiry into the question "Does the
Bible Speak of the Brain?" are deemed unsatisfactory by those
who adhere to the literal words of the Bible and if those same
adherents should blame my "blasphemous" conclusions
on my "hard heartedness" toward God, then I should like
to reply in all sincerity and politeness that my _heart_
is as "hard" as their _heads_ are soft.
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