The Brain, The Mind, and The Spirit

A news report today about the status of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and her progress in recovering from the injury she sustained five months ago, and another regarding the status of her attacker, Jared Loughner, both speak to the essential roles of the brain, the mind, and the spirit, in the challenge to understand the nature of human consciousness.

Whatever we feel about the circumstances of this tragedy, the terrible consequences for anyone who suffers any sort of brain injury reveal not only how vitally important it is to our well being that we are able to maintain the structural integrity of our physical brain, but also how easily even an intact brain can suffer from the inability to make proper use of its enormous intellectual capacity, which we mostly take for granted in our daily lives.

Gabrielle Giffords sustained a very serious injury to the structure of her brain, and while her recovery can reasonably be described as “miraculous,” in view of the extent of the damage, she is struggling with an enormous disadvantage in her efforts to reclaim her previous abilities. Her difficulty in “communicating” with others, and the challenges represented in regaining her status as a member of Congress, while daunting to be sure, take nothing away at all from her heroic efforts to do so, and the simple fact that she is alive and able to attend to these difficulties should inspire all of us.

Imagine her frustration as she works toward re-establishing even the most basic communication skills, and reconstructing her life and career, impaired not by her capacity as an intelligent and articulate human being, which we all know still exists within her, but by extensive damage to her brain, which controls and modulates the ability to speak, and to form sentences, and to express the subtleties of comprehension.


The extraordinary spirit which drives the person we all know as “Gabby,” is so clearly present in her determination to recover, and in the forceful way her actions express that determination, there can be no doubt that whatever maximum degree of recovery ends up being possible is what she will achieve. Her ability to inspire is in direct ratio to her ability to recover. If this is not evidence of the existence of the human spirit, then I don’t know what else could qualify.

The person responsible for the attack has been declared incompetent to stand trial presently, and the report notes his inability to assist those attempting to prepare his defense in court. He appears not to be capable of even the most basic comprehension of his act, in spite of having no known impairment to the physical structure of his brain. Whatever the character of his impairment might actually be, it seems clear that some sort of deficit in normal thought processing exists to the point where, whatever the character of his spirit might be, it cannot be reached through the normal channels, and cannot be expressed in any manner resembling a rational or compassionate viewpoint.

We need our brains to express our thoughts and to demonstrate our intellectual capacities, whatever they are, but the spirit which animates us, our true selves at the core of our humanity, must first exist before our brains and our minds can even begin to express its existence.

John H.

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2 comments

  1. Anne Donnelly

    Interesting comparison and contrast with Gabby and her attacker. So you are saying that Gabby is the same person, her spirit is still there, even though outwardly she is so changed. She can no longer express herself like she did before, which makes her appear to have changed. I have a cousin who had a head injury and he seems to me to be a completely different person than he used to be. It is almost like he died, because he is so different. But maybe he is still in there, but can’t communicate like he used to.

  2. jjhiii24

    Anne,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. It seems clear that anyone who suffers a serious injury to their brain will necessarily be altered by that experience, especially when it impacts the cerebral cortex which is so central to our higher cognitive functions. We are so dependent on our cognitive skills to make sense of the world, to remember information, and to synthesize the complex tangle of sensory data and memory into some degree of cohesive wholeness, that even a minor injury there can profoundly compromise our access to our familiar conscious self. If only particular brain regions which govern specific abilities like speech or sight or movement are injured, that particular ability may be affected adversely, but our thoughts, memories, and overall functioning can remain mostly intact.

    Our ability to speak and to comprehend the speech of others is so vital to social interaction, and to expressing our thoughts and ideas and memories, that when it is compromised, it may make us appear to have changed dramatically, when it actually might just be our ability to articulate what is going on inside our heads that is affected.

    Either way, observing the consequences of brain injuries points directly to the vitally important role our brains play in gaining access to and demonstrating consciousness, but says so little about the nature of consciousness itself.

    John H.

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