Body and Soul
An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To reflect on the traditional Christian understanding of human beings having a body and a soul.
Preparation and materials
- Have available some images of the human brain and the means to display them during the assembly:
- a general diagram of the brain, available at: https://tinyurl.com/y9aszxv7
- a diagram showing the prefrontal cortex, available at: https://tinyurl.com/yct2s2s2
- a diagram showing Wernicke’s area, available at: https://tinyurl.com/yaxhml9o
- a diagram showing the right ventral striatum, available at: https://tinyurl.com/y92g4eec
- a diagram showing the pineal gland, available at: https://tinyurl.com/y7hrxsz6
- More information about the brain is available at: https://tinyurl.com/ya7jgvee
- Good news! At last, you have the perfect excuses – or rather, defences – against complaints or charges by parents or teachers that you:
– are impossible to live with
– think about nobody but yourself
– are moody
– have the attention span of a gnat
– don’t keep your room tidy
The defences are that you are a teenager and this is a medical condition!
- To explain this to any doubting parent or teacher, all you need is a diagram of a typical brain.
Show the general diagram of the brain, and then show the diagram of the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is at the front of the frontal lobe. It is the home of ‘high-level cognitive processes’, which is ‘making plans’ to you and me. This bit bulks up between the ages of 10 and 12, but its development is not complete until the age of 25. This might explain why teenagers sometimes seem so disorganized and irrational.
Show the diagram of Wernicke’s area.
Wernicke’s area is linked to learning language. Research has found that the ability to learn new languages declines rapidly after the age of 12.
Show the diagram of the right ventral striatum.
The right ventral striatum is the part of the brain involved in motivation. It is underactive during the teenage years, which might be why teens take more risks with their own lives than other age groups do.
Show the diagram of the pineal gland.
The pineal gland produces the hormone melatonin, which signals when it’s time to sleep. For adolescents, melatonin peaks later in the day than for other age groups, which might be why they often prefer late nights followed by morning lie-ins.
In addition to all this, the adolescent body is awash with hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone, which change its shape and stimulate all sorts of new behaviour.
- Do you think that, if you explain all this, you’ll be forgiven for having a messy room? For finding your French or German GCSE tough-going? For failing to be tolerant of your brother or sister? This may sound a bit facetious, but it does reflect scientific research into the changes that take place inside the adolescent body and brain. Anyone can see that enormous changes take place and research confirms the implications of these changes.
- But are we really carried along by the flow of chemicals in our body? The argument that we are basically passive victims of our own biology mirrors larger philosophical and legal arguments.
In the nineteenth century, you could be hanged for stealing a sheep because people were deemed to be responsible for their actions. However, nowadays, defence lawyers use ever more sophisticated arguments, including genetics, to claim that someone charged with a serious crime is not responsible for it. For example, the enzyme monoamine oxidase A, which is found on the MAOA gene, has been associated with behavioural aggression. However, in British law, it’s not possible to claim that drunkenness excuses misbehaviour. The view is that a drunk person might be out of control, but he or she was responsible for getting drunk in the first place. Might drunken behaviour be excused instead, however, on the grounds of claims that there is a gene that predisposes those who have it to alcoholism?
- Ultimately, are we just lumbering automata, driven by the chemicals that make up our brains and bodies? If not, what is the nature of the ‘I’ inside us: the bit that thinks and feels, that reflects and writes poetry or music, that evokes our identity not so much in the form of our physical bones and tissue, but in our words?
- Many people believe that our inner being is secondary and dependent on our outer, physical being.
Traditionally, the Church has called this inner being the ‘soul’. It has taught that we are beings made up of a body and a soul. Of the two, the soul has been regarded as the more important. Also, for much of the time, the Church has viewed the soul as detachable from the body. Not all modern theologians would agree, but most would probably feel that our primary identity lies within us.
Time for reflection
What do you think?
Does the language of the body – oestrogen, dopamine, cerebellum, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and so on – adequately describe what it means to be human or do we need a word such as ‘soul’, too?
While we’re thinking about that, we can also reflect on whether, next time we are told off for having a messy room, we can get away with the excuse, ‘Don’t blame me, blame my prefrontal cortex – it’s running slow for the next few years!’
We thank you for our bodies – that we can see, feel, touch, taste and hear
And so enjoy the beauty of this world.
We thank you, too, that we are not automata –
We can stand back from our physicality and think, feel and love.