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Could an 'Ecstatic Seizure' Cause What Some Consider Religious Experiences?


"...after such a seizure you can have faith, belief, because it has some spiritual meaning."

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Anyone who has experienced a seizure or witnessed one would likely describe the event as terrifying, but this isn't the only kind of seizure.

brain Photo credit: Shutterstock

As New Scientist pointed out that Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian author, experienced an epileptic seizure he described as "a happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn't experienced it... I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe."

It is this kind of seizure, called an "ecstatic seizure," that some scientists are hoping to learn more about, thinking experiences of them are under reported. Not only that but they're wondering if these seizures might be the cause of what some have described as religious experiences.

"I think that they are probably underestimated," Fabienne Picard, a neurologist at the University Hospital in Switzerland, told New Scientist. "Because the emotions are so strong and strange, maybe they feel embarrassed to speak about them; maybe they think the doctor will find them mad."

New Scientist reported that this type of seizure is likely a "focal" seizure, which focuses the "electrical storm" going on inside the brain to a small area, allowing the person to retain consciousness. Generalized seizures are the type where the electrical discharges are more widespread over the brain and can lead to a loss of consciousness. Sometimes a focal seizure turns into a generalized one.

Picard has been working with epileptic patients to record more about their experiences of these ecstatic, focal seizures. In doing so, she has create three main categories of what patients feel during such a seizure: heightened self-awareness, physical well-being and positive emotions.

"The immense joy that fills me is above physical sensations. It is a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the 'All'," a 64-year-old patient said of the experience, according to New Scientist.

The research by Picard and others raise questions on if what some have described as religions experiences could actually be seizures, such as these.

"Some of my patients told me that although they are agnostic, they could understand that after such a seizure you can have faith, belief, because it has some spiritual meaning," Picard told New Scientist.

All in all, scientists are trying to learn more about the region of the brain where these feelings could be originating.

Picard's collaborative work and research out of other institutions might have traced them to the anterior insula, a region of the brain that scientists think is associated with consciousness.

As scientists research activity in this region of the brain as it relates to disorders like ecstatic epilepsy, they think they might be able to understand more about a person's self-awareness.

Read more details about the research into these seizures and the anterior insula region of the brain in New Scientist's full article.

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