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Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Delusions of God

November 24, 2008

A few years ago I watched a BBC-documentary named ‘Phantoms in the Brain’ (The full documentary may be found here – Part 1 and Part2). The documentary based on the book by the same name, is a fascinating study on the capabilities of the human brain, mainly its ability for self-deception and the delusions it can produce in humans without us being aware of it. In this documentary, narrated by the author of the book V Ramachandran, some bizarre cases are explored and attempts made, to try and answer questions about our consciousness and the idea of “self” from the perspective of neuroscience.

Some fo the fascinating cases discussed are

  • The Man who can feel his amputated arm.
  • The Blind person who can see.
  • The man who reaches out into the mirror to grab objects and the lady who thinks her left arm belongs to her husband.
  • The person who cannot recognize simple objects or faces
  • The guy who cannot recognize his parents and thinks they are impostors.

But, to me, the most curious of the cases is that of a man suffering from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy(TLE). This gentleman, due to the damage to his temporal lobes, was suffering from seizures. However, after his seizures calmed down he would feel an extraordinary significance in everything he observed. He felt some sort of a oneness with nature and sometimes claimed of being omnipotent, of being God himself. I found the experiences of this person eerily familiar to the religious experiences claimed by our prophets. Here are the videos for this fascinating case which may give us insights into religious beliefs of people and claims by people of actually seeing God.

 Part 1

 

Part 2 (this video ends abruptly but the last minute or so can be found in part2 of the full documentary above)

 

The video was eye-opening for me and I felt empathy towards the suffering of this guy. At one point he even says – …” I am so right in my head …i can just go out there and have people to follow me…the new generations of prophets..” After watching this documentary, I had a hunch – could many our prophets who have had similar experiences been afflicted by TLE?  One article by Dr. Ali Sina at faithfreedom international questions whether prophet Mohammed suffered from TLE. When I was devout theist, I used to read books on Ramakrishna Parahamsa and wondered why his followers claimed his epileptic fits as samadhi . Is it possible that Ramakrishna also suffered from TLE or was really a tantric trance? In autobiography of a Yogi, Swami Yogananda also makes similar claims about having visions (or what I would call delusions) and claims seeing his master/guru after his death. How about all the other prophets who made similar claims. Could they be TLE patients also?

 

When I was in undergrad, I remember distinctly, about meeting a young man at a religious gathering, who claimed of seeing Gods and human spirits around the house. This guy also had epileptic fits and at that time I wasn’t sure what it was. His mother would narrate stories of his running away from home to meditate in the woods and he claimed that on more than one occasion Lord Krishna/Vishnu visited him and blessed him. He was so convinced that Krishna visited him, that when his parents berated him for having delusions, he charged back at his parents and became livid with anger. I could see in his eyes and demeanor that he actually believed that he has seen God. He was absolutely convinced about it and wanted to spend his entire life in meditation. Different people opined that either he was mad or he was truly a prophet, with majority believing his stories about his visions of Krishna.  At that time I found the guy’s experinces strange but now having learnt about the brain and it’s capability of creating mischief, I understand his experiences a little better. Even until a century ago, when medical science was not so advanced, such experiences were called “God experience”, but now that we have a better understanding of the brain, can we still claim with conviction that these are ‘god experiences’ and not some neurological disorder ?

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2008 4:30 pm

    This is a very nice topic. Such experiences can be induced not just by dis-orders but also by drugs like LSD and psychedelic mushrooms. I remember reading “Living with the Himalayan Masters” in which Swami Rama has a chapter about his experiences of taking the psychedelic mushrooms. I brushed it away and didn’t pay any attention when I believed in supernatural trance states. Now I know that such beliefs will only stop us from exploring the reality. Bringing up the issue of mushrooms or epileptic seizures of Ramakrishna Paramahansa just upsets all the believers to the point of getting accused of “western” bias. It would have upset me also when I didn’t question these things.
    Somehow I have made that transition now. Discussion of the topic seems fair & natural to me!!

    • tushar permalink
      October 6, 2012 4:41 am

      The same thing came to my mind sir/mam but then i recalled the story in which vivekananda also saw maa kali. Now how a person suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy can induce disorder in a healthy mind ?(please dont say that vivekananda was mentally challenged or sick)

  2. nitwitnastik permalink*
    November 30, 2008 9:26 am

    Yep, I agree..such trance states can be induced by external stimulus…It may be possible that such trance states can be achieved though meditation..but for belivers to claim that such states can be achieved ONLY through meditation is ridiculous…and if being rational means being accused of “western bias”..so be it..now that we have medical science on our side we have better tools to explore such claims than blindly believing them to be samadhi..

  3. Badz permalink
    May 17, 2009 9:46 am

    Thanks NN. It explains a lot. I’ve got exam tomorrow so not got time to write in detail what I think BUT I will get back to it as soon as I get a chance.

    • nitwitnastik permalink*
      May 17, 2009 6:41 pm

      You are welcome Badz. All the best for your exams.

  4. August 30, 2009 1:57 pm

    How long have you been blogging…your good at it.

    • December 4, 2012 5:25 pm

      How can you get Help or More People to Understand or Reconise “Epilepsy & God” ?? most doctors say they’ve never even heard of it…!!

  5. frank permalink
    August 19, 2010 3:31 am

    It took me quite a few years to track down a name for the experience. Thirty years later it is still as relevant and life changing as it was at the time. My take on it now is that a TLE experience is a temporary cessation of identification with the conditioned self.

    Stripped of a personal construct that obsesses with trivia there was a spaciousness and peace that was overwhelming. It started with, what appeared to be ripples in the air, they moved as waves towards me as I lay on the lounge room floor. The bliss was overwhelming, everything that I could possible want to know seemed to be immediately apparent and obvious. I was shaking, I could feel these air waves pouring through me. A piece of music playing in the background seemed to take forever between the notes and still the waves crashed upon me. Tears filled my eyes, I writhed in exquisite bliss and union with everything. For a moment I reappeared just to experience a moment of angst as it occurred to me that I could be locked here in eternity . A universe filled anything that I might have previously considered to be me.
    The after shocks continued for months, I was convinced that I was ‘god’ or at least the universe that seeks expression through man had achieved its highest aims. I glowed at everyone for weeks, unable or inclined to tell anyone what had happened.

    My life changed for the better…for every. Its great to hear others reporting such insights into our capacities as homo sapiens.

    best wishes

    Frank

  6. kym permalink
    January 25, 2014 9:27 am

    This is presumptuous. Einstein visualized riding a beam of light and later proved what he realized at that moment was true. Or maybe it was epilepsy. Come on. There is so much we don’t yet know about such a vast universe, unseen places where black matter abides, to try to reduce every human experience to the word epilepsy is just too reductionist. some people would rather have any explanation than live with uncertainty.

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