Thanks for all replies.
Yes, I thought of Tom Sawyer too - the fence painting scene for me,
shows that anything, even watching paint dry, can be fascinating if
framed correctly, and in that way questions ADHD.
Thanks, Stephen, for various suggestions. Huysmans doesn't strike me
as obsessive compulsive - that's repeating mundane rituals, no? But
the consequences of his solitary aesthete's lifestyle for his nerves,
(not very sketched in), perhaps relate very loosely to the example I
Thanks also for autism/ Bartleby suggestion.
Underlying the "game" is a serious idea, which is that most
psychiatric problems simply don't make much sense WITHOUT
illustrations from the dramatic/ narrative arts. Psychiatrists
themselves have a hard time agreeing about them. Think of borderline
personality disorder. Any suggestions?
Here's another interesting example that came from a lit-med group I
put the game to - a novel about temporary lobe epilepsy and visions,
which although I have no experience of such matters, seems to suggest
an obvious explanation: anyone who so cuts themself off from the world
like the nun heroine is liable to such problems.
In his third novel, Lying Awake, Mark Salzman breaks the primary rule
of fiction by creating a protagonist who has virtually no external
life. Sister John of the Cross, a middle-aged nun cloistered in a
Carmelite monastery in contemporary Los Angeles, languished for years
in a spiritual drought--"her prayers empty and her soul dry"--until
she suddenly received God's grace in the form of intense mystical
visions. So vivid have her visions become that they burn a kind of
afterglow into her mind that she transcribes into crystalline (and
highly popular) verse. The only downside is that they are accompanied
by excruciating headaches that cause her to black out.
The story hinges on Sister John's discovery that her visions are in
fact the result of mild epileptic seizures. As she learns from her
neurologist, temporal-lobe epilepsy commonly brings about
"hypergraphia (voluminous writing), an intensification but also a
narrowing of emotional response, and an obsessive interest in religion
and philosophy." Dostoyevsky, the classic victim of this condition,
wrote of his raptures: "There are moments, and it is only a matter of
five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of eternal harmony....
If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not
endure it and would have to disappear." An exact description of Sister
John's visions. The question she now faces is whether to go ahead with
surgery--and risk obliterating both her spiritual life and her art--or
cling to a state of grace that may actually be a delusion ignited by
an electrochemical imbalance.
Using a very limited palette, Mark Salzman creates an austere
masterpiece. The real miracle of Lying Awake is that it works
perfectly on every level: on the realistic surface, it captures the
petty squabbles and tiny bursts of radiance of life in a Los Angeles
monastery; deeper down it probes the nature of spiritual illumination
and the meaning and purpose of prayer in everyday life; and, at
bottom, there lurks a profound meditation on the mystery of artistic
inspiration. Salzman made a highly auspicious debut in 1986 with Iron
and Silk, a memoir of his years in China, and since then he has
dramatically changed key in every book--most recently from the
absurdist American suburban chronicle of Lost in Place to the
artistic-crisis-cum-courtroom-drama novel The Soloist. Lying Awake is
quieter and more sober than Salzman's previous narratives, but it is
also more accomplished, more thought-provoking, and more highly
crafted. --David Laskin --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Mysticism meets modern medicine in this intriguing r?cit of a nun's
dark night of the soul. It's 1997, and Sister John of the Cross, a
Carmelite nun in a monastery just outside Los Angeles, seeks treatment
for epilepsy, although the remedy threatens to diminish her formidable
spiritual powers. The Carmelites place heavy emphasis on prayer, and
over the years this discipline has helped Sister John to develop
miraculous visionary gifts. When severe headaches precipitate a
collapse that requires medical intervention, Sister John finds the
process starkly juxtaposed against her centuries-old traditions: she
discovers it's almost impossible to discuss infused contemplation with
a neurologist. Is her continual prayer "hyperreligiosity"?; her choice
to remain celibate "hyposexuality"?; her will to control her body
"anorexia"? Although she accepts a CT scan and its diagnosis, Sister
John determines that faith offers a more substantial, meaningful
reality. Written with simple elegance, alternating narrative and
prayer, the tale is engaging yet maintains a curious emotional
elusiveness. A drama centering on the realm of mysticism is bound to
be difficult to describe and, like Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy,
this story doesn't aim to render the nun's spiritual life and psyche
in accessible terms for lay readers. What Salzman conveys with perfect
clarity is that momentary, extraordinary mental state in which
physical pain becomes pure, lucid grace poised between corporeal
reality and eternity, a state that Sister John desires to prolong for
a lifetime. Salzman's talent for calling forth the details and essence
of unfamiliar realms is well known: his memoir, Iron & Silk, was
acclaimed for its deft rendering of life in China, no less authentic
for being written by an outsider. With this third novel (after The
Soloist), the author continues to surprise with his unorthodox choices
and consistently challenging themes, story lines and characters. Eight
illus. by Stephanie Shieldhouse. (Sept.) FYI: The Soloist was a
finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction.
