Researchers and physicians have long recognized temporal lobe epilepsy as an unusual condition. Rather than causing the motor seizures that many associate with epilepsy, temporal lobe epilepsy is different. The condition induces a hyper-religious experience, and has been suggested as the cause of the visions experienced by historical figures such as Joan of Arc and the Russian author, Dostoevsky.
These seizures produce emotions of such overwhelming intensity that they are sometimes referred to as ecstatic.
A recent study sheds additional light on this little-understood brain disorder and may help to explain how it works. The report, “‘God has sent me to you’: Right temporal epilepsy, left prefrontal psychosis,“ appeared in an early online version of the July 2016 issue of Epilepsy & Behavior.
The scientists, including Shahar Arzy and Roey Schurr of the Neuropsychiatry Lab in the Department of Neurology at Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center, Jerusalem, were able to study a patient with epilepsy while having seizures. They used what is known as continuous video-EEG (electroencephalograms) to examine patterns of brain activity during the epileptic episode. After the seizure the patient experienced religious revelations and psychosis.
They found that although the original seizures formed in the temporal lobe, the religious experiences and psychosis appeared to result later, during a period in which there was activity in a different brain region–the left prefrontal lobe. This area has several important functions, including in the control of language and memory, goal-directed behavior, and happiness.
In their published report, the authors stated, “The brain generator underlying this activity was localized to the left prefrontal cortex. This suggests that religious conversion in PIP is related to control mechanisms in the prefrontal lobe-related processes rather than medial temporal lobe-related processes.”
Temporal lobe seizures may initiate a process of activity in the left frontal lobe, particularly since the two regions are highly connected. The unusual visions and experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy may actually be a result of prefrontal lobe stimulation. The study provided a unique opportunity to view brain function in real time.
Further investigation of additional individuals with epilepsy could help add to the knowledge of temporal lobe epilepsy and how it causes religious experiences.