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Epilepsy and Near-Death Experiences
Summary: I argue that the appearance of NDE phenomena in temporal lobe seizures is the result of seizures spreading into brain areas that function in the human death-process. We also look at some reasons why some researchers try to explain NDE phenomena as simple epileptic phenomena.
This is intended as an informal essay. As a researcher in near death studies, a member of a University Neuroscience Group, and one who had pediatric temporal lobe epilepsy, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the relationship between near death experiences and epilepsy.
From when I was approximately 6 to10 years old, I had temporal lobe epilepsy. My seizures were unique in that much of the phenomena I experienced also occur in near death experiences. I suppose this is what later attracted me to the field. I experienced macropsia, in which one or two near death experiences have reported as a pre-mortem state. In macropsia, objects seem larger and farther away than usual. In order to see the objects, you must have your eyes open, and when I closed my eyes, something very compelling happened. I saw “the void”. In NDEs, the void occurs instead of “the tunnel”. I also had OBEs, and sometimes felt the presence of other beings.
All these phenomena also occur in NDEs. In fact, you might say that each of my seizures was a near death experience.
Because the temporal lobes have lower thresholds, and are easier to activate than other parts of the brain’s surface, temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) is confined to the temporal lobes. In other words, a temporal lobe seizure occurs only within the temporal lobes which act as a sort of cortical ‘sinkhole’. A temporal lobe seizure can recruit any structure within the temporal lobes. Dr. Michael Persinger has developed the idea that religious and mystic experiences, including NDEs, are manifestations of states of consciousness that are within normal, organic repertoire of human brain function (1). The implication is that our capacity for such experiences is part of our evolutionary heritage.
I believe these states of consciousness have a function – one that either contributes to our survival as a species now, or did so at one point in our evolutionary history. According to the principal that our experience, moment to moment, reflects the activity of specific areas in the brain, moment-to-moment, we are left with the conclusion that there is a specific neural basis for NDEs and their individual episodes. Belief in a postmortem sense of self and acceptance of the principle that mental forms follow neural function are not incompatible.
There are not just one, but several areas in the brain that contribute to NDEs. The OBE implicates one set of areas, the “being of Light” another, “The Tunnel” still another, and so forth. The areas whose stimulation has produced these experiences in laboratory settings are widely distributed through the brain, making it a simple supposition that the same areas are involved when an NDE produces the same phenomena.
I suggest that when one of the areas in the brain that functions at death, is recruited into a temporal lobe seizure, the content of that seizure will include phenomena that functions in the human death process, and which contributes (or once contributed) to our survival. It’s important to understand that the overwhelming majority of temporal lobe seizures have no spiritual content whatsoever, and are actually unpleasant. In fact, the most common temporal lobe seizural activity is lip-smacking.
The death-process is one organic context for mystic and religious experiences. Their occurrence in TLE reflects both epileptic pathology, and the individual’s neural history.
Another natural function for religious and mystic experiences is to attenuate death anxiety. When we first emerged as a species, not only our temporal lobes, but also our frontal lobes expanded dramatically. Primarily, the function of the temporal lobes is to consolidate and retrieve memories. And, just as broadly speaking, the functions of the frontal lobes are to help us manage our social interactions, as well as anticipating, planning, having expectation, and extrapolating into the future. Our newly expanded frontal lobes helped us to anticipate more threats to our survival than we had been able to see before our emergence as Homo Sapiens. We were more able to perceive the threats around us, and so more able to avoid them. This helped us to survive, but it also gave us a new psychological burden – death anxiety. Without some mechanism to offset this, we would have lived in continual fear. This would have been very stressful, making our new cognitive skills very expensive in evolutionary terms. But we have a mechanism to reduce death anxiety. Spirituality, whose evolutionary advantage would be that there would be less stress during high-risk behaviors, such as hunting, tribal war, childbirth, and standing guard while the tribe is sleeping. In these circumstances, reducing stress would decrease the chances that being distracted by fear, making people less prone to make fatal mistakes. Such a trait, appearing throughout the whole population, though not in equal measure for all, would tend to be preserved as those social groups who had the trait would suffer fewer losses than those without it. Although individuals might not be more likely to reproduce with such a trait, the whole social group would have more offspring, as fewer adults would die childless.
The world’s religions all tell their believers, one way or another, that there really is no such thing as death. We do not die. We only go to sleep in this world, and wake up in the next. We do not die, but rather we return home to Jesus. We do not die, but rather that which is truly “ourselves” survives, and goes on to take rebirth in a new body. The conclusion is obvious. There is no reason to fear death. Anticipate it as much as you can, so you can avoid it as long as you can. But in the end, when it inevitably comes to claim you, you’ll find that death is an illusion.