The Vision of the Chariot: Transcendent Experience and Temporal Lobe
Temporal lobe epilepsy has been linked to divine encounters, artistic
creation and fearful visitations from other realms. Pickover examines
some of the implications of current research into this mysterious disease.
by Clifford Pickover
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1999Temporal lobe epilepsy has often been linked to
a variety of transcendent experiences: ecstatic communion with the
divine, epiphanies of artistic creation, fearful encounters with alien
beings. Clifford Pickover examines some of the implications of current
research now shedding light on the terrors and wonders of this
Treading the Labyrinth
"With TLE, I see things slightly different than before. I have visions
and images that normal people don't have. Some of my seizures are like
entering another dimension, the closest to religious or spiritual
feelings I've ever had. Epilepsy has given me a rare vision and
insight into myself, and sometimes beyond myself, and it has played to
my creative side. Without TLE, I would not have begun to sculpt."
This testimony comes from a woman who suffers from and, obviously,
often exults in temporal lobe epilepsy. This condition (TLE, for
short), is caused by unusual electrical activity in the brain's
temporal lobes A significant proportion of people with TLE report that
their seizures often bring on extraordinary experiences of
transcendent wonder, luminous insight or, at times, harrowing,
Take, for example, the numerous reported cases of "alien abduction."
TLE researcher Eve LaPlante has noted that many abductees feel mild,
epileptic-like symptoms just before they are "captured." Some
abductees feel heat on one side of their faces, hear a ringing in
their ears, and see flashes of light prior to an abduction. Others
report a cessation of sound and feeling, or an overwhelming feeling of
apprehension. All of this is typical of certain kinds of epileptic
seizures. In fact, LaPlante suggests that the most famous abductee of
our time, best-selling author Whitley Strieber, suffers from TLE.
In 1987, Strieber wrote the book Communion which described his
abduction by 3 1/2 foot aliens with two dark holes for eyes. In his
account, Strieber exhibits various symptoms of TLE: jamais vu (the
feeling of never having been in what should be a familiar place the
opposite of deja vu); formication (feeling bugs crawling under the
skin); vivid smells, hallucinations, rapid heartbeats, the sensation
of rising and falling, and partial amnesia. Magnetic resonance imaging
of Strieber's brain has revealed "occasional punctate foci of high
signal intensity" in his left temporoparietal region, which is
suggestive of scarring that could lead to TLE.
Such alien abduction stories can tell us about the workings of the
mind. Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in
Sudbury, Ontario, found that people with frequent bursts of electrical
activity in their temporal lobes report sensations of flying,
floating, or leaving the body, as well as other mystical experiences.
By applying magnetic fields to the brain, he can also induce odd
mental experiences possibly caused by bursts of neuron firing in the
temporal lobes. For example, he has made people feel as if two alien
hands grabbed their shoulders and distorted their legs when he applied
magnetic fields to their brains.
Our modern fasicnation with other such phenomena, such as ESP,
past-life regression, and out-of-the-body experiences, may also be the
result of mild, undiagnosed TLE. It's a fertile field, awaiting more
research to bring such mysteries out of the realm of the "paranormal"
and into the fascinating labyrinth of the brain.
Fear and Trembling
Has TLE changed the course of civilization? LaPlante and many other
TLE experts speculate that the mystical religious experiences of some
of the great prophets were induced by TLE because the historical
writings describe classic TLE symptoms. The religious prophets most
often thought to have had epilepsy are Mohammad, Moses, and St. Paul.
