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From “Heaven is for neuroscience: How the brain creates visions of God”

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From “Heaven is for neuroscience: How the brain creates visions of God”, SUNDAY, MAY 11, 2014 (

Dostoyevsky almost certainly had temporal lobe epilepsy. (As mentioned, the temporal lobes sit behind your temples and wrap laterally around the brain, somewhat like earmuffs.) Not all temporal lobe epileptics thrash and foam, but many of them do experience a distinctive aura. Auras are sights, sounds, smells, or tingles that appear during the onset of seizures—a portent of worse things to come. Most epileptics experience auras of some sort, and most non–temporal lobe epileptics find them unpleasant: some unlucky folk smell burning feces, feel ants crawling beneath their skin, or pass horrendous gas. But for some reason—perhaps because the nearby limbic structures get revved up—auras that originate in the temporal lobes feel emotionally richer and often supernaturally charged. Some victims even feel their “souls” uniting with the godhead. (No wonder ancient doctors called epilepsy the sacred disease.) For his part, Dostoyevsky’s seizures were preceded by a rare “ecstatic aura” in which he felt a bliss so intense it ached. As he told a friend, “Such joy would be inconceivable in ordinary life . . . complete harmony in myself and in the whole world.” Afterward he felt shattered: bruised, depressed, haunted by thoughts of evil and guilt (familiar motifs in his fiction). But Dostoyevsky insisted the hardship was worth it: “For a few seconds of such bliss I would give ten or more years of my life, even my whole life.”

Temporal lobe epilepsy has transformed other people’s lives in a similar way. All human beings seem to have mental circuits that recognize certain things as sacred and predispose us to feeling a little spiritual. It’s just a feature of our brains (Richard Dawkins excepted, perhaps). But temporal lobe seizures seem to hypercharge these circuits, and they often leave victims intensely religious, as if God has personally tapped them as witnesses. Even if victims don’t become religious, their personalities often change in predictable ways. They become preoccupied with morality, often losing their sense of humor entirely. (Laugh lines are few and far between in Dostoyevsky.) They become “sticky” and “adhesive” in conversations, refusing to break them off despite pretty strong signs of boredom from the other party. And for whatever reason, many victims start writing compulsively. They might churn out page after page of doggerel or aphorisms, or even copy out song lyrics or food labels. The ones who visit heaven often chronicle their visions in excruciating detail.

Based on these symptoms, especially the rectitude and sudden spiritual awakening, modern doctors have retrodiagnosed certain religious icons as epileptics, including Saint Paul (the blinding light, the stupor near Damascus), Muhammad (the trips to heaven), and Joan of Arc (the visions, the sense of destiny). Swedenborg also fits the profile. He converted abruptly, he wrote like a methamphetamine addict (one book, “Arcana Coelestia,” runs to two million words), and he often shuddered and fell down senseless during visions. On occasion he even felt “angels” thrusting his tongue between his teeth as if to make him bite it off, a common danger during seizures.

At the same time there are problems with casting Swedenborg and other religious folk as epileptics. Most seizures last a few seconds or minutes, not the hours that some prophets spend immersed in trances. And because a temporal fit can paralyze the hippocampus, which helps form memories, many temporal lobe epileptics can’t remember their visions in much detail afterward. (Even Dostoyevsky lapsed into vague descriptions when recounting their actual content.) Also, while Swedenborg’s trances in particular blended sights, sounds, and smells into a heady, heavenly froth, most epileptics hallucinate with one sense only. Most damningly, most epileptic auras are tedious, producing the same refulgent light, the same chorus of voices, or the same ambrosial smells time and again.

So while epilepsy might well have induced their visions — the idea makes sense — it’s important to remember that Joan of Arc, Swedenborg, Saint Paul, and others also transcended their epilepsy. Probably no one but Joan would have rallied France, no one but Swedenborg would have imagined angels eating butter. As with any neurological tic, temporal lobe epilepsy doesn’t wipe someone’s mental slate clean. It simply molds and reshapes what’s already there.
Excerpted from “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery” by Sam Kean. 

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