One of the illuminating revelations from the mind of Joseph Smith is the understanding that the soul is a combination of spirit and body. We don't know a ratio of spirit to body anymore than the ancients or others since could identify the physical location of the spirit. We just know that it is there someplace and somehow. The Greeks thought the spirit (the literature uses the word "soul") resided in a little-known and less-appreciated body part called the thymus. This organ is found in the chest of a newborn but quickly shrinks to nearly imperceptible fibrous tissue in the front chest.
Today we know that the thymus plays a critical role in the creation of T-cells, the key directors of our body's immune response. In fact it is the T-cell that is the main target for the AIDS virus. By invading the T-cell, the HIV disrupts the command and control center of the body's defenses.
The original Greek idea of the thymus as the seat of the soul lingers in today's medical language describing moods. There is a disorder of chronic mild depression called dysthymia. It is translated to "an ill soul." Moods, especially foul moods, are often connected to the feeling of our soul. In the scriptures there are common references to a description of someone that today we would call mentally ill. So what is the connection between our moods and in our understanding of the soul, what is the relationship between the body and the spirit?
Philosophers, theologians and biologists smarter and greater than I have contemplated this thought over the centuries. I can only add what I know from my understanding as a physician and my experience as a person. I believe a person's body influences the spirit and the individual spirit impacts the spirit. The soul is the product of the two. If I am depressed, and I have been, I don't feel like doing things that one would often count as spiritual. In turn when I feel spiritually uplifted my physical moods respond to it. The tricky part for me is knowing the boundaries. Because the body works through the biochemistry of thought and emotions, it provides reactions of pleasure, joy and love when the spirit starts and the body ends or where the thymus of the Greeks meets the thymus of the immunologists.
In speaking to a woman whose emotional disorder of agoraphobia confined her to her bedroom, she told me that there is a difference in the voices of our mind and the words of the spirit. Phobias are a subdivision of the bigger problem of anxiety disorders. In anxiety and especially agoraphobia (agora is the Greek word for the marketplace), there is an overreaction of the centers of the brain that deal with fear and threat. Someone with agoraphobia has a fear of outside or the surroundings so they often struggle leaving their home. This woman's disorder was grave enough to make it emotionally impossible to exit her bedroom. The voices of fear and dread spoke to her about the possible worries that could have harmed her. It was her body speaking words of panic and her body feeling they were the truth. One could imagine perhaps the struggle that she must have felt between what we call the still small voice and the shouting of fright, paralysis and literal terror. In the depths and with great struggle she said that she came to know the difference between the body and the spirit.She has finally got the medical help she needed. She was started on an SSRI that was able to calm the internal neurological storm. Her brain lapped up the neuro-transmitter, serotonin, which had been missing for some time. She was able to leave her personal prison and triumph in further education and in civil service, and even in weathering the cancerous loss of her husband. Her spirit was treated along with her body. Her body needed to be cared for in order for her soul to feel right. The spirit and the body are the soul of us all.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org