Research Project No.15: Professor Alasdair Coles
Project title: ‘Mystical Seizures and Salience in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy’
This research project addresses the questions: what are the neurological bases of mystical experience and the accompanying sense of personal significance and meaning? We will use the classical neurological approach of deducing normal function from studying neurological disease, in this case people with “mystical” epileptic seizures, frequently cited in popular literature on science and religion, and most famously described by Dostoyevsky in The Idiot. People with such seizures provide the “natural experiment” of seeing to what extent frequent mystical experiences contribute to human flourishing. This sub-project is needed because, surprisingly, such seizures are poorly studied; the largest series is of only 11 cases. From the few case descriptions, we note firstly that most people with such seizures have a religious background, suggesting their interpretation depends on prior experience; and, secondly, that many gain long-lasting personal meaning (“salience”) from their experiences.
The research team, consisting of ordained and lay neurologists and a theologian/psychologist, will identify 30 people with mystical seizures, mainly from an epilepsy surgery program and therefore already with sophisticated MRI and EEG data. We will investigate the brain region(s) responsible for mystical seizures; how their experience is influenced by religious upbringing; how frequently they are accompanied by a feeling of personal significance, and the effects of epilepsy treatment. Dissemination will be in the neurological literature, but also to people affected by epilepsy and general audiences. The impacts will be to encourage the neuroscientific study of mystical experience and raise awareness of spirituality and meaning in the care of people with neurological disease.
This project formed part of ‘The Science of Human Flourishing’ project – Concluding Summary