Religion and Art:

Cultural Ramifications of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

     Besides the standard symptoms of seizures and the alterations of visual perception, temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) is distinguished among the different forms of epilepsy by its association with some of the most profound experiences in human history. Many important historical figures in our past suffered from neurological disorders that went undiagnosed or misdiagnosed because their disorders were not even named, much less understood, at the time. Since the symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy were defined many historians and neuroscientists have theorized about various historical figures and what role TLE may have played in shaping their lives and our culture. Much of the speculation about how this disorder affected these important figures in human history is based on how the symptoms of epilepsy affected their behavior.

     Many individuals with temporal epilepsy report experiences directly preceding their epelaptic fits, known as "auras." These auras vary from "crude warnings," which tell the individual that they are about to have a seizure, to "elaborate mental states," which include more complex symptoms and can change the perceptions of that individual. Auras vary widely from individual to individual, but they often contain common elements including (Taylor, 1987):

    • hypergraphia (excessive, compulsive writing or drawing)
    • deja/jamais vu (the sensations of seeing something new and feeling like you have seen it before, or seeing something familiar and feeling like it is the first time respectively)
    • deja/jamais entendu (same as the above, but hearing rather than seeing)
    • fear, euphoria, or other intense emotions
    • a sensation of sudden insight or revelation

     While all these symptoms are part of life, and exist in the normal population to varying degrees (Persinger, 1987), their combined presence in temporal lobe epilepsy could help us better understand the lives of several influential figures in history, as well as our selves and our society.


     One of the branches of neuroscience that has a lot of controversy associated with is neurotheology, or the neuroscience of religion and religious experiences. Many people feel that explaining such phenomena reduces their value or that it is disrespectful, but research into the field is not attempting to demean religion. Rather, the aim is to help us better understand the brain processes that makes up these remarkable experiences and is common to all of us. Temporal lobe epilepsy is strongly associated with radical spiritual events including visions of figures, vivid memories, auditory hallucinations, intense feelings of religious conviction, and in many cases conversion or return to specific faiths. In fact, many scientists and historians have speculated that St. Paul of Christianity might have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.

St. Paul

     In the book of the Acts in the bible, there are two separate descriptions of Paul's conversion: one is a third person narrativem, and one is a speech he gave when he was arrested in Jerusalem. Both are brief, they do not present a lot of evidence with which to diagnose him. However, the elements they do contain do support a TLE interpretation.

Electrodes in Brain
St. Paul's Conversion from Livre d'Heures d'√Čtienne Chevalier by Jean Fouquet
Image from

     Both passages describe Paul falling to the ground and experiencing a blinding light. Then he hears a voice claiming to be "Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting" (Acts of the Apostles 22:6-21 ). Afterwards he was unable to see, and he did not eat or drink for three days on his way to Damascus. Following this experience Paul became a devout follower and missionary of Christianity, exhibiting religious fervor and driving purpose.

      Auditory hallucinations of divine voices, visions of divine figures, and physical collapse are all common elements of TLE, and they are especially common in documented cases of sudden religious conversion in people with temporal lobe epilepsy. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul described another experience, in which he was "caught up to paradise and heard sacred secrets which no human lips can repeat." He also claimed that he was "given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to rack me" to prevent him from becoming too prideful about his "wealth of visions." This story gives two important indications that Paul might have suffered from TLE: there is confirmation that he had recurring, if not frequent visions, and he had an awareness or perception of some illness in himself.

     Obviously such speculation on important historical figures is fraught with implications. There is a danger of demeaning individual experience without producing anything of value in the process. That being said, the human experience is a shared experience, and the goal of neuroscience is to help us better understand each other and ourselves.


     Art is one of the most fundamental human behaviors, and on a fundamental level its goal is the same as neuroscience and religion: to offer interpretation and understanding of the world around us. There are entire branches of psychology that examine art, and in return there is art that emphasizes psychology. In 1992 the project From the Storm: Artists with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy gathered together artists who suffered from TLE in an attempt to express what it meant to live with this disease. That show unfortunately is no longer running, but for those who wonder what life looks like from the perspective of someone suffering from this disorder, one historic author offers a spectacular glimpse.


     Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment (among many other works), is considered by many to be one of the premier authors concerning abnormal psychology in literature - he was also a man in love with his epilepsy. Born in 1821 to an army surgeon, at the age of 18 Dostoevsky served briefly in the Russian military before dedicating himself to his writing. In 1849 Dostoevsky was accused, tried and convicted of treason and sentenced to death. However, while on the firing line waiting for his execution the tsar pardoned him. Ten years later, after spending more time in prison and more time in the military, he resumed writing. He continued to write for the rest of his life. Throughout out his adult life Dostoevsky suffered from grand mal seizures both at night and during the day, varying in frequency from 2 per day to one every 4 months.

Electrodes in Brain
A portrait of the young Dostoevsky
by Trutovsky Image courtesy of

     What was most unusual about Dostoevsky's epilepsy was it's ecstatic nature. He firmly asserted that his aura, the experience directly preceding his seizures, was so pleasurable that he would willingly exchange 10 years of his life for a few moments of such bliss. Dostoevsky's novel, The Idiot, centered around the character Prince Muishkin who also had epilepsy, and whom many scholars believe is autobiographical. Actually, four of Dostoevsky's twelve novels contained characters with epilepsy. In chapter 2, the prince describes the onset of an ecstatic seizure: "immediately preceding (his seizures), he had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up to vigour and light; when he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away for ever; these moments were but presentiments, as it were, of the one final moment... in which the fit came upon him."

     Dostoevsky's case raises many difficult questions about the negative connotation of disease, and on a larger scale the nature of happiness. One such question is raised by Dostoevsky himself in a later chapter in The Idiot:

"What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree--an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life?"

     Obviously such speculation on important historical figures has many implications. There is a danger of making their work and contributions seem less worthwhile and less important. The process of diminishing their experiences is not necessarily valuable. Such research and speculation should be considered with great caution. That being said, the human experience is a shared experience, and the goal of neuroscience is to help us better understand each other and ourselves. Understanding these and other historical figures from a perspective of neuroscience can help us attain this goal.


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