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Wednesday, 9 May 2012

1.7 – Epileptic or Evangelist?

Anorexia nervosa and schizophrenia are not the only illnesses to have been attributed to medieval mystics. In fact, temporal lobe epilepsy, the ‘sacred disease’, has been profoundly intertwined with religious practices throughout the ages. Engel claims a number of men and women who attained religious prominence may have done so because of, or in spite of, their epileptic symptoms. One of the most prominent examples of this was Saint Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. He saw a bright light flashing around him and fell to the ground where he was left temporarily blinded by his vision and unable to eat or drink. Some contemporary physicians believe that Paul had facial motor and sensitive disturbances coming after ecstatic seizures, diagnosing him with temporal lobe epilepsy.

Joan of Arc was another mystic who reported ecstatic moments where she saw flashes of light, heard saint’s voices, and experienced angelic visions. Neurologist Dr. Bayne, understands that Joan's blissful experiences, ‘in which she felt that the secrets of the universe were about to be revealed to her’, were seizures triggered by church bells ringing. Joan displayed symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy, specifically, a musicogenic form of reflex epilepsy with an ecstatic aura. This form of epilepsy is generally triggered by particular music which has an emotional significance to the individual.

The prodrome (premonitory symptoms that act as an indication that an attack is imminent) also have much in common with those of migraine:[1]

Less than one minute
Up to one hour
'Butterflies' common
Pain is rare; nausea is common.
Common (<a few minutes)
Common ( < one hour)
Loss of consciousness
Often unconscious throughout.
Usually conscious throughout.
Olfactory hallucinations
Not infrequent
Loss of speech
Déjà vu

The two main manifestations of epilepsy are defined by the Concise Oxford Medical Dictionary:

Grand Mal (major epilepsy): an epileptic fit, sometimes called the tonic-clonic fit. At the outset the patient falls to the ground unconscious with his muscles in a state of spasm. The lack of any respiratory movement results in a bluish discoloration of the skin and pips (cyanosis). This – the tonic phase – is replaced by convulsive movements, when the tongue may be bitten and urinary incontinence may occur (the clonic phase). Movements die away and the patient may rouse in a state of confusion, cp0lkaining of headache or he may fall asleep.
Petit Mal, a form of idiopathic epilepsy in which there are brief spells of unconsciousness, lasting for a few seconds, during which posture and balance maintained. The eyes stare blankly and there may be fluttering movements of the of the lids and momentary twitching of the fingers and mouth.

A milder form of petit mal is the absence seizure, in which the patient loses awareness, staring into space (usually only for a few seconds); recovery is immediate. Patients can suffer from up to 100 absence attacks a day, and it easy to confuse absence seizures with simple absentmindedness.

It is clear from these descriptions that there is considerable scope for a religious interpretation of behaviour that may actually be epileptic: the grand mal fit with possession, or  behaviour during exorcism; and petit mal behaviour with religious trances or with the deep abstraction associated with prayer. There is also patent association between temporal lobe epilepsy and a range of spiritual  manifestations. These include mystic states, deeply-held religious beliefs, spontaneous and repeated conversion, and visions. Less devastating epilepsy has been associated with creativity.[2] The behavioural neurologist Geschwind catalogued the behaviour associated with moderate levels of temporal lobe epilepsy, noting hyper-graphia (a compulsive urge to write) and hyper-religiosity: ‘Geschwind Syndrome’ is a condition marked by a constellation of symptoms that include mutism, fainting (possibly petit mal attacks or absence seizures) and pedantism. The association between epilepsy, emotional arousal and hyper-religiosity was further investigated by Ramachandran, ‘to determine whether the hyper-religiosity seen in temporal lobe epilepsy was due to an overall enhanced emotional response, or if the enhancement was specific to religious stimuli.’[3]

Ramachandran measured the galvanic skin response of patients while exposing them to three categories of words: religious, sexually arousing, and neutral. In patients with epilepsy, the responses for religious words were heightened; for sexually arousing words they were diminished; and the response was normal for neutral words. Ramachandran’s results suggest that some of the association between religious imagery, vocabulary and symbolism on the one hand, and emotional reactions on the other, arises in the medial temporal lobe. If it is accepted, it is also reasonable to infer that abnormal temporal lobe states may be associated with heightened or unusual religious though or behaviour.

Ramachandran’s findings were supported by Dr. Buckman, who reviewed the neurological literature in this field. The close association between creativity, mysticism, and temporal lobe activity, seems established. Buckman found a connection between, the left temporal lobe and language and motor skills, and the right temporal lobe and the person’s perception of reality and of himself and herself’.[4]

This is what one would expect from the hyper-graphia associated with Geschwind’s syndrome. The findings were further borne out by comparative electroencephalograph (EEG) studies on healthy sleeping patients and patients with epilepsy. On the basis of the EEG studies, Buckman found that temporal lobe sensitivity created three categories of human mind: The state of the temporal lobe in group one was highly sensitive; prone to suffer from epilepsy; in group two it was above-average sensitivity, but less so than in group one; and in group three it was of average sensitivity and non-epileptic, though it is possible to simulate epileptic experiences when the temporal lobes are stimulated (e.g. by electrodes).

