Monday, January 26, 2009

Autism, Epilepsy and Religious Experience

I had one other thought regarding Daniel Tammet's book Born on a Blue Day that I didn't bother working into my other post on that book because it didn't have anything to do with any of the other topics I raised there.

I knew before opening the book, somehow, that Tammet was a practicing Christian. What I hadn't known, and what triggered a cascade of associations and questions in my mind when I read it, was that he also had temporal-lobe epilepsy.

Seizures triggered in the temporal lobes, as this website spells out in exhaustive detail, are not the kind of seizures we typically imagine when we hear that word --- the kind where the person falls on the ground convulsing uncontrollably --- no, these seizures are often profound emotional experiences:
Within the temporal lobes of the brain is an evolutionarily ancient region called the limbic system. The main function of this system is to produce and control emotions. In particular, one important task which the limbic system performs is to "tag" sensory input with emotional significance, enabling us to determine the meaning that a person or object holds for us. When this function is disabled by brain damage, the result is Capgras' syndrome, described in Part 2 of this essay.

As with many brain structures, we know the function of the limbic system mostly by observing what happens to people in whom it is defective. Specifically, we have observed the symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition characterized by erratic storms of random neural firing that occur in this part of the brain. When such seizures occur in areas dedicated to motor control, the result is the most well-known symptoms of epilepsy, the physical fits and powerful involuntary muscular contractions typical of so-called grand mal seizures. But when seizures occur predominantly in the temporal lobes and thus the limbic system, the predominant effects are not physical, but emotional. Patients say that their "feelings are on fire" (Ramachandran 1998, p. 179), fluctuating wildly from soaring heights of ecstasy to paralyzing depths of terror and fury.

In addition, there is another symptom frequently associated with temporal lobe epilepsy. Sufferers of the condition are often hyperreligious: they claim to have profound spiritual and mystical experiences during their seizures; they are obsessively preoccupied with theological issues, churning out meticulously detailed, elaborate and usually incomprehensible text explaining their beliefs (a condition called hypergraphia); they see cosmic significance in trivial everyday events; and they may believe they were visited by God or in God's presence, or that they have been "chosen" (Ramachandran 1998, p. 179-180). Distortions of time and space, including out-of-body experiences, often also occur (Persinger 1987, p. 123; Newberg and D'Aquili 2001, p. 110). The novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, who is believed to have been a temporal lobe epileptic, wrote that he "touched God" during his seizures (Holmes 2001, p. 27). (all emphases mine)
Naturally, I wondered if this might not also characterize Daniel Tammet's religious experiences.

Here is his description of his first seizure:
I was sitting on the living room floor when it happened. I was four years old and sat with my brother Lee while my father was making dinner in the kitchen. It was not exceptional at that age for me to feel moments of complete disconnection, periods of total self-absorption --- studying closely the lines on the palms of my hands or watching my shifting shadow as I leaned myself back and forth in slow and rhythmic movements. But this was something else, an experience unlike any other, as though the room around me was pulling away from me on all sides and the light inside it leaking out and the flow of time itself coagulated and stretched out into a single lingering moment. I did not and could not have known it then, but I was having a massive epileptic seizure.
And here, for completeness's sake, are his thoughts on religion:
Many people are surprised to learn that I am a Christian. They imagine that being autistic makes it difficult or impossible to believe in God or explore spiritual issues. It is certainly true that my Asperger's makes it harder for me to have empathy or think abstractly, but it hasn't prevented me from thinking about deeper questions concerning such things as life and death, love and relationships. In fact, many people with autism do find benefits in religious belief or spirituality. Religion's emphasis on ritual, for example, is helpful for individuals with autistic spectrum disorders, who benefit greatly from stability and consistency. In a chapter of her autobiography entitled "Stairway to Heaven: Religion and Belief," Temple Grandin, an autistic writer and professor of animal science, describes her view of God as an ordering force in the universe. Her religious beliefs stem from her experience of working in the slaughter industry and the feeling she had that there must be something sacred about dying.

