Coffee and soul

A thought just occurred to me regarding the soul that I apparently have secreted somewhere on my person. This soul, I am told, is the immortal essence of “me”, will survive my death and will exist eternally. It contains everything about me which makes me me: psyche, personality, hopes, dreams, thoughts, experiences, expectations, likes, loathes, knowledge, hungers, holes. It is my consciousness, my mind and, what’s more, it’s immaterial; that is, it is not part of my body; it is not a product of the biochemical processes of my brain. It is not governed by mere physical laws, it is ethereal. It doesn’t “exist” in three dimensions of time and space, the same way my hand exists or my third coffee of the day used to exist as a milky, fatty suspension and now still exists but is being dissolved into its components by my digestive system. But I’ve had a thought, more than once, about the nature of this soul and how precisely it governs my every thought, word and deed.


The thought is actually more a series of questions, which I’d like to hear answers for from a theological point of view, if possible.

If the soul: that is, mind, consciousness, psyche, are eternal, non-physical elements that make me who I am (and makes us who we are):  
  • why it is that even a small biochemical change can profoundly alter my behaviour, my thinking and my personality? Any change in biochemistry – one or two alcoholic drinks or puffs of weed all the way up to being pregnant, out of your mind on hallucinogens or amphetamines or just in the throes of inconsolable grief or indescribable ecstasy – produces thoughts & patterns of behaviour which can be described as “out of character”. The consumption of alcohol, for example, is famous for leading both to a reduction in inhibitions and to poor judgement in social situations, which we all know can & does result in thoughtless acts of vandalism and violence, unwise sexual escapades, drink-driving and ill-advised participation in karaoke contests. Too much coffee can make you jumpy, irritable and unable to focus. not enough coffee can make you sluggish, irritable and … unable to focus. But if my mind – my soul – isn’t a part of my physical brain, why do chemical changes in my brain directly affect my mind? If my mind isn’t biochemical, how can a small amount of mere physical substance like ethanol or caffeine – or a mere emotion like happiness – turn me into someone else?
  • explain why even small physical changes to the brain can deeply affect behaviour and cognition. People who have damaged brains due to trauma or disease frequently forget basic facts about their own lives and families. My own grandfather, in the grips of Alzheimer’s, frequently thought my mother was his wife and spoke to her as if he was issuing instructions back on the family orchard, decades before, instead of in the nursing facility where he spent his last years. My grandfather frequently became confused about simple things and, during brief moments of mental competency, quite irritable or distraught over the confusions. This is the same for many, many people living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Early frontal lobotomy patients underwent extreme changes in mood and personality after having sections of their brain removed or destroyed. Even people with minor injuries can experience temporary memory loss & mood changes. I’ve been concussed more than once and it’s a very confusing & potentially dangerous time – you’d think, in the aftermath of something like a mild concussion, your non-physical consciousness would remain unaffected and able to control your body, instead of switching off and leaving your body to the whims of fate. 
  • explain why – relating to the first question about intoxicants – someone’s personality can change dramatically when given, through medical intervention, hormones to correct imbalances (which themselves affect behaviour and mood) or treatments which act directly on brain chemistry, such as anti-depressants. Whence mental illness in the first place? Is it a sickness of the soul or an anomaly in brain chemistry? If the immortal immaterial soul is in control, why should mere chemicals have any effect on the brain, whatsoever, good or bad? 
  • finally: explain why, when our physical bodies need to rest, that our minds need to as well? Certainly, physical exertion takes its toll on our bodies and it’s understandable that we need to lay them down for a few hours at the end of the day. But why doesn’t the soul stay up all night, cruising the aether, while the body recharges like a plugged-in mobile phone? Why does my allegedly non-physical consciousness need to rest just like my worn-out meat chassis needs to? Surely if it’s immortal and non-physical it can’t be affected by being used all day, like a mere arm or leg or mouth. It’s meant to be able to last forever (moreover, some say, to survive the unthinkable torments of Hell for all eternity, depending on which particular version of which particular diety you promised it to)! And if it would indeed, as more than one person I’ve spoken to has theorised, drive someone mad by staying “awake” twenty-four hours a day even when his body were asleep, why isn’t there even a choice to remain fully conscious, on the odd night when we may feel like it? Why must our minds be forced into unconsciousness when our bodies sleep? Why must our souls dream nonsense when they could be out learning the secrets of the universe, or merely communicating with other souls? It would be nice to be able to go to sleep and speak to my friends in distant lands, or even my departed grandfathers – I’d like to ask them both a number of questions I only thought of in the many years since they passed away.

But my questions for here & now are: given the above, how is it my mind and consciousness aren’t supposed to be part of me (like my body), when all the evidence available suggests that they are? Obviously I have my own ideas on these questions, based on available medical and scientific evidence. Nonetheless, I’d really love to hear answers to these questions from a spiritual or theological angle. I’d like to hear how other peoples’ minds work …