The temporal lobe gateway
July 4, 2014 | 1 comment
Image Credit: Andrew Mason
The argument that temporal lobe epilepsy is the cause of hallucinations mistakenly viewed as paranormal, is not a new one having being announced and concluded a great many times over the last decade, closing the book on ghostly apparitions, UFO’s and their abductees, Near-Death and Out-of- body experiences dismissed as quirks in neurology producing mere fantasy. Those who have had any of the above experiences, in turn, prefer to look the other way on hard evidence produced by neurology and make an unnecessary enemy of science, leaving us with two factions equally dismissive of their opponent and awarding sole validity to their own point of view, and this is where all previous confrontations have ended. In this Blog I hope to show that there is room for both opinions to be correct.
What we refer to as hallucinations are quite spontaneous, happening autonomously and suiting themselves as to when they appear, where, and for however long or short. Although some can be brought on through deliberate techniques as in the case of the various holy men living out their experiences in darkened caves and solitude, others are encountered in situations involving sleep deprivation lasting into days, mental exhaustion that is coupled with emotional or physical stress, or simply weariness and monotony such as can be experienced by polar or desert expedition personnel, sailors at sea for weeks on end subjected to the monotony of only blue sky and sea, and high altitude pilots who have no option other than to encounter inescapable hours of empty skies.
Some meditational practices can bring about a vivid experience and shamanic practices such as drumming and dancing may slip you into a trance like state, and of course there is the more deliberate experimentation with drugs that we know will activate hallucinations. This we come to be expect, and barely raises an eyebrow, but it when we venture into the realms of otherworldly, ghostly and alien apparitions then controversy appears. Mention the religious visions attributed to great people in history from Paul on the road to Damascus, Moses, the prophet Mohammed and Jean of Arc, and almost in an instant we will hear the cry ‘temporal lobe epilepsy’. I first heard the term back in the cinema during the 1973 screening of William Blatty’s exceptionally scary movie ‘The Exorcist’ adapted from his paperback of the same name, Blatty himself personally interested in whether demoniac possession was a reality or could be explained by mental illness.
The suspected possessed young girl Regan was thought by the neurologists to have a lesion in her temporal lobe causing her to have seizures of which EEG scans showed no such problem. The temporal lobe is located roughly below the ears and at the back of the head and is one of four major lobes of the cerebral cortex. It retains visual memories and storage of new ones, comprehends language, processes sensory input, and deals with emotions.
Although we have been told much about the symptoms, there are few known causes of what causes epilepsy in this lobe other than brain injury, infection, stroke or a tumour on the brain, often the agency remains completely unknown. All this sounds, quite rightly, rather clinical and belonging exclusively the interest of medical practitioners and neurologists, but it equally now belongs to the hundreds of thousands of people across the globe who have had unexpected and unwished for close encounters with either or both visual and auditory hallucinations that have either changed or at least influenced their lives, only for our current understanding of science to casually dismiss and demystify the experiences as ‘unreal’ in any way, best perceived as either illusionary or delusionary brain glitch. And yet they happen.
One of the champions against the case of TLE being responsible for the capabilities of hallucinations being delusional only, is neuropsychiatrist and neurophysiologist Dr Peter Fenwick , without doubt an outstanding and foremost researcher into near death experiences – over 300 – and epilepsy, and President of two organisations, the Horizon Research Foundation supporting study into end of life experiences, and the British branch of the International Association of Near-death studies. I contacted Peter in about 1992 in the days of ‘snail mail’ when I thought it would be to his advantage to have his attention drawn to the then living American Robert Monroe of Virginia whose classic 1971 book ‘Journeys out of the body,’ based on his many own, credits him with popularisation of the term ‘out-of-body experiences’. Monroe, as an explorer of human consciousness, went on to achieve a world-wide recognition before his death in 1995 at the age of 79.
Fenwick, himself now aged 79, argues against the TLE explanation being forcibly attached to those who have had religious visions and that this ‘owes more to the enthusiasm of the authors than to the true scientific understanding’. Regarding studies made by those who conclude TLE is the simple answer, Fenwick states that the conclusion has always been made by researchers neither dealing with epilepsy on a daily basis nor having a full understanding of the features of seizure in epilepsy, adding that owing to all epilepsy being confusional, no seizure can present with both the clarity and narrative near death experience style.
The work of American ‘near-death’ researcher medical doctor Melvin Morse tells us that God is already present in our brain and that within this small organism we have a direct line to God, a device he places in the right temporal lobe allowing us to access the Akashic Records. USA author, editor and columnist in the fields of science and mathematics, Clifford Pickover of the Thomas J. Watson Research Centre, HQ for IBM research, kindly referred me to a lengthy quote from psychologist William James (1842-1910) arguing that religious states are not less profound simply because they can be induced by mental anomalies; ‘Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensitivity liable to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological.
