Early in the history of this blog, I showed some disdain for some of my reductionist biologist brethren who in their frenzy to tie religion to brain impulses ascribed the visions of Mohammed and Joseph Smith to epilepsy.  The desire to reduce the entire unseen world into mechanisms, impulses, and a pile of biological functions drives some science worshippers to distraction.  In the comments, I commented on how rare these seizures really are, and I stand by that comment.  As a child neurologist, I don’t run into spiritual seizures.  However, In fairness, any child who feels a profound oneness with God during his seizures, likely does not have the vocabulary to express the wonder of their experience.  I may just have patients who have this experience who cannot express it.

      While the experience is rare, it is not unique.  There are many who have described these spiritual seizures.  Perhaps the most verbal and most eloquent description comes from the great Russian author and epileptic, Fyodor Dostoevsky.  

” For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception.  I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life.

I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me.  I really attained god and was imbued with him.  All of you healthy people don’t even suspect  what happiness is , that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack.”

  In fact, Dostoevsky himself stated the belief that Mohammed in his great vision of God must have had epilepsy because he recognized the experience.  Curiously, though he knew and recognized this event as a seizure, It did absolutely nothing to cast doubt on the singular spiritual reality of his experience.  Even though the seizure was an event happening within his brain, he was convinced that it was a physical event within his brain that gave him a very priveleged glimpse of the face of God.  Far from throwing doubt on God’s existence, this experience drove him forward in the face of all kinds of obstacles, trials and discouragement.  This siezure formed the absolute foundation of his faith.

     The folly of discounting subjective experience with a materialist explanation is that the impulses in the brain simply do not mean that what we are sensing from those impulses is in any way not real.  It would be silly to say that because you measure visual impulses in the occipital lobe as you look at an apple, olfactory impulses as you smell it, gustatory impulses as you taste it, that therefore the apple did not exist.  Similarly, Dostoevsky saw the ecstatic and profound euphoria he experienced preceding his siezures as an inborn gift that put him in touch with a higher truth that people cannot ordinarily experience. 

  Working in this same vein, the 1996 movie Phenomenon features John Travolta as George Malley, an ordinary man who develops a brain tumor that enhances and supplements his brain function rather than destroying it as an ordinary tumor would.   A neurosurgeon sees an opportunity to advance scientific knowledge by operation on his tumor in order to learn about brain function in a way that had never been done before, calling himself George’s “biographer” in a sense.  George then point out that ” that isn’t me, it’s just my brain.”   

 

   The real challenge for any of us when we come to any profound experience or realization is to embrace it, to share it and to help others experience it as well.  What the fictional George had to offer was a glimpse of what was inside each of us, our true human potential.  While the story is fictional, the moral rings true.  We are more than our synapses and neuronal impulses.  These represent sensations, ideas, inferences and experiences of something more, something real and powerful, something central to our humanity. 

   So when an atheist lazily discounts religious experience and accounts of the divine as simply seizures, he is missing the point.  He is buying into an all to prevalent attitude that sees brokenness or dysfunction where true beauty and mystery might lie.   This theme is masterfully explored by author Mark Salzman, in his book, Lying Awake.   Based on a true story, he recounts the story of a Carmelite Nun who experiences the very seizures Dostoevsky describes, which drive her lifes choices to enter the sisterhood.  Over time these ecstatic visions are accompanied by a more and more severe headache, leading to the discovery that seizures are behind her experience with the divine.  The Nun is then given a heartbreaking choice, have her temporal lobe lesion removed surgically and cure her headache, losing a profound connection with God in the process, or to keep the connection, knowing her headaches may grow worse, and the episodes may eventually debilitate her.  Salzman makes a very strong case for the counterintuitive, that one could very reasonably choose to keep their seizures, seeing them as key to their sense of self identity and happiness.  That to lose her seizures would be to lose something wonderful and amazing.  Doubtless the New Atheist crowd would be stupefied at such a crazy idea.  Perhaps because they have already severed this profoundly human connection and experience from themselves, leaving them the poorer for it.

 

I stumbled upon this and couldn’t resist posting. Enjoy!

I am having trouble staying silent on the current loud and rowdy health reform argument (I haven’t really seen much debate), then again, I haven’t been silent.  Here is a repost of my position, first published in February 2008, layed out as clearly as I can make it.

