Medical case reports are incredible things. Like real-life episodes of House, they offer a glimpse into what’s often a single patient’s unique experience of some kind of unexplained medical anomaly, like this woman who hallucinates people's faces changing into dragons on a daily basis, or this man, who had a huge rubbery mass floating around his abdomen for years.
This week, Israeli researchers report how a patient experienced an intense religious experience while undergoing treatment for epilepsy, causing him to 'see' and converse with a figure he took to be God. And the best part is he happened to be plugged into a brain scanner at the time.
What’s perhaps most curious about this particular case is that the 46-year-old patient had never been especially religious, though did identify as Jewish. So what prompted a 'non-believer' to suddenly have an intense religious experience in front of a couple of neuroscientists?
As Neuroskeptic reports over at Discover, the patient had been dealing with right temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) for almost his entire life - a type of epilepsy where seizures originate in the temporal lobe, and can bring on strange emotions, cause old memories to resurface, or prompt hallucinations of voices, music, people, smells, or tastes. These experiences can last for a few seconds, or even a couple of minutes.
As part of his treatment, he was told to stop taking his anticonvulsant medication - drugs that suppress the rapid and excessive firing of neurons during seizures, and can prevent the spread of a seizure to other regions inside the brain.
Here’s what happened when he was strapped into an EEG (electroencephalogram) scanner at the hospital in front of his two doctors:
"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 to him, ordering him to bring redemption to the people of Israel."
Pretty scary stuff, and even after the patient had ripped the EEG electrodes off, he proceeded to trawl through hospital, telling whomever he could find that "God has sent me to you," the Hadassah Hebrew University researchers report.
So do those brain scans hold any clues? As Neuroskeptic reports, they reveal a spike in activity in the low-gamma band (30-40 Hz) in the left prefrontal cortex at the exact time of the supernatural experience - the exact opposite side of the brain where his epileptic seizures originate.
Writing in the journal Epilepsy and Behaviour, they diagnose the patient has having experienced "grandiose religious delusion of revelation and missionary zeal in the context of postictal psychosis (PIP)".
Wtf is PIP, I hear you ask? It’s a rare but severe complication that can follow a seizure, typically causing visual or auditory hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and sometimes even aggression. But why this patient happened to experience PIP this one time after a seizure without any history of it, or why it was religious in nature for a man who was not a practising Jew, not even his doctors can say.
"[U]ltimately this remains a mystery," says Neuroskeptic, "we don’t know what happened here, or what triggered the abnormal activity in that particular region as opposed to others."
That’s the thing with medical case reports - they’re a snapshot of the unique, crazy, one-on-a-millon things that can go wrong in the incredibly complex human body and mind, and until something similar happens to someone else under comparable conditions, many of these will remain a mystery.