“I felt like it was almost like a doorway to different ideas that just wouldn't exist in my normal mental patterns. So, you know, alternative worlds, different planes of existence”
This is how, Lucinda Edwards, a patient of temporal lobe epilepsy describes the seizures she had. Another patient, John Sharon went running in the streets after he had a seizure, screaming, “I am God.” What is it about these seizures that gives these people unworldly experiences? Why do the people who get them, feel elated after the experience? Do they really become connected to something greater?
The temporal lobe is one of the four major lobes of the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that functions to make human beings unique. Thoughts, language, consciousness etc. all originate in the cerebral cortex. It is the outermost layer that we will see if we look at the human brain. The temporal lobe is located in the bottom-middle part of the cortex. This lobe is the location of the primary auditory cortex, which is important for interpreting sounds and the language we hear. The hippocampus– which plays an integral role in forming memories is also located in the temporal lobe.
Now let us answer what an epilepsy is:
The “Epilepsy Foundation” describes an epilepsy as a chronic disorder, the hallmark of which is recurrent, unprovoked seizures. A person is diagnosed with epilepsy if they have two unprovoked seizures (or one unprovoked seizure with the likelihood of more) that were not caused by some known and reversible medical condition like alcohol withdrawal or extremely low blood sugar. The cause of the seizure can be an injury or completely unknown. Other parts of the body may be affected as well but the electrical events that produce the symptoms occur in the brain. The onset of seizures in temporal lobe epilepsy is marked by hallucinations, auras or warnings and completely undecipherable thoughts and emotions. Patients with drug resistant medial temporal lobe epilepsy are at a higher risk of memory and mood difficulties
“There are two types of TLE. One involves the medial or internal structures of the temporal lobe; while the second, called neocortical temporal lobe epilepsy, involves the outer portion of the temporal lobe.”- Epilepsy Foundation
MRIs and EEGs (electroencephalogram) are the ways to diagnose TLE. Anti- seizure drugs are used to treat it but usually they are ineffective on about 1/3rd of the population thus, surgery is required. In individuals where the MRI shows hippocampal sclerosis in the medial temporal lobe and EEGs show abnormalities in that same area, seizures may be cured by surgery. If surgery is not possible devices such as vagus nerve stimulation or responsive neurostimulation may help.
We carry a typical image of seizures which is characterized by madness and unconsciousness. This is not always the case. Lucinda experienced a kaleidoscope of emotions characterized by philosophical sentiments and euphoria. TLE has become famous for causing mystical seizures.
“It has been known for a long time that some patients with seizures originating in the temporal lobes have intense religious auras, intense experience of God visiting them. Sometimes it's a personal god, sometimes it's a more diffuse feeling of being one with the cosmos. Everything seems suffused with meaning. The patient will say- Finally I see what it's really about, Doctor. I really understand God. I understand my place in the universe, in the cosmic scheme." - V.S. Ramachandran
Scientists till date do not have an answer as to why these seizures trigger philosophical and mystical emotions. Dr V.S. Ramachandran a leading neuroscientist established a clinical proof in the 1990s that temporal lobe epilepsy is indeed directly related to such experiences. The experiment he conducted was called “Galvanic Skin Response”. Galvanic refers to anything electrical. Basically, Ramachandran presented a stimuli (pictures) to TLE patients and measured their response (how much they sweated). What he noted was that violent scenes produced a big galvanic response, neutral pictures produced no response, sexually provocative pictures produced no response proving that libido is decreased in TLE. Pictures of religious symbols like “Cross of David” or a Cross produced a big jolt in response.
One possible reason why this happens is that the welling up of a myriad of emotions is interpreted by the patient as visits by a supreme being. A group of neurons is firing in a normal manner in the brain and that makes them more prone to religious belief. Dr Ramachandran reasons that the connection between the sensory areas in the temporal lobes and the amygdala, which is the gateway to the emotional centres in the brain plays a critical role here. The strength of these connections is what determines how emotionally relevant something is. Repeated seizures might strengthen these pathways, and so the patient starts finding everything, from a grain of sand to a vast landscape, deeply significant.
This does not mean that there is a part of the brain specialised for seeking religion. It is a possibility that certain activity in the brain might lead to such beliefs but this is just a hypothesis- there is no concrete evidence. The question that arises here is that why do we need a neural machinery to cater to religious beliefs. Scientists reason that this might be required for harmony and balance in society. All societies that evolved have had some form of worship. Believing in a supreme being makes things easier for human comprehension. Perhaps this is why such sentiments evolved. However nothing has been proved yet because scientists have to rely on brain injury to study the brain in detail thus making this field of research really hard.
Do the affected people actually become connected to the cosmos during the seizures? Is temporal lobe epilepsy what enabled ancient mystics to foretell the future through visions? How? Are religious sentiments indeed in-built in the human brain? Or is this something beyond human comprehension? This is still an unsolved mystery. Research is still going on in this field….
References: Nova Transcripts, Secrets of the Mind; Epilepsy Foundation