Epilepsy Linked to Intense Religious and Spiritual Experiences, Like Seeing God

Seizures involve areas of the brain linked to religious and spiritual processes, Missouri University researchers found.

Nearly a year ago, scientists at Hadassah Hebrew Hospital in Jerusalem were carrying out tests on a 46-year-old man with temporal lobe epilepsy, when he began chanting prayers. He then got up and marched around the hospital, telling people, "God has sent me to you."

Readings from an electroencephalogram revealed a spike in activity in his left prefrontal cortex, which has been linked to religious experiences, just prior to the incident.

Indeed, epileptic patients have been known to report detailed religious experiences, and numerous studies on the topic suggest that spiritual processes can change with different neurological conditions.

This notion inspired researchers at Missouri University to dive deeper into the connection between epilepsy and heightened religious experience.

When a patient with epilepsy experiences increased electrical activity in the brain, or seizures, this could be associated with an increase in a range of behaviors, such as hyper-sexuality, hypergraphia (an intense desire to write), hyper-morality and hyper-religiosity, explained Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology at Missouri University and lead researcher on the study. These symptoms present the question: Are the hyper-religious experiences of epileptic patients related to specific religious experiences, or do they reflect increased emotionality observed with epilepsy?

"Our study sought to see if the religious experiences of persons with epilepsy reported on a measure of spirituality are related to measures of spirituality or philosophy on a measure of epilepsy-related behaviors or related to increased emotionality," Johnstone said.

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The researchers asked 19 individuals with epilepsy to take two surveys. The first survey assessed behavior characteristics specifically associated with epilepsy. The second survey measured religious activities and spiritual orientations.

The average participant was 39 years old, and the group's religions varied. About 32 percent identified as Protestant, 10 percent as Catholic, 5 percent as Buddhist, 5 percent as atheist, 38 percent as other, and 10 percent did not indicate a religious affiliation.

The study, which was just published in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture, suggests that a neurological relationship exists between religiosity and epilepsy. In particular, the researchers found a strong correlation with religious or philosophical thoughts and epilepsy, but no connection between emotional thinking and epilepsy.

"We found that spirituality is related to hyper-philosophy but not hyper-emotionality," Johnstone said. "This suggests that increased seizure activity stimulates parts of the brain that lead to increases in specific spiritually-based neuropsychological processes. In other words, there are certain parts of the brain associated with religious and spiritual processes."

Johnstone and his team next plan to evaluate spirituality in persons with neurosurgery for brain tumors or intractable seizures and will compare spirituality before and after surgery.

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