Part 2: History of the Soul

If you just joined us, you’ve happened upon an attempt to cover the vast ocean of contributions to what we know as the ‘soul’ today.

Quick recap: initial consideration of the soul began circa 200,000 BC, which lead to organized religion circa 9831 BC. Earliest written records date to around this time, and the first human considerations of the soul, religion and afterlife are evident from the remnants of ancient Egyptian culture. Worldwide, a boom in philosophical thought took place circa 5th century, which lead to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and many other religions common today. We have this philosophical boom to thank in large part for Western concepts of Dualism. There isn’t much to note about the soul between the 5th and 16th centuries due the advent of monotheistic religions, which diverted focus from the individual soul to an omnipotent God. We last left off in the 17th and 18th centuries with Descartes and scientific research on the pineal gland.

“Higher Self” by J.R. Slattum

Scientific research gathered steam in the 19th and 20th centuries. Popular inventors began experimenting with devices to enable human communication with souls, such as Dr. Hippolyte Baraduc (1850-1909), Thomas Edison (1847-1931) and Dr. Duncan “Om” MacDougall (1866-1920). In France, Baraduc tried using photography to scientifically prove a soul’s existence. Baraduc believed souls could impress a photographic plate, and he postulated existence of seven such impressions. Unfortunately, Baraduc‘s language and assumptions were unclear at best. He presented no empirical evidence for countless affirmations. Edison invented the psychophone to record voices of the dead. But very little is known about the device today, and many doubt its existence because the prototype is lost. MacDougall sought to measure the mass lost by a human when the soul departs the body at death. He recorded a loss of three-fourths of an ounce in his first subject, which is where the popularized ‘21 grams’ theory comes from (though it was discredited). Also instrumental to historical scientific study of the soul is the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882. Many of its members are well-known names, such as Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sigmund Freud, W.B. Yeats, Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley.

Exploration of the soul still goes on today, and two recent developments are theory concerning “Soul Age” and practice concerning “Past-life regression.” Soul Age theory expands upon the concept of reincarnation by positing that “souls that have been reincarnated many times acquire age that breaks through in our personalities.” Past-life regression therapy uses (but is not limited to) hypnosis and suggestion to elicit recall in patients. Practitioners tools for therapy include hypnosis, suggestion and bridging techniques. This theory is questioned by the science community and isn’t taught in medical internships.

“The Recluse” by Jeffrey Smith

What’s your relationship to the idea of souls? I personally was raised between two households: in one home, we practiced a non-denominational sort of Christianity mixed with spiritual practices not common in Christian churches I attended (tarot card readings, dream analysis, etc.). In the other, I attended a Christian church (denomination: Foursquare) and attended Sunday School regularly until around High School. If you asked me what I thought of the soul 10 years ago, I’d have a view aligned with those of early Christian philosophers and many spiritual practitioners today: the soul as an immortal self that was created by God and infused into my body when I was conceived, but the soul is immortal and chose many lives before the one I live now. My views and considerations have changed tremendously today based on my experience, but you know what they say: change is the only constant.

Imagine over 7 billion people, 7 billion-plus faces that are as unique and individual as you are, unique as a snowflake. Picture each one of them carrying out actions they believe will help forge the kind of world they want to leave in their wake. I’ve tried my best to express how perceptions of the soul have changed over time in an even and unbiased way, but telling you what the overall accepted understanding of a soul means to people NOW? That’s just as futile as imagining the world’s unique population of individuals.

Statistically speaking, the biggest religion is Christianity at 2.2 billion followers, which is 31.5% of the world population. Islam is in 2nd at 1.6 billion and Secularism/Agnosticism/Atheism is in 3rd with an approximation of just under 1.1 billion.

It’s obvious that the concept of a soul is nebulous at best. It may have distinctions in specific religions and faiths but no one can examine a soul. How could you? It’s immaterial.

The word soul is so hard to comprehend that it’s has multiple definitions and uses:


And what exactly does it mean to be soulful?


We’re a world full of differing views on the soul, and it’s always been that way. Evidently, the concept of the human soul has evolved in line with cultural and religious change throughout history. Think of the sheer number of beliefs that you’ll find in any population. According to Pew Research Center, Christians are the most evenly distributed across the world, but the geographic distribution of religious groups varies in general.

It seems to me that even if you don’t believe in a soul, something can still have “soul” in it, which means that not believing in a soul doesn’t disqualify you from living a soulful existence, either.

Whether or not you believe we have souls, we have to work together to reach compromises and live fruitfully with one another. What are you doing to contribute to the conversation? We all live on this big blue planet together. So let’s work on uplifting one another to do well. Together.

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