Often, moreover, these pathological features have helped to give them their religious authority and influence. To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value is quite illogical and arbitrary. Because if that were the case, none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of the possessor’s body at the time. Saint Paul certainly once had an epileptoid, if not an epileptic seizure, but there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some sort of organic processes as its condition.’
What I find key to the temporal lobe assertion is the fact that not all who have its form of epilepsy experience the ecstatic, mystical or religious seizure, which only ever occurs in the minority. The hypothetical ‘get out’ clause for this is perhaps those who do, already have a predisposed belief towards religion or metaphysics, or even that the seizure stimulates those particular parts of the brain serving to mediate religious feeling. Canadian neurologist Michael Persinger, he of the ‘God Helmet’, has clearly demonstrated that if TLE is purposely triggered by pulsing magnetic fields, it will produce hallucinations in a sitting subject. Might this be because the temporal lobe, a potential and intended direct line to the Beyond has been tampered with unnaturally? Would it be more natural to utilise this ‘portal’ in the brain with the ebb and flow of the earth’s own magnetic field? Is this what the temporal lobe was designed to conceal, a passage to Paradise?
In July 2012 Enrico Facco and Christian Agrillo, both of the University of Padova in Italy, at the Department of Neurosciences and Department of General Psychology respectively, wrote their well-balanced paper ‘Near-death experiences between science and prejudice’ in which they emphasise the need for a ’proper assessment’ based on a) available scientific interpretations b) telling facts from hypotheses and c) epistemological aspects and related scientific prejudices, consequently stating that ‘most if not all interpretations remain only speculation, or, at best, clues of the possible brain mechanisms triggering them; some of the results seem questionable or even odd, taking into account other well-known clinical facts’, one such example being how in cardiac arrest there is no time for an experience of tunnel vision from retinal dysfunction. After rolling out the case perfectly, both authors are fair minded enough to announce ‘ NDE’s are an intriguing and relevant phenomenon, the nature of which is still under debate.’
Having looked at some researchers viewpoints concerning this neurology v. metaphysics argument, I will now dare to present my own, courtesy of my usual aide both the Collective Unconscious and the Mother Tongue. Each of us will possess in the region of 100 billion neurons we call nerve cells, each cell with its own thousands of dendrites, receptors for the chemical-electrical messages from other neurons’ axons across the synapses. Any picture of a dendrite will clearly show you a tree and therefore it is no surprise that the word means ‘tree-like’. This brings me on to a few observations of my own. Firstly I cannot have omitted noticing that pictures of angels usually portray them with halo’s or, more correctly, aureoles, the circle of light or brightness around the head of a holy person. My suspicion is that these aureoles – or subtle laminating, radiating aura - are in fact suggesting the warning sign ‘aura’ of an epileptic seizure.
Next, I have spotted that if we use the arrived at acronym of temporal lobe epilepsy, TLE, it is a phonetic for ‘tele’, a word that as a prefix means ‘transmission over a distance,’ ‘across’ and ‘distant’, the very descriptive terms that suggest an experience through a temporal lobe epileptic seizure. Clearly, you are being taken to a ‘somewhere’ else. Even in the very word ‘temporal’ we can find the anagram ‘portal’’, and the Latin word ‘temporal’ itself means ‘Temple’, a building dedicated to religious ceremonies or worship. Is it just a coincidence that the one day in the year when a supposed gateway opens, both physical and supernatural worlds are closest and magical things could happen, is called ‘All Hallow’s Eve’, a phonetic ‘Hallow’s’ as in the ‘halluc’ (halloose’) of ‘hallucination’?
Let us now return to the dendrite. In the biblical account of the Garden of Eden, both Adam and Eve are expulsed out of this paradise with the stern warning after their curiousity in investigating the Tree of Knowledge, or the knowledge of good and evil. In order to have them banished a cherubim guard wielding a sword is installed. Genesis 3;24 informs us, ‘After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.’ We can view this scenario in a modern day neurological sense where we see the tree of life as a dendrite capable of communicating information – knowledge. It makes me wonder if the synapse, the structure that enables neurons to signal other cells, refers to ‘original sin’ (syn), the word ends in ‘apse’, the architecture usually found at the end of an aisle or choir in a church.
Renaissance Italian painter, sculptor and architect Michelangelo, (who by synchronicity has ‘angel’, a cherub, in his name) held to be one of the greatest living artist of all time, painted his ‘The fall and expulsion from Garden of Eden’ in 1509. We see the cherubim strike out at Adam, but where has this master painter – or his Collective Unconscious – aimed the blow? It meets Adam’s head at below the ear level at the back of the head – the temporal lobe! Does this canvass, hanging in Cappella Sistina in the Vatican, tell us that that the seat of all knowledge, from which Adam was banned from accessing, is the area of the temporal lobe? Is this why religious visions emanate from it, that it is, in fact, a truly paradisiacal location?
