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Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11: Behind the Eyebrows

Reading Stiff by Mary Roach. And, hey, it's 9/11, which seems to be an unending day because we're never allowed to forget it.

I read this passage today, on the train home, and thought it'd work as well as anything else to mark the occasion. Of 9/11, not my train-ride home. To mark the occasion of my train-ride home, you'd need a different book. To mark 9/11, you need something grand.

The seat-of-the-soul debate has been ongoing some four thousand years. It started out not as a heart-versus-brain debate, but as heart-versus-liver. The ancient Egyptians were the original heart guys. They believed that the ka resided in the heart. Ka was the essence of the person: the spirit, intelligence, feelings and passions, humor, grudges, annoying television theme songs, all the things that make a person a person and not a nematode. The heart was the only organ left inside a mummified corpse, for a man needed his ka in the afterlife. The brain he clearly did not need: cadaver brains were scrambled and pulled out in globs, through the nostrils, by way of a hooked bronze needle. Then they were thrown away. (The liver, stomach, intestines, and lungs were taken out of the body but kept: They were stored in earthen jars inside the tomb, on the assumption, I guess, that it is better to overpack than to leave something behind, particularly when packing for the afterlife.)

The Babylonians were the original liver guys, believing the organ to be the source of the human emotion and spirit. The Mesopotamians played both sides of the argument, assigning emotion to the liver and intellect to the heart. These guys clearly marched to the beat of a freethinking drummer, for they assigned a further portion of the soul (cunning) to the stomach. Similar freethinkers throughout history have included Descartes, who wrote that the soul could be found in the walnut-sized pineal gland, and the Alexandrain anatomist, Strato, who decided it lived "behind the eyebrows."

With the rise of classical Greece, the soul debate evolved into the more familiar heart-versus-brain, the liver having been demoted to an accessory role. Though Pythagorus and Aristotle viewed the heart as the seat of the soul--the source of "vital force" necessary to live and grow--they believed there to be a secondary, "rational" soul, or mind, located in the brain...

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