Transcendent Experience and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy
by Clifford Pickover
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1999—Temporal lobe epilepsy has often been linked to a variety of transcendent experiences: ecstatic communion with the divine, epiphanies of artistic creation, fearful encounters with alien beings. Clifford Pickover examines some of the implications of current research now shedding light on the terrors and wonders of this mysterious disease.
Treading the Labyrinth
"With TLE, I see things slightly different than before. I have visions and images that normal people don’t have. Some of my seizures are like entering another dimension, the closest to religious or spiritual feelings I’ve ever had. Epilepsy has given me a rare vision and insight into myself, and sometimes beyond myself, and it has played to my creative side. Without TLE, I would not have begun to sculpt."
This testimony comes from a woman who suffers from — and, obviously, often exults in — temporal lobe epilepsy. This condition (TLE, for short), is caused by unusual electrical activity in the brain’s temporal lobes A significant proportion of people with TLE report that their seizures often bring on extraordinary experiences of transcendent wonder, luminous insight — or, at times, harrowing, uncanny fear.
Take, for example, the numerous reported cases of "alien abduction." TLE researcher Eve LaPlante has noted that many abductees feel mild, epileptic-like symptoms just before they are "captured." Some abductees feel heat on one side of their faces, hear a ringing in their ears, and see flashes of light prior to an abduction. Others report a cessation of sound and feeling, or an overwhelming feeling of apprehension. All of this is typical of certain kinds of epileptic seizures. In fact, LaPlante suggests that the most famous abductee of our time, best-selling author Whitley Strieber, suffers from TLE.
In 1987, Strieber wrote the book Communion which described his abduction by 3 1/2 foot aliens with two dark holes for eyes. In his account, Strieber exhibits various symptoms of TLE: jamais vu (the feeling of never having been in what should be a familiar place — the opposite of deja vu); formication (feeling bugs crawling under the skin); vivid smells, hallucinations, rapid heartbeats, the sensation of rising and falling, and partial amnesia. Magnetic resonance imaging of Strieber’s brain has revealed "occasional punctate foci of high signal intensity" in his left temporoparietal region, which is suggestive of scarring that could lead to TLE.
Such alien abduction stories can tell us about the workings of the mind. Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, found that people with frequent bursts of electrical activity in their temporal lobes report sensations of flying, floating, or leaving the body, as well as other mystical experiences. By applying magnetic fields to the brain, he can also induce odd mental experiences — possibly caused by bursts of neuron firing in the temporal lobes. For example, he has made people feel as if two alien hands grabbed their shoulders and distorted their legs when he applied magnetic fields to their brains.
Our modern fasicnation with other such phenomena, such as ESP, past-life regression, and out-of-the-body experiences, may also be the result of mild, undiagnosed TLE. It’s a fertile field, awaiting more research to bring such mysteries out of the realm of the "paranormal" and into the fascinating labyrinth of the brain.
Fear and Trembling
Has TLE changed the course of civilization? LaPlante and many other TLE experts speculate that the mystical religious experiences of some of the great prophets were induced by TLE — because the historical writings describe classic TLE symptoms. The religious prophets most often thought to have had epilepsy are Mohammad, Moses, and St. Paul. Dostoevsky, another famous epileptic whose works are filled with ecstatic visions of universal love (and terrible nightmares of uncanny fear and radical evil), thought it was obvious that Mohammad’s visions of God were triggered by epilepsy. "Mohammad assures us in this Koran that he had seen Paradise," Doestevsky notes. "He did not lie. He had indeed been in Paradise — during an attack of epilepsy, from which he suffered, as I do."
When Mohammad first had his visions of God, he felt oppressed, smothered, as if his breath were being squeezed from his chest. Later he heard a voice calling his name, but when he turned to find the source of the voice, no one was there. The local Christians, Jews, and Arabs called him insane. When he was five years old, he told his foster parents, "Two men in white raiment came and threw me down and opened up my belly and searched inside for I don’t know what." This description is startling similar to the alien abduction experience described by people with TLE.
Note that the overriding emotion experienced by Mohammed, Moses and St. Paul during their religious visions was not one of rapture and joy but rather of fear. When Moses heard the voice of God from a burning bush, he hid his face and was frightened. Luke and Paul both agreed that Paul suffered from an unknown "illness" or "bodily weakness" which he called his "thorn in the flesh." Many biblical commentators have attributed this to either migraine headaches or epilepsy. Paul did once have malaria, which involves a high fever that can damage the brain. Other psychologists have noted that likely TLE sufferers such as Moses, Flaubert, Saint Paul, and Dostevesky were also famous for their rages.
However, psychologist William James has argued that religious states are not less profound simply because they can be induced by mental anomalies:
"Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensitivity liable to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often, moreover, these pathological features have helped to give them their religious authority and influence. To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value is quite illogical and arbitrary. [Because if that were the case], none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of the possessor’s body at the time. Saint Paul certainly once had an epileptoid, if not an epileptic, seizure, but there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic processes as its condition."
More recently, several TLE nuns have provided further evidence for an epileptic root of many mystical religious experiences. For example, one former nun "apprehended" God in TLE seizures and described the experience:
"Suddenly everything comes together in a moment — everything adds up, and you’re flooded with a sense of joy, and you’re just about to grasp it, and then you lose it and you crawl into an attack. It’s easy to see how, in a prescientific age, an epileptic or any temporal lobe fringe experience like that could be thought to be God Himself."
Even the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel had a TLE-like vision reminiscent of modern UFO reports — the famous, fearsome Ma’aseh Merkabah, the Vision of the Chariot:
"And I looked, and behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire enfolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire.... Also out of the midst thereof, came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance, they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like the color of burnished brass."
The Light of the Storm
LaPlante is just one of a growing number of writers and researchers delving into TLE-induced religious experiences. For example, Professor Michael Persinger from Ontario does research on the neurophysiology of religious feelings, and believes that spiritual experiences come from altered electrical activity in the brain. David Bear from Harvard Medical School believes that "a temporal lobe focus in superior individuals (like van Gogh, Dostoevsky, Mohammad, Saint Paul and Moses) may spark an extraordinary search for the entity we alternatively call truth or beauty." Religion, then, is sometimes our interpretation of altered temporolimbic electrical activity. This is not to demean the mystical experience, because TLE personalities have obviously accomplished great things, whose depth and meaning have radiated far beyond the electric storms of a single cranium.
LaPlante, in her book Seized, aptly sums up the growing evidence linking TLE and creativity:
"Hidden or diagnosed, admitted or unknown, the mental states that occur in TLE seizures are more than simply neurological symptoms. In people like Tennyson, Saint Paul, and van Gogh these states may have provided material for religion and art. People with TLE, whether or not they know the physiological cause of their seizures, often incorporate their symptoms into poems, stories and myths. And the disorder does more than provide the stuff of religious experience and creative work. TLE is associated with personality change even when seizures are not occurring; it amplifies the very traits that draw people to religion and art."
Clifford Pickover received his Ph.D. from Yale University’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. His most recent book is Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen. His web site covering these and many other scientific topics can be found at: www.pickover.com.
Jamison, K. (1995) Manic-depressive illness and creativity. Scientific American, February. 272(2): 62-67.
LaPlante, E. (1993) Seized. HarperCollins: New York.
Mack, J. (1995) Abduction. (Revised Edition). Ballantine: New York.
Pickover, C. (1999) Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen. Quill: New York.
Pickover, C. (1997) The Loom of God. Plenum: New York.
Strieber, W. (1987) Communion. Avon: New York.