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     For over 20 years our country and its undying commitment to capitalism have tried desperately to slow mushrooming healthcare costs, and failed miserably. HMOs, Capitation, things that business was confident would succeed where those fiscally incompetent doctors failed, fell flat. Patients, it seems, did not tolerate their health and well-being treated as a business. I suppose business was part of the problem. After during WWII, with wages fixes and worker shortage, jobs starting sweetening benefits with healthcare and insurance to compete. It turns out patients and workers really, really like this system. It removes us from feeling any of the pain in our wallets with doctor visits and poor health.

Speaking in strictly capitalist, business terms customers were going to receive services from physicians, while a third party, insurance companies and businesses footed the bill. This removes some of the natural checks on inflation of cost. The patient and the doctor can now gang up on the third party payer, making control of spending difficult. So as an economist, obviously we just need to restore the marketplace, right?

It really depends on how one envisions healthcare. I can’t see going to the doctor or hospital the same as shopping for a new SUV, or getting cable TV. Our health is a fundamentally different thing, central to our quality of life, our independence, even the pursuit of happiness. Is it something people deserve or something we buy, dependent on our resources and wealth?

Without question it is dependent on our wealth to some extent, because it is creating a very real drag on our economy. Businesses have been weighed down with the cost of healthcare to the point where even the most heartless capitalist is demanding that the government do something to fix this mess. We spend more on healthcare by far than any other nation in the world. In spite of this, we have huge inequities in care with a mushrooming population of “working poor.”

These are people who have jobs and contribute to society, eliminating their eligibility for medicaid, but don’t have access or resources to get health insurance, so they go without. These people do take themselves out of the equation. The price checks work, as they stop seeing the doctor, that is until their uncared for hypertension, diabetes, cancer, lands them straight in the hospital desperately ill, devouring resources. But hey, a recent study actually showed this saves us money. We should just let them shorten their lifespan right?

You could even go so far as to say they deserve it for not taking care of themselves. If they just ate right they wouldn’t get hypertension or diabetes, right? Problem is fat, sugar, processed food are very cheap. Fresh fruit, vegetables, unprocessed grains are not so cheap and take time to prepare, time that could be spent working away at your minimum wage job to make ends meet. No, I am afraid blaming the poor has become an American pastime, one I am deeply ashamed of.

I have witnessed it firsthand. In medical school, our catholic hospital often received “patient dumps” from another large private hospital. These were medicaid patients, the cost of their care being eaten by the hospital. Medicaid pays substantially less than the actual cost of healthcare with the thought being that Hospitals and Doctors can take the hit as doing their share of charity work. This being the real world, the cost is passed on to everyone else through inflated costs to cover losses caring for the poor. These losses would be very manageable if the poor were evenly distributed among us, and everyone took in their share. Alas, the poor are concentrated in the inner cities, the victims of family flight to the suburbs, or in rural areas where the resources are scarce. We now have laws outlawing patient dumping and ERs everywhere are becoming the primary health care clinic for the poor. ER physicians are frustrated, burnt out and cynical. Many of them blog about it. Many of them grow contemptuous of those they care for. It is sad really.

The president recently stated that we actually have universal health care in this country. He was referring to our “safety net”, government and community hospitals. In fact all hospitals are now required by law to take care of everyone who walks through their doors, regardless of ability to pay.

I have spent a good portion of my training in county and inner city hospitals and I have seen our safety net in action. I have watched as a hospital has closed, causing an overflow of the poor to other hospitals. When the poor arrive in too large of numbers, the old patients get spooked. They equate care for the poor with substandard care. They leave and take their insurance with them. The end result is that, indeed, care for the poor becomes substandard. Morale in these hospitals is exceedingly low. They go bankrupt, they cut staff and wages to make ends meet, they outsource, then they die. All the while, patients with money cause the suburban hospitals to thrive, explode, and expand. This is what it means to make healthcare a commodity. This will destroy our “safety net.” This is a crisis.

A main argument I have seen on other blogs against a single payer system is that people will expect more, waste more and everything will cost more. They state that patients won’t tolerate the rationing of healthcare that a single payer system will require. Governments won’t control the spending because it is politically harmful. I agree. I can tell you right now, patients don’t tolerate rationing. We have a tiered system with quality going to the highest bidder. This is capitalism, welcome to America, right?