Dostoevsky, another famous epileptic whose works are filled with
ecstatic visions of universal love (and terrible nightmares of uncanny
fear and radical evil), thought it was obvious that Mohammad's visions
of God were triggered by epilepsy. "Mohammad assures us in this Koran
that he had seen Paradise," Doestevsky notes. "He did not lie. He had
indeed been in Paradise during an attack of epilepsy, from which he
suffered, as I do."
When Mohammad first had his visions of God, he felt oppressed,
smothered, as if his breath were being squeezed from his chest. Later
he heard a voice calling his name, but when he turned to find the
source of the voice, no one was there. The local Christians, Jews, and
Arabs called him insane. When he was five years old, he told his
foster parents, "Two men in white raiment came and threw me down and
opened up my belly and searched inside for I don't know what." This
description is startling similar to the alien abduction experience
described by people with TLE.
Note that the overriding emotion experienced by Mohammed, Moses and
St. Paul during their religious visions was not one of rapture and joy
but rather of fear. When Moses heard the voice of God from a burning
bush, he hid his face and was frightened. Luke and Paul both agreed
that Paul suffered from an unknown "illness" or "bodily weakness"
which he called his "thorn in the flesh." Many biblical commentators
have attributed this to either migraine headaches or epilepsy. Paul
did once have malaria, which involves a high fever that can damage the
brain. Other psychologists have noted that likely TLE sufferers such
as Moses, Flaubert, Saint Paul, and Dostevesky were also famous for
However, psychologist William James has argued that religious states
are not less profound simply because they can be induced by mental
"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 organic processes as its condition."
More recently, several TLE nuns have provided further evidence for an
epileptic root of many mystical religious experiences. For example,
one former nun "apprehended" God in TLE seizures and described the
"Suddenly everything comes together in a moment everything adds up,
and you're flooded with a sense of joy, and you're just about to grasp
it, and then you lose it and you crawl into an attack. It's easy to
see how, in a prescientific age, an epileptic or any temporal lobe
fringe experience like that could be thought to be God Himself."
Even the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel had a TLE-like vision
reminiscent of modern UFO reports the famous, fearsome Ma'aseh
Merkabah, the Vision of the Chariot:
"And I looked, and behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great
cloud, and a fire enfolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and
out of the midst thereof as the color of amber, out of the midst of
the fire.... Also out of the midst thereof, came the likeness of four
living creatures. And this was their appearance, they had the likeness
of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like
the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like the color of
The Light of the Storm
LaPlante is just one of a growing number of writers and researchers
delving into TLE-induced religious experiences. For example, Professor
Michael Persinger from Ontario does research on the neurophysiology of
religious feelings, and believes that spiritual experiences come from
altered electrical activity in the brain. David Bear from Harvard
Medical School believes that "a temporal lobe focus in superior
individuals (like van Gogh, Dostoevsky, Mohammad, Saint Paul and
Moses) may spark an extraordinary search for the entity we
alternatively call truth or beauty." Religion, then, is sometimes our
interpretation of altered temporolimbic electrical activity. This is
not to demean the mystical experience, because TLE personalities have
obviously accomplished great things, whose depth and meaning have
radiated far beyond the electric storms of a single cranium.
LaPlante, in her book Seized, aptly sums up the growing evidence
linking TLE and creativity:
"Hidden or diagnosed, admitted or unknown, the mental states that
occur in TLE seizures are more than simply neurological symptoms. In
people like Tennyson, Saint Paul, and van Gogh these states may have
provided material for religion and art. People with TLE, whether or
not they know the physiological cause of their seizures, often
incorporate their symptoms into poems, stories and myths. And the
disorder does more than provide the stuff of religious experience and
creative work. TLE is associated with personality change even when
seizures are not occurring; it amplifies the very traits that draw
people to religion and art."
Clifford Pickover received his Ph.D. from Yale University's Department
of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. His most recent book is
Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists
and Madmen. His web site covering these and many other scientific
topics can be found at: www.pickover.com.
Jamison, K. (1995) Manic-depressive illness and creativity. Scientific
American, February. 272(2): 62-67.
LaPlante, E. (1993) Seized. HarperCollins: New York.
Mack, J. (1995) Abduction. (Revised Edition). Ballantine: New York.
Pickover, C. (1999) Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of
Eccentric Scientists and Madmen. Quill: New York.
Pickover, C. (1997) The Loom of God. Plenum: New York.
Strieber, W. (1987) Communion. Avon: New York.