For many years ‘the father of English neurology’, Dr. Hughlings Jackson, studied the experiences of his epileptic patients, finding correlations with those of saints and mystics. Out-of-body experiences and hallucinations were common to groups one and occasionally in group two. (People belonging to the first group tended to be very creative and took part in artistic activities that demanded imagination.) Sensations during the prodromal state (see above) form well-recognised clusters ‘These may include any (or several) of the following: auditory hallucinations, déjà vu, visual hallucinations, experiencing strange smells, a feeling of peace, a sensation of profound and significant knowledge and a feeling of being outside one’s body.’[5]

Dr Wilder Penfield found, in a series of experiments in which the left temporal lobe was stimulated, that such stimulation,

…caused involuntary movements of different parts of the body… But when [Penfield] stimulated the temporal lobe on the right side, there was no movement of any part of the body. Instead the patients reported a wide variety of significant experiences, perceptions and/or feelings. The phenomena reported were basically the same as the auras accompanying temporal lobe seizures…feelings of great peace, of deep understanding, of consciousness of another being.[6]

Jynes’ explanation for the above findings is that the right brain generates both mystical and creative experiences; these are transmitted to the left brain, which fails to “own” them – i.e. recognise their origin in the unconscious - and so assumes that they originate from outside the body altogether. Where the left brain believes that the experiences come from depends on the culture, background and beliefs of the patient; until the nature of the unconscious began to be explored in the 20th century, and with regard to the religious mass psyche of the medieval era, attribution to God, or spirits, was common.

In comparison to the highly sensitive temporal lobes of people belonging to group one, electrode experiments reveal that members of group three could also experience similar ‘mystical’ feelings. Although they do not suffer from epilepsy, it is possible to replicate the experience of the disease by temporal lobe stimulation. This stimulation does not induce epileptic seizures (which, apart from anything else, would be dangerous and unethical) but many of their perceptions and their sensory experiences are similar to those described by mystics. When Persinger’s volunteers underwent stimulation of the temporal lobes:

[They reported] a feeling of peace, of serenity, of being one with nature and often of being in the presence of another being. Some people felt that they were near the presence of aliens. Others experienced deeply spiritual or religious feelings. Some reported that they were in the presence of god, and some heard his voice.[7]

Thus the conclusion can be reached that if an individual’s temporal lobe is stimulated, the resultant feelings infer God to simply be a state of mind.  Mystical and creative episodes are found in a wide range of people from all cultures, but those cultures will interpret them according to their own lights. In societies in which rational science and secularity are dominant, those episodes are likely to be seen in purely human and physical terms; more broadly, spirituality will be understood as part of humanity rather than an aspect or manifestation of divinity.

[1] Silberstein & Lipton, Headache and Epilepsy, pp.239-254.
[2] M. A. Persinger & K. Kakarec, Complex Partial Epileptic Signs as a Continuum from Normals to Epileptics, (Journal of Clinical Psychology 49, 1993).
[3] Ramachandran & Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain: Human Nature and the Architecture of the Mind, (London: Fourth Estate, 1998).
[4] Robert Buckman, Can We Be Good Without God? (Canada: Viking Books, 2000).
[5] Ibid. p.119.
[6] Ibid. p.112.
[7] Ibid. p.125.


  1. I had musicogenic epilepsy Icouldnot listen to the leadguitar in rock music imagine aworldwhere you have to run away frommusic in shopping centres or just walkinfg down the street where car radios blare music out loudley.Let metellyou this much religion is the last thing on your mind , you are exhausted you are wearyyou want sleep and lotsofit..True the temporal lobe gives out vague thoughtsof'oooh no not again' Because in a semi consciouss state I did notwantto be seen as a 'lunatic' because by this time the hallucinations are coming thick and fast. I'm cured now thank goodness for the 21st century and its cures.Nolonger do we associate madness with epilepsywhich is caused by scarring of the brain possibly by a forceps birth which drag the baby fromthe womb by gripping vicelike tothe temporal lobes located at each side of the head.So now you allknow my guilty secret I too was like jeanne d'arc but unlike this poor young woman I was born in the right centuryLets celebrate Joanes life and forget the horrible stigma of her illness


  3. I have written elsewhere on the web aboutthis illness I had it also.Couldn'tlisten guitar music had lots of dejavus Am now cured thanks to 21st century medicine/surgery