I just can’t embrace it. My stomach has turned watching the market in action as hospitals are destroyed and the face of the poor ground upon. The resources available to medicine are not unlimited. We do have to face this. Personally I believe a single payer system would at least be a huge improvement over the fractured system we have now. You could tax business what they are paying for healthcare right now, eliminate all the duplication of beauracracy in insurance companies and with the money you save, put it toward real quality that benefits everyone, all without raising costs, which you could fix with inflation adjustments to force economic responsibility. Since we spend twice as much on healthcare as any other nation, we would have the best system in the world instead of the most wasteful.

Realistically you would still have two tiers. The Uber rich, I am sure, would feel they wanted something better and would pay out of pocket to doctors that would only be too happy to oblige. If they pay taxes and foot the entire bill, I suppose it is only fair. They would be a definite minority. The important thing is that healthcare would become a resource that we share.

There is a certain basic concept that we are beginning to forget in our society, the concept of common wealth. Way back in the days of print media, communities would pool their resources to build a collection of books we call a library. This was because information and education was felt to be mutually beneficial if shared. The poor can only benefit from learning. We all can gain more as a group, enriching the whole, than any of us can individually. This is a way the group can protect resources from individuals who would devour or horde them. It turns out that together we have much more than any of us could ever hope to acquire individually. This is the thinking behind public museums, national parks. These are something different than commodities. They are actual sources of well being. This is our true wealth, and it is shared.

The common wealth of America are habitats, ecosystems, languages, cultures, science, technology, schools, social and political systems, democracy. These are things often so basic we sometimes forget how much we have. They are things we all value together and are well worth fighting for. So is medicine a right, or a commodity dependant on resources and wealth? My answer has to be an unqualified yes, it’s both.

I believe, sincerely in the depths of my soul, our commonwealth has to include medicine. We need to protect it, not exploit it. I doubt any of us could calculate what exactly any of these things would cost on the open market. I think it is safe to say that taken together our common wealth’s value exceeds all we could ever own privately.

This is why collectively, we need to move to protect healthcare and medicine and distribute it among ourselves equally. Yes this means placing some trust in the government, which after all represents all of us. I am just enough of a hopeless optimist to suggest this is something we must fight for. In the end, I have to come down believing health care is a right, inextricably tied with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I leave you with this closing thought about what I believe society should and can be.

“We need to speak up, to say boldly why we fight for good schools, why we build houses for the homeless, why we protect open space, why we look after the ailing and the elderly, why we pay taxes without grumbling, why we honor government as a force for public good. In a society obsessed with competition, we need to say why we practice cooperation. In a culture addicted to instant gratification, we need to champion long-term healing and the welfare of coming generations.”

-Scott Russell Sanders

  All good things must come to an end.  I am in the midst of some major life changes right now, and have found my time and energy for blogging have vanished.  I have enjoyed pouring my soul out into the internet the past year and a half, but my schedule has become such that I am having to phase out my posting and blog maintenance.  I don’t know if this will change after we move,  or if the blogging bug will get me again, but for now this blog is on indefinite hiatus.  I just wanted to let my legions of faithful readers know (both of you!)

agony

   Witnessing a seizure is a very frightening experience.  Parents who witness seizures in children fear for their child’s life.  It is extremely traumatic.  Even now, as a trained professional, knowing all the steps I could ever need to take care of the problem, I will feel my heart rate climb with a knot in my stomach as adrenaline starts to flood my system to this day.

      So it’s not surprising that in the past, seizures were thought to be caused by demonic possession.  Many an epileptic in the middle ages were treated with exorcism.

Matthew 17:15- "Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he afalleth into the fire, and oft into the water."

Matthew 17:15- "Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he afalleth into the fire, and oft into the water."

Read the rest of this entry »

Back in the day, I posted a video by a wacky group of harmonizing nurse anesthetists going by the name of the Laryngospasms.  Here is another of their fabulous repertoir, lamenting the pain of coming out of anesthesia.  Enjoy, as they report to patients everywhere, that waking up is hard to do.

from Doonesbury, by Gary Trudeau

from Doonesbury, by Gary Trudeau

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