The Eastern Heart and Galen's Ventricle: A Historical Review of the Purpose of the Brain

Mirza N. Baig, M.D., Ph.D.; Faheem Chishty, M.Ed.; Faheem Chishty, M.Ed.


Neurosurg Focus. 2007;23(1):E3 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


The seat of consciousness has not always been thought to reside in the brain. Its "source" is as varied as the cultures of those who have sought it. At present, although most may agree that the central nervous system is held to be the root of individualism in much of Western philosophy, this has not always been the case, and this viewpoint is certainly not unanimously accepted across all cultures today.

In this paper the authors undertook a literary review of ancient texts of both Eastern and Western societies as well as modern writings on the organic counterpart to the soul. The authors have studied both ancient Greek and Roman material as well as Islamic and Eastern philosophy.

Several specific aspects of the human body have often been proposed as the seat of consciousness, not only in medical texts, but also within historical documents, poetry, legal proceedings, and religious literature. Among the most prominently proposed have been the heart and breath, favoring a cardiopulmonary seat of individualism. This understanding was by no means stagnant, but evolved over time, as did the role of the brain in the definition of what it means to be human.

Even in the 21st century, no clear consensus exists between or within communities, scientific or otherwise, on the brain's capacity for making us who we are. Perhaps, by its nature, our consciousness­­and our awareness of our surroundings and ourselves­­is a function of what surrounds us, and must therefore change as the world changes and as we change.


Philosophers, Scientists, and Spiritualists have debated the seat of consciousness since the birth of civilization. Hypotheses in both modern and ancient literature consider the cardiopulmonary system, an external soul, or the brain as possibly responsible for thought control and consciousness. Unfortunately, people have difficulty agreeing on the definition of consciousness. Past attempts to subdivide it into animal versus rational, normal versus abnormal, or other hierarchical subdivisions illustrate the obvious differences in proposed conscious states, and thus in defining consciousness itself.

The goal of this paper is not, therefore, to attempt to define consciousness, other than to say that, for the purposes of this discussion, we will consider consciousness to be that which we attribute to the mind. The objective instead will be to investigate the wide range of theories regarding the organ responsible for consciousness, and specific examples will be given with each cultural exploration. Although to most Western physicians the brain seems the logical choice, this has not always been the case and is still arguable across populations. Even the historical and crosscultural study detailed in this paper, although limited in its perspective, provides a glimpse of the importance of these questions to humanity in general and the difficulty with which they are answered. Broadly, the discussion has been divided into Eastern and Western texts.


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