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EPILEPSY AND MYSTICISM

Dr. Javier Alvarez-Rodriguez
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CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION…………………………………………………………………………4

1. EPILEPSY.……………………………………………………………………………10
1. What is epilepsy?.....................................................................................................10
2. Clinical aspects of epilepsy………………………………………………………..11
2.1. Characteristics defining an epileptic experience……………………………...12
2.2. Déjà vu, or false recollection………………………………………………….15
2.3. Depersonalizing experiences………………………………………………….16
2.4. Time warping………………………………………………………………….17
2.5. Hallucinations…………………………………………………………………18
2.6. Panic attacks…………………………………………………………………..19
2.7. Fits of depression……………………………………………………………...21
2.8. Fits of ecstasy…………………………………………………………………22
2.9. Alternation of depressive and ecstatic phases………………………………...24
2.10. Forced thinking…………………………………………………………….25
3. Reflex epilepsy…………………………………………………………………….26

2. MYSTICISM………………………………………………………………………….31
1. What is mysticism?.……………………………………………………………….31
2. Profane and religious mysticism……………………………..................................33
3. Acquired contemplation.…………………………………………………………..37
3.1. Meditation and contemplation.………………………………………………..38
3.2. The use of music………………………………………………………………41

3. SOME LEADING CHRISTIAN MYSTICS.......………………………………….….44
1. Paul of Tarsus (AD10?-65)………………………………………………………..45
2. Augustine of Hippo (354-430)…………………………………………………….46
3. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)…………………………………………………47
4. Angela of Foligno (1245?-1309)…………………………………………………..49
5. Johann Tauler (1300-1361)………………………………………………………..52
6. Heinrich Suso (1295-1366)………………………………………………………..53
7. Ignatius of Loyola (1495-1556)...…………………………………………………55
8. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582)………………………………………………………59
9. John of the Cross (1542-1591)…………………………………………………….63
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4. BEYOND ECSTASY…………………………………………………………………67
1. Epilepsy, the other side of the coin………………………………………………..67
2. What is hyperia?.......................................................................................................70
3. Hyperia and mysticism…………………………………………………………….74
4. Hyperia and mental illness.......……………………………………………………78
5. Hyperia and literature……………………………...………………………………86
6. Hyperia and music……………………………………..…………………………..92
7. Hyperia and light………………………………………..………………….………97
8. Psicho-Stimulant Drugs, hyperizing substances……...…………………….….….101
9. Conclusion…………………………………………………….…………….…….104

