Our medical knowledge of cerebral dysfunctions like epilepsy is casting new light on some famously religious characters like Joan of Arc, Saint Paul, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. One historical figure you may not have heard of, however, is the 17th century Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Before reaching old age, Swedenborg had privately revolutionized our understanding of the brain, sketching out theories that have been proven true only in the late 20th century. But as he aged, Swedenborg began to have sweepingly mystical visions. The cause is thought to have been epilepsy.
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After several traumatic episodes in Czarist Russia, Dostoyevsky began having severe epileptic seizures in which he would would foam at the mouth, physically convulse, and see visions of God. Modern neuroscience, predicted by Swedenborg, locates epilepsy in the brain’s temporal lobes, which wrap around its two hemispheres like earmuffs. “For some reason—perhaps because the nearby limbic structures get revved up—auras that originate in the temporal lobes feel emotionally richer and often supernaturally charged.” So do epileptics hallucinate or are their sensory abilities augmented to sharper, more intuitive levels?