Like many people with autism, my religious activity is primarily intellectual rather than social or emotional. When I was at secondary school, I had no interest in religious education and was dismissive of the possibility of a god or that religion could be beneficial in people's lives. This was because God was not something that I could see or hear or feel, and because the religious arguments that I read or heard did not make any sense to me. The turning point came with my discovery of the writings of G. K. Chesterton, an English journalist who wrote extensively about his Christian beliefs in the early part of the twentieth century.
...
My autism can sometimes make it difficult for me to understand how other people might think or feel in any given situation. For this reason, my moral values are based more on ideas that are logical, make sense to me and that I have thought through carefully, than on the ability to "walk in another person's shoes." I know to treat each person I meet with kindness and respect, because I believe that each person is unique and created in God's image.

I do not often attend church, because I can become uncomfortable with having lots of people sitting and standing around me. However, on the few occasions when I have been inside a church I have found the experience very interesting and affecting. The architecture is often complex and beautiful and I really like having lots of space above my head as I look up at the high ceilings. As in childhood, I enjoy listening to hymns being sung. Music definitely helps me to experience feelings that can be described as religious, such as of unity and transcendence. My favorite song is "Ave Maria." When I hear it, I feel completely wrapped up inside the flow of the music.
So it's fairly clear from these passages that Tammet does not experience the Dostoyevskian bouts of religious ecstasy in his seizures --- the religiosity he describes is much lower-key than that kind of frenzied mysticism. If anything, Tammet's religious experiences are somewhat less mystical and ecstatic than most people's, since he says most of it is intellectual, more like a seventeenth-century philosopher's certainty that a Prime Mover exists than an ongoing personal interaction with said deity. (It is clear from his description of the hymns that he does regularly experience these profound feelings; but he also experiences them in secular contexts, i.e. with numbers. They do not form the basis of his religiosity, and are not confined to the explicitly "spiritual" dimension of his life).

I did find his comments on religion and autism in general fairly interesting. I had assumed that autistic people would not differ significantly in religious affiliation from everyone else, since the factor exerting the single greatest influence over any person's religious affiliation is the religion in which they were brought up.

I still think that's probably the case, although now that I've read his book I am somewhat curious as to the ways in which (most) autistics' religious experiences differ from those of (most) NTs, if they do at all.

5 comments:

freethinker said...

'I had no interest in religious education and was dismissive of the possibility of a god or that religion could be beneficial in people's lives. This was because God was not something that I could see or hear or feel, and because the religious arguments that I read or heard did not make any sense to me ... My autism can sometimes make it difficult for me to understand how other people might think or feel in any given situation. For this reason, my moral values are based more on ideas that are logical, make sense to me and that I have thought through carefully, than on the ability to "walk in another person's shoes." '

If his experience of autism is generally true of autistics, then his experience of religion would also be true. He makes it clear that autism allows him to achieve the distance needed to examine the society's values before making them their own, and therefore his experience of religion is also free from dogmatic theological argumentation.

Beastinblack said...

Could it mimic the effects of LSD? For some reason my AS causes me to have an atheist experience...I cant stop obesessing over Charles Darwin :)

sumnonrabidus said...

I've been trying to document my temporal lobe seizures lately. I have not written quite so dramatically as you have, but the experience of sitting in class in second grade and knowing beyond any doubt that my mind and my body were separate, and then having deju-vu and out of body experiences that made me think I was crazy---until I was diagnosed after over 30 years of seizures. My attempts to describe all of this and bring it into some kind of perspective are on my blog (available as a link to my name here?).

Lindsay said...

Hi, Sumnonrabidus!

I'm glad you've found out what was causing you to have those experiences, and will definitely give your blog a look. I would like to point out that I am not the author of the passages I quote describing temporal-lobe seizures: the man who wrote the first-person account is Daniel Tammet, a British man with Asperger's syndrome and the author of the book Born on a Blue Day.

I am autistic, but have never had a seizure. Sorry if there was confusion on that score.

Sharon said...

Hi,

Epilepsy has gone from an obscure mental illness, to a serious illness recognized by state foundations. This remarkable awareness, is because of the great work organizations, such as yourself, has done. We here, at Disease.com, fully support the cause your organization stands for and we are dedicated to aiding in your mission statement. Disease.com is a website which features disease and infection preventions/treatments. If you could, please list us as a resource or host our social book mark button, it would be much appreciated. Lets dedicate our time to the welfare of the 3 million individuals with epilepsy.
If you need more information please email me back with the subject line as your URL.


Thank You,
Sharon Vegoe