Sunday, March 03, 2024

Fabienne Picard Responds to "Religious Experience in the Brain"

Dr. Fabienne Picard has sent me a message in response to my posts on the neurology of ecstatic epilepsy and religious experience.  She has given me permission to publish that message here.

Dr. Picard is an Associate Professor at the Medical School of Geneva, and she is a Senior Attending Physician in the Epilepsy Unit at the Department of Neurology, University Hospitals of Geneva, Switzerland.

Here is her statement.

I am happy you were interested in ecstatic epilepsy, but there are a few misunderstandings.

I totally agree that ecstatic epilepsy is not the only way to have spiritual/ecstatic/mystical/religious experiences.  I agree they are possible also through the normal functioning of the brain, for instance, in response to religious/meditation practices (probably through the letting go of all the system of predictions and anticipations forming the predictive coding system).

I have talked a lot with Buddhist experts who experienced the same ecstatic phenomena through meditation and a body scan session, so a functional alteration of brain functioning achieving the same state of clarity/revelation may occur.

There are people with ecstatic epilepsy reporting religious experiences.  I have not published all the cases I have collected up to now.  In my opinion, each person interprets the state in his way according to previous religious or non-religious beliefs/context.  Some people with ecstatic epilepsy told me that "if I was religious, I would have believed it was a meeting with God . . ."

Because of the ineffability, people try to find a way to describe it in a sense such that other people could have a vague idea of it, maybe they "embellish" with images or interpret with their beliefs.  Maybe the "light" descried by St. Paul was an image of the clarity he experienced, because there are no words to express the sudden mental clarity.  For St. Paul, we do not have descriptions of convulsive seizures (contrary to Dostoevsky, St. Theresa of Avila, Ramana Maharshi, Akbar, emperor of the Mughal Empire); so, I cannot affirm St. Paul had ecstatic epilepsy, but it remains a possibility.

The fact that all patients stimulated within the dorsal anterior insula did not experience an ecstatic phenomenon does not remove any credibility to what we found.  For primary cortices such as the primary motor cortex, each stimulation (in roughly the same region) in any patient gives rise to a movement.  Such complex cognitive states are not so easy to induce, probably some individuals are more prone to them, even when related to meditation or prayers or to the use of psychedelics (only 15-20% of people have mystical experience under psilocybin, so there should be some predisposition to have it or not).

Even for other symptoms, such as deja vu, the stimulation of the entorhinal cortex does give rise to these symptoms only in a certain percentage of people.  The important thing is that only the stimulation of the anterior insula gives rise to such experience, and not all the stimulations by other electrodes in other parts of the brain (in the 6 or 7 patients now with ecstatic epilepsy and the one without ecstatic epilepsy).

Regarding the descriptions of the 52 patients with ecstatic seizures, sometimes the descriptions lacked details (I really took time to let them describe more and more in detail), but the neurologists probably understood it was amazing for the patient.  My first patients, before taking time and explaining to me which extraordinary feelings they felt, only explained to the previous physicians that they had a warmth in the body or lightness rising in the head or like bubbles rising in the head . . . ! 

1 comment:

Tim said...

The demonic possessions depicted in a New Testament, the boy who threw himself into fire and water? My mom says I was exactly like that.

In 2008, the streets were empty and I had a seizure. I knew something was important, like Iike I was a messengger, so I ran through the street.I had to warn them. I had to warn everyone like Mohammed. Unlike Mohammed my conscience was not clear. I was scared to HELL. I was deluded and everyone relaxed when I was handcuffed to a stop sign.

"What a nutcase."

To the contrary!. I have never even apprioached that level if of intelletual function. It was like.... Years worth of thoughts organized in my brain in minutes and burned into my memory.

I became delusional, I was screaming in terror and everyone thought I was crazy. Nobody relaxed until they handcuffed me to a stop sign.

In the intervening 16 years I have proven to myself time and time those ideas That's a once in a lifetime gift my man.

I want to die with "Thank you" on my lios.