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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.
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.
The BBC has an Interesting Article on how the economic crisis is leading to an emotional crisis in many men in the face of trouble providing for their families. The report on a survey that found men are twice as likely currently to report having suicidal thoughts, half as likely to discuss their trouble with friends or family, and while experience mental health problems in roughly equal numbers with women, they go untreated far more often.
This is interesting to me for several reasons. The suffering goes on largely in silence. Men don’t use health care in general to the extent that women do and they absolutely don’t use mental health care to the same extent. Read the rest of this entry »
I cannot imagine anything harder than the suffering I see too many parents go through when their child has a fatal, progressive neurodegenerative disease. With the diagnosis they lose their child’s future just as suddenly and unexpectedly as if they were hit by a Mack Truck. However, instead of the process being over in any brief period of time, it is often drawn out over many years.
Leukodystrophies, Mitochondrial disorders, Inborn errors of metabolism, Rett Syndrome, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and a host of other heartbreaking diseases are a death sentence, only one that is indefinitely prolonged. In all these examples the child gradually loses abilities he or she once had. Read the rest of this entry »