Mystics throughout history have claimed to experience visions and trance-like states they say come directly from God. There’s now speculation that these visions may have been hallucinations brought on by epilepsy. Jess Hill writes about her own experiences, and speaks to others who say their seizures come in the form of intensely mystical experiences.
This article and radio podcast originally appeared on ABC Australia Encounter
Normally when we think of epileptic seizures, we think of someone convulsing and losing consciousness. But that’s just one type of seizure—and it’s not even the most common kind. There’s a whole other category of seizures, known as partial seizures, that can cause a kaleidoscope of symptoms, from the sense of oneness, through to déjà vu, complex hallucinations and feelings of fear, depression, and euphoria. Often, these seizures don’t involve any convulsions at all. In some epileptics, a seizure can even invoke the presence of God.
Lucinda [a 31 year old lawyer who lives in Pymble, on Sydney’s north shore] had temporal lobe epilepsy1.
That’s a term you come across a lot when you Google ‘weird seizure experiences’. It [temporal lobe epilepsy] refers to epilepsy that originates in the temporal lobes, the parts of brain on either side of our head, behind our ears. When one or both of the temporal lobes seize, millions of misfiring neurons can wreak havoc on functions like memory, emotional responses, speech, processing sounds and smells—even our feelings of conviction and insight.
This may go some of the way to explaining why temporal lobe epilepsy has become famous for causing mystical or religious seizures.
‘The most striking aspect of these people is that not only during the seizures, but “interictally”— between the seizures—they have tremendous religious experiences and mystical experiences,’ says VS Ramachandran, a renowned Indian neuroscientist who became obsessed with temporal lobe epilepsy in the 1990s.
‘They say things like, “during the seizure, I experience God—I see the meaning of the universe, the true meaning of the universe, for the first time in my life. I understand my place in the cosmic scheme of things.” That’s what they say. Sometimes they’ll actually say, “I’m talking to God”, or “God is talking to me”.’
God didn’t speak to Lucinda—or at least, she doesn’t see it that way—but her seizures are straight out of the mystical visions handbook. I asked her to imagine that she’d been brought up religious.
‘I think it would have been 100 per cent different,’ she says. ‘I probably would have seen it as a sign from God, because it was unlike anything I’d experienced before.’
Why would temporal lobe seizures2 create a sense of universal oneness, of utter contentment, even a sense of God?
Listen to the podcast God in a seizure Encounter ABC Radio
1 A typical story: “I get the strangest feeling—most of it can’t be put into words. The whole world suddenly seems more real at first. It’s as though everything becomes crystal clear. Then I feel as if I’m here but not here, kind of like being in a dream. It’s as if I’ve lived through this exact moment many times before. I hear what people say, but they don’t make sense. I know not to talk during the episode, since I just say foolish things. Sometimes I think I’m talking but later people tell me that I didn’t say anything. The whole thing lasts a minute or two.” —Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Epilepsy Foundation
2 Temporal Lobe Seizure, Mayo Clinic–definition, symptoms, medical care