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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.

 

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They Might be Giants is a very unique Rock duo with a flair for the educational.  One of my favorites as a teen, my kids now love them too.  Here is their catchy rundown of the many functions of the juice flowing through our veins.  Enjoy!

I found this wonderful live action video of white blood cells at work, showing the neutrophil, one of the most common  cells in the immune system, (though if I’m not mistaken it looks more like a macrophage, but I’m no pathologist) , on the prowl hunting down the bacteria, set brilliantly to music, Perfect for Biology geeks everywhere.  Enjoy!

 

   Way back in the 1940s Jerome Kagan performed a classic study on personality in which he formed a core concept that rooted at least part of the mind in biology.  This was an incredible breakthrough in understanding that certain perceptions and reactions can be rooted in inherited traits.  What Dr. Kagan did was observe a bunch of children as eight month old infants. Read the rest of this entry »

And we’re back.  With this blog now in its second year, I am resetting the counter for points of interest, my irregularly irregular romp through all things mind, body and soul on the internets.  I waited on this oune until the weekend when I have usually put these out and as such had too many great posts to include.  Sheesh, slow down bloggers.  If only my muse were so kind.  Anyway, without further delay, I present the best I could find- Read the rest of this entry »

 

    Di at Doctor and Covenants pointed me to this story, where a brain surgeon was operating to remove a mass from a patient and and ended up finding a foot.  The story states that this is either a rare type of tumor called a teratoma or is it a rare case of a twin that remained attached to the patients and was totally enveloped into the skull, a condition called fetus in fetu.

         The image is striking, and gives a certain visceral reaction, which is largely why pictures like this make their rounds on the internet.  Read the rest of this entry »

The long awaited end to the hiatus is here, at least temporarily.  I break it in the way you may have come to expect, by sharing all the stuff I would have written myself, if only I were bright and talented enough with lots more free time.  So I present, especially for my faithful readers, both of you, the very best of the internet I could find over the past while or so Read the rest of this entry »

Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor his own brain“.
             Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934)
                             Spanish Neuroscientist

  Life is distinguished from the inanimate by its ability to recreate itself and hold a pattern.  Throughout our lives, The very material we are made up of is recycled or regenerated.  Every few weeks we completely change out the cells that compose our skin.   The body is constantly in a state of regenerating itself.  Even the bones are borrowing or depositing calcium throughout our lives.  The machinery of our cells are constantly disposing of waste, replacing damaged portions, killing cells that are old or dysfunctional and making new ones.  All this processes are kept in order by our genetic information.  In essence the only thing that holds our form and keeps it from weathering away and degenerating is our DNA.  This is the master set of instructions that our cells use to replace, rebuild, and develop us into the body we now have.  It is the ultimate difference between the collection of elements that is us, and a rock.

     However, there is much more to what we are than just the DNA blueprints.  I remember a moment at the beginning of my very first year of medical school that really brought this home to me.  In anatomy we had to memorize every crater, every bump, every nodule, line and crevice in every bone in the body.  As we learned about these landmarks, we learned that they form not as part of some genetic program, but as a reaction to stress forces from pulling tendons and ligaments, triggering a reaction that caused the cells in that part of the bone to duplicate and reinforce the bone as needed.  In other words, our actions determine the shape of our bones every bit as much as our genes.

Read the rest of this entry »

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