BBC - God on the Brain - Epilepsia and religious prophecy

God On The Brain (BBC)


Rudi Affolter and Gwen Tighe have both experienced strong religious visions. He is an atheist; she a Christian. He thought he had died; she thought she had given birth to Jesus. Both have temporal lobe epilepsy.

Like other forms of epilepsy, the condition causes fitting but it is also associated with religious hallucinations. More..Research into why people like Rudi and Gwen saw what they did has opened up a whole field of brain science: neurotheology.

The connection between the temporal lobes of the brain and religious feeling has led one Canadian scientist to try stimulating them. (They are near your ears.) 80% of Dr Michael Persinger's experimental subjects report that an artificial magnetic field focused on those brain areas gives them a feeling of 'not being alone'. Some of them describe it as a religious sensation.

His work raises the prospect that we are programmed to believe in god, that faith is a mental ability humans have developed or been given. And temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) could help unlock the mystery.

Religious leaders

History is full of charismatic religious figures. Could any of them have been epileptics? The visions seen by Bible characters like Moses or Saint Paul are consistent with Rudi's and Gwen's, but there is no way to diagnose TLE in people who lived so long ago.

There are, though, more recent examples, like one of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Movement, Ellen White. Born in 1827, she suffered a brain injury aged 9 that totally changed her personality. She also began to have powerful religious visions.

Representatives of the Movement doubt that Ellen White suffered from TLE, saying her injury and visions are inconsistent with the condition, but neurologist Gregory Holmes believes this explains her condition.



Based on observations of the condition, radical theologians and neuroscientists have noted a strong possibility that some charismatic religious forefathers, such as Moses, St. Paul and Mohammad were sufferers of temporal lobe epilepsy. This is due to the fact that reports of their behaviour appear to match closely with those of temporal lobe epilepsy sufferers. Mohammad, as myth states, first encountered the Angel Gabriel after being ‘roused’ from sleep, and was recorded as often entering into prophetic trance after losing consciousness. St. Paul’s hyper religiousity can be traced through life, first as a Zealot, through the Damascus transfiguration and into extensive evangelisation (Romans - Thessalonians). Moses, dramatically appeared to have suffered ‘Kulver-Bucy’ syndrome (intense sexual and deviant desire associated with temporal lobe epilepsy) along with hyper religiousity and exaggerated aggression. However, as these characters existed more than 2,000 years ago, and with no testable evidence remaining, one can only speculate as to the extent of their conditions.


Frank Kitman