Religion and spirituality also provide sacred occasions; times and places where we deliberately engage our spiritual sentiments, allowing us to let go of stresses of all kinds, including that difficult and intrusive fear, the fear of death. As stress builds up, specific areas of the brain become more active. That stress is relieved when the brain centers that are involved in spiritual experience and sentiments are activated.
In our earlier evolutionary history, we probably had more brushes with death, primarily from predators and also from other people, including other tribes, and even with people in our own social groups. Moments of extreme fear can trigger spiritual experiences by burdening one hemisphere to the point where a crucial threshold is crossed, so that the activity spills over to the other hemisphere – targeting the point opposite to the fear ‘center’. The sudden and comparatively dramatic activation of these ‘opposite of fear’ centers emerges in experience as a religious or mystic experience. This is the substance of the interhemispheric intrusion hypothesis (16, 17)
If we assume the validity of Dr. Persinger’s hypothesis, as well as our previous considerations, then we are left with the conclusion that our evolutionary heritage has provided each person with a set of neural pathways, allowing them to experience mystical, transcendent, religious, or otherworldly events. Studies suggest that the probabilities for these experiences can vary wildly from one individual to the next. One person can have such experiences almost constantly, and another will never have them at all, at least during their lives (8, 9, 10).
It’s also worth looking at why the fallacious explanation for NDEs; that they are epileptic events, has gained so much ground.
Since the 1950s, Wilder Penfield, the Canadian neurosurgeon, repeatedly stimulated the surface of the temporal lobes with an electrode and was able to elicit a wide range of what he called “psychical” experiences (2,3,4,5) – some of which are also found in NDEs. These included out-of-body experiences, visions of entities, strange sounds, a black void, and a few others. Dr. Melvin Morse (6) claimed in one of his books that Penfield had elicited a vision of God, but both my research into Penfield’s work, and a conversation with one of Dr. Morse’s former research assistants, made it clear that this is a fabricated claim. In fact, visions of God have been elicited through temporal lobe stimulation, but that work was done by Dr. Michael Persinger, using radically different methods. In a private e-mail, he gave me an estimate of his success with this result. He was able to elicit visions of God in about 20 people out of a total cohort of about 2000. He accomplished this through stimulation of the temporal lobes using complex magnetic signals in a procedure that’s described in the literature (12). I myself have been able to do this only once, using a technique not unlike the one Persinger used. In any case, Dr. Morse’s point is validated, even if he tried to make it using fabricated research. Visions of God have been elicited through temporal lobe stimulation, and the temporal lobes are implicated as the neural basis for what Dr. Persinger calls the “God Experience” (7).
Because the literature of epilepsy does indeed contain many references to NDE-like phenomena, and because reports of spiritual experiences occurring during neurosurgery have been published since the 1950s, initial inquiries into the neurological basis for religious and mystic experiences found epilepsy to be a contender. I believe that this is an artifact of observation. Because the first reports that suggested a neural basis for spiritual experiences came from epileptics, it seemed reasonable to conclude that near death experiences, and other sorts of religious and mystic, transcendent, otherworldly, and sacred experiences are the result of epileptic activity in the temporal lobes. Nevertheless, such experiences have been elicited through temporal lobe stimulation using complex magnetic signals (8) in individuals with no history of epilepsy and without accompanying epileptiform EEG activity.
Another point worth noting is that even the mundane phenomena of epilepsy is explained as epileptic activation of specific functional areas in the brain. If an epileptic aura consists of a smell, we know that the locus (beginning point) for the seizure is either in or close to the olfactory bulbs. Another aura, consisting of music, would implicate the right limbic system and temporal cortex. If an aura consists of hearing a voice, we will assume that the language centers are involved. This principle, first enunciated by Hughlings Jackson in the late 19th century, implies that there are no epileptic phenomena per se, but that phenomena from any other sensory or cognitive modality can appear during a seizure. If this is so, then the normal function being recruited into those few TLE seizures that display NDE-like phenomena may be the neural substrate for the death-process. There are no unique TLE phenomena, though there are temporal lobe phenomena which epilepsy can elicit.
If these hypotheses are valid, then there is actual neural wiring, “matrices of neurons”, to use Dr. Persinger’s phrase, that with one exception, function only at death. The one exception is temporal lobe epilepsy, where seizural activity can find its way to these, or any other structures in the temporal lobes.
The connection between NDEs and TLE has attracted many researchers who bring a skeptical perspective to bear on their work. It’s also natural that they, being skeptics, will try to explain NDEs and other non-ordinary states of consciousness as events that would not happen to healthy brains.
There have been many attempts to explain near-death phenomena as the result of “insults” to the brain. NDE researchers who are less skeptical answer that none of the agents proposed can actually explain the experience. NDEs are not the result of anesthesia, oxygen deprivation, dissociation, or any one of other the mechanisms the field has considered over the last two decades.