BIBLIOGRAPHY…………………………………………………..……………….……109
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INTRODUCTION
This study stems from a previous one called Mysticism and Depression: St John of the Cross
(1), in which we examined the concomitance between that stage in the mystical process known in
spiritual theology as the period of illumination, during which the so-called phases of passive
purification occur, and what in psychiatry are known as phases of melancholic depression. Indeed,
many Christian mystics underwent periods of intense psychic stress that imposed themselves on
their lives to the passiveness of the individuals concerned, bringing on stages of suffering of varying
length, concomitance between that stage in the mystical process known in spiritual theology as the
period of illumination, during which the so-called phases of passive purification occur, and what in
psychiatry are known as phases of endogenous depression.
But as that study advanced, a psychopathological state different from depression was making
its appearance and becoming more and more persistent in Christian religious, so little by little we
came to understand the need for positing a new hypothesis: many of these mystics, regardless of
whether they had suffered melancholic depressions during their lives, had such varied and
polymorphic psychic experiences which from the neurobiological point of view, given the motley
pattern of symptoms co-occurring in single individuals, may only be explained by one illness:
epilepsy.
Before we continue, we must dispel a common misconception whereby this illness is popularly
associated exclusively with generalized convulsive seizures, in which the patient suddenly loses
consciousness and falls to the ground while his muscles contract in an outlandish fashion and he
foams at the mouth, bites his tongue and becomes incontinent. Such fits are in fact generalized
epileptic attacks due to the simultaneous firing of all the neurons in both hemispheres of the brain,
that is, to an excessive synchronicity leading to a massive discharge of all of them at once.
On the other hand, however, we have the no less frequent partial epileptic attacks, in which the
activation of the neurons affects only a small part of the cerebral cortex. In these partial fits, as an
expression of hypersynchrony, we may come across another type of psychic production, for it
depends exclusively on which area of the brain is affected: visual hallucinations are due to attacks
in the occipital lobe, auditory ones to paroxysms of the temporal lobe, expressions of joy or intense
grief when the discharge occurs in the limbic system, etc. It is these partial epileptic discharges,
with their huge variety of psychic manifestations that we shall be looking at in this study.
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Indeed, mystics like St Paul, St Augustine, St Hildegard of Bingen, the Blessed Angela of
Foligno, Johann Tauler, the Blessed Heinrich Suso and more especially the Spaniards St Ignatius of
Loyola, St Teresa of Ávila and St John of the Cross present mental symptoms that are so precise
and well-defined while also so varied, that only partial epileptic discharges could offer an
explanation for such a mixture of psycopathological symptoms in any one individual.
In all of them, time and time again we find one surprising phenomenon: the same person, at
different times in his or her life, shows different symptoms such as acute depersonalization,
paroxysmal experiences of derealization of the environment, panic attkas, visual or auditory
hallucinations accompanied by intense sensations of reality, forced thinking, autoscopy or out-of-
body experiences, sudden changes of mood with no transitional state or apparent cause from the
most profound sadness to the most exultant joy imaginable, sudden outbursts of blasphemy, suicidal
impulses, and so on.
These symptoms are always episodes that appear suddenly in one’s consciousness, to impose
themselves on it for a few instants in an automatic way and with extreme force, in such a way that
the affected individual can do no more than, like an astonished onlooker, observe the outlandish
psychic content of what is happening in his brain during those instants. After a few seconds, this
extraordinary experience disappears just as suddenly and inexplicably as it appeared.
The religious will interpret these experiences, both joyful and painful, as an expression of the
different moments of the process to which God subjects him, to his passivity on the way to union
with Him. Yet, from the medical point of view, only epilepsy can explain the co-occurrence of all
these different symptoms in a single individual. So the underlying pathological state in these
religious is that of epilepsy, the famous sacred illness of the pre-Hippocratic medicine of Greece
(2).
Our first investigation about mystical process and melancholic depression failed to explain all
these new syptoms as being part of depression. It was becoming necessary, then, to begin another
study taking on the connections between epilepsy and the Christian mystical process. This then is
the origin and the goal of our current work: the analysis of the concomitance between mysticism
and epileptic cerebral function and an attempt at evincing the real nature of the two: why do so
many Christian mystics seem to have had epileptic fits? To what extent do these partial attacks,
with the intense psychic productions that they bring on, determine the decision of the religious to
focus his life on and direct it towards the mystic path? Can we, therefore, attribute any value of
causality in the mystic process to these experiences of epileptic origin? The unravelling of these
enigmas was the initial goal of our study.
But with this interpretation alone —extraordinary mystic phenomena explained away as
epileptic activity— we were not satisfied, for it implies such a great contradiction that by itself, it
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throws a great shadow over all our research, for, if this explanation is right, we would have to put
most of mankind’s greatest religious achievements down to epilepsy, a simple pathological state.
And not only religious creations: the same could be said of man’s most outstanding artistic
works, which, as we shall see, frequently originate from extraordinary experiences with the
characteristics of epileptic cerebral discharges. Indeed, what we have said of mystics is just as valid
for many artists and thinkers who have also presented throughout their lives psychic symptoms
typical of partial epileptic fits, as is borne out by the record those experiences have left in their
works or in their biographies. We shall be seeing that this is so in such diverse authors and artists as
William Blake, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vincent Van Gogh, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Juan
Ramón Jiménez, Jack Kerouac and Hermann Hesse, among others.
Therefore, if we held to this interpretation alone, many of man’s artistic, religious and
scientific creations would have their starting points in experiences of pathological origin. This
would appear to go against logic, so it becomes necessary to look for a more satisfactory
explanation.
And if these fits have given rise to the finest fruits of the human mind, why should they not be
interpreted as the expression of the natural and physiological capacity of certain neuronal circuits to
function in an epileptic way?
This is just the moment to remember the Hughlings Jacksson’s definition of epilepsy:
“Epilepsy is the name for occasional, sudden, excessive, rapid and local discharges of grey matter”
(3). An excessive discharge of grey matter is synonymous to a neuronal hyper-synchrony, that is, a
more great that usual number of neurons firing in unison. And so then, Jakcson introduces the
notion of excessive neuronal hyper-synchrony, a concept still in force constituting the main defining
feature of epilepsy from the neurophysiological point of view.
Until the present, neuronal hypersynchrony is synonymous with pathological activity