The cerebrum, which makes up most of the brain, is divided by a longitudinal fissure into the two hemispheres that each contain five discreet lobes including the temporal. The word ‘cerebrum’ embodies the phonetic ‘cherub’ (‘cereb’), the plural of which, the cherubim, patrol the temporal lobe Garden of Eden. Across many continents the widespread practice, of trepanning, where a hole is drilled or scraped into the human skull to treat health problems, can be traced back as far back as the Neolithic period when attempts to excite and open up the potentiality of an area of the brain were explored, the majority of these probable surgical operations were carried out at the right temporal lobe.
With the help of the Mother Tongue, looking at the word ‘epilepsy’ from Old French epilepsie, from Late Latin epilepsia, from the Greek epilambanein, we find the key section is the word ‘pile’ hidden within ‘epilepsy’. Brain cells working together communicate by means of electrical signals and on occasion an abnormal charge from a group of cells result in a seizure, the type depending upon the part of the brain where the abnormal charge arose. In 1929 the German psychiatrist Hans Berger first demonstrated that the electrical impulse of the brain could be recorded, it continuously generating electrical current. Now we leap to Voltaic pile, a source of direct current consisting of a number of alternating discs of two different metals separated by acid-moistened pads, forming primary cells (generating electricity) connected in the series. ‘Pile’ = Pyl, and onto ‘Pylon’, a word from the Greek ‘Pulon’, a Gateway, from ‘pule’, a gate.
A Gateway in the world of computing is a link that enables information to be exchanged between one computer network and another, in our epileptic seizure scenario a transmission, a communication during the moment of loss of consciousness. Within the word ‘epilambanein’ we find ‘lamb’, ‘The Lamb of God’ often referred to in describing Jesus, but we are going to look at the lambda, the meeting of the sagittal and lambdoid sutures of the skull, the brain’s outer layer the cerebral cortex. The Greek letter Lambda is used as a symbol for wavelength in physics and mathematics and in certain photosensitive epilepsies exposure to particular light wavelengths can be a trigger. Wave forms, a disturbance or oscillation propagated from point to point in a medium or space, described in general by mathematical specification of its amplitude, velocity, frequency and phase, project millions of miles into space bouncing off planets and stars, returning to earth. Are, in a sense, individuals snatched away undergoing temporal lobe seizure also traversing this distant trip?
Suture parts of the skull, by their appearance, strongly resemble riven terrain, cracked open fissures affected by earthquake – the simulated brain ‘tremors’ felt during epileptic seizure. The word ‘Epilepsy’ contains ‘lep, phonetic ‘leap’, an abrupt or precipitous passage (the shift of consciousness) or transition. Let us look at Tonic-Clonic seizures, a type of generalised disturbance that affects the entire brain. We find ‘tonic’ in the word ‘diatonic’, the tones and intervals – interval is a term used between successive seizures – of the natural scale in music as all music is constructed of vibration, frequency and wavelength, all terms used in epilepsy as the body vibrates, there are frequency in seizures and all vibrations take wave forms. It is interesting to note that the role of music is now being thought to be a therapy for epilepsy – three-quarters of suffers saw a 50% fall in seizures after hearing Mozart’s piano duet K448. The ‘Clonic’ in Tonic-Clonic, we find in ‘Cyclonic’ from Cyclone; stormy often destructive weather, a kind of centrifuge – centrifugal in physiology equals transmitting impulses away from the central nervous system. Seizures can be cyclic, or reoccurring.
The original religion of Tibet was the belief known as Bon of which there are still isolated monasteries existing there. A major god in the Bon pantheon was Za, with his stormy and destructive weather replete with lightning bolts (notice how they resemble a dendrite) and hailstones, who was responsible for causing epilepsy. Although Bon monks today teach a very similar understanding to Buddhist teaching, there is one significant difference in ritual – Whilst Buddhists will walk clockwise around a sanctuary, stupa or Mani wall, the Bon adherent will walk anti-clockwise. Tellingly, in meteorology the cyclone – a tropical atmospheric disturbance (our Tonic-Clonic seizure ) – is characterised by air masses circulating rapidly, clockwise in the Southern and anti-clockwise in the Northern. Little wonder that changes in air pressure, barometric changes in temperature, dark skies, thunder or bright sunlight and humidity are known to act as triggers in epileptic seizure.
To offer my conclusion, for all the admirable hard evidence tried and tested by neurology which is indisputable, I feel the danger is that neurologists are throwing the baby out with the bath water. By arrangement of a strategic series of patterns, colours and images, or by manipulating the style in which an object is lit, within one tenth of a second we can produce a standard parlour trick optical illusion to fool the brain into seeing something that isn’t there. Even though we go into the exercise knowing that this is what we are going to do, the brain allows itself to be deceived. If this is also the case with it allowing an area of itself – the temporal lobe – to display ‘hallucinations’ on tap as in Persinger’s experimentation, then the mistake we will make is our own optical illusion, the view being that this Gateway is only fit (pun intended) for malfunctioning an electromagnetic spirituality with no real substance.
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