Dr. Carl Sagan once proposed that NDEs were some kind of re-experience of birth, and equated the birth canal with “the tunnel”. Of course, at the moment of birth, the birth canal is stretched so severely that it has practically no length, rendering his explanation worthless. I’m surprised at how many scientists do such excellent work when they’re proving a theory they accept, and such shoddy work when they’re criticizing one they don’t. Still, given the centuries-long antagonism between science and religion, and recalling the adage “physics, beware of metaphysics”, it’s only natural that science should admit research into spirituality into its fold slowly. One hindrance has been that so many authors on mysticism (taken here as the pursuit of non-ordinary states of consciousness) also write on metaphysics (taken here as belief in non-consensual sciences, such as astrology, atlantean archeology, alchemy, Mayan calendrics, etc.), and produces a class of literature that earns ridicule from many, if not most, scientists.
Carl Sagan is also the author of the adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”. I could not disagree more. Science does not have a single set of standards for what constitutes proof. That seems to change from one field to the next, in keeping with the heuristic tools used in each field. Nevertheless, most scientists in all fields agree that a good scientific theory, whether it’s about the habitat of a rare rabbit, or about life after death, must be subject to falsification. In fact, it is not possible to prove a theory. What you can do it is set a theory up for falsification and watch while it either fails or passes the test. When scientists make repeated attempts to falsify a theory, and their falsifications do not succeed, the theory will acquire the status of “working truth”. If there is any single standard for separating truth from falsely in the sciences, this is it. To demand extraordinary proof, as Dr. Carl Sagan and other skeptics do, is in fact to demand extraordinary, and therefore new, scientific methods. The idea that an ordinary claim demands ordinary proof, while an extraordinary claim demands more or better proofs is little more than the application of a double standard; scientific hypocrisy. If a pill is claimed to cure cancer with a single dose, should scientists reject it until someone thinks of an extraordinary proof for it? All claims call for the same kinds of proofs. There is no ‘extraordinary science’ to furnish the methods for ‘extraordinary proofs’.
The idea that spiritual and religious experiences must be dismissed until extraordinary proof is found for their existence is not only a serious departure from consensual scientific methods, but is also an instance where science does a great disservice to the culture and societies in which it exists. The notion that such experiences (including NDEs) are attributable to epilepsy is a variation on the theme that they are reported by those who ‘aren’t quite right in the head’.
1) Persinger MA. “Religious and mystical experiences as artifacts of temporal lobe function: a general hypothesis.” Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1983 Dec;57(3 Pt 2):1255-62
2) Penfield, Wilder, & Jasper, Herbert, “Epilepsy and the functional Anatomy of The Human Brain” Little, Brown, & Co., 1954
3) Penfield, Wilder, O.M., C.M.G., M.D., B.Sc., F.R.C.S., F.R.S. “The Role Of The Temporal cortex in certain Psychic Phenomena”, Journal of Mental Science, July 1955 388, (101) 451-465
4) Penfield, Wilder & Rasmussen, Theodore, “The Cerebral Cortex of Man”, Macmillan, 1955b
5) Penfield, Wilder and Phanor Perot, “The brain’s Record of auditory and visual experience” Brain, Vol 86, Pt. 4, December 1963
6) Morse M.D., Dr. Melvin, & Perry, Paul “Closer to the Light” Learning from the Near-Death experiences of children. Ivy Books, 1990
7) Persinger, Michael A., “Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs”, Praeger, 1987 (link)
8) Persinger, M.A. & Vallient, P.M. “Temporal Lobe Signs and Reports of Subjective Paranormal Experiences in a Normal Poulation: a Replication. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1985, 60, 903-909
9) Persinger, Michael A, & Makarek, Katherine “Complex Partial Epileptic Signs as a Continum From Normal To Epileptics: Normative and Clinical Populations.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, January 1993, Vol. 49, No.1
10) Roberts, Richard, Et Al., “The Neuropathology of Everyday Life: The Frequency of Partial Seizure Symptoms Among Normals” Neuropsychology, 1990. V.4 (n2) 65-85
11) Sagan, Carl, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Ballantine Books; 1986
12) Persinger MA. “The neuropsychiatry of paranormal experiences.” Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. 2001 Fall;13(4):515-24.
13) Persinger MA, Bureau YR, Peredery OP, Richards PM. The sensed presence as right hemispheric intrusions into the left hemispheric awareness of self: an illustrative case study. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1994 Jun;78(3 Pt 1):999-1009.
16) Persinger MA. Enhanced incidence of “the sensed presence” in people who have learned to meditate: support for the right hemispheric intrusion hypothesis. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1992 Dec;75(3 Pt 2):1308-10.
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