Israeli scientists may have discovered a link between epilepsy and visionary religious experiences often described as “seeing God,” after catching a moment of revelation on brain-monitoring equipment while a patient was undergoing tests to help treat the neurological disease.
Researchers at Hadassah University Hospital on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus said that while treating a 46-year-old man for temporal lobe epilepsy, the patient had a spontaneous religious experience in which he claimed to see and converse with God.
With the patient connected to an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measured his brain activity — until he took off the wires and began marching around the hospital room announcing “God has sent me to you” — the researchers had a unique and unprecedented look into the workings of the brain during such episodes.
Doctors Shahar Arzy and Roey Schurr described the incident in a case study published last week in the neurological journal Epilepsy and Behavior.
“While lying in bed, the patient abruptly ‘froze’ and stared at the ceiling for several minutes, stating later that he felt that God was approaching him. He then started chanting prayers quietly, looked for his kippa and put it on his head, chanting the prayers more excessively.
“Then, abruptly, he yelled, ‘And you are Adonai (name of the Hebrew God) the Lord!’, stating later that God had revealed himself to him, ordering him to bring redemption to the people of Israel,” wrote Arzy and Schurr, who said that the patient was Jewish, but not religious.
“The patient then stood up, detached the EEG electrodes from his skin, and went around the department trying to convince people to follow him, stating that ‘God has sent me to you.’ When further questioned, he said that he does not have a concrete plan, but he is sure that God is going to instruct him what he and his followers should do on their way to redemption,” they wrote.
A 2009 study by Harvard neuroscientist Steven Schachter suggested that visionary religious experiences and momentary lapses of consciousness may point toward a diagnosis of Geschwind syndrome, a behavioral phenomenon evident in some people with epilepsy. But the Israeli study marks the first time time the moment has been captured on brain-monitoring equipment and may prove a vital step towards deeper understanding of the link to epilepsy.
Arzy and Schurr concluded that the man suffered from “grandiose religious delusion of revelation and missionary zeal in the context of post-ictal psychosis (PIP).” PIP is a form of “psychotic episode that can occur after epileptic seizures,” according to Discovery Magazine, an online neurological journal.
Discovery Magazine added that the experience of seeing God is “reminiscent of that of many religious figures, from Moses to Jesus to Mohammed.” It said, however, that “this doesn’t mean that any of those leaders had epilepsy, but it is interesting that this phenomenology can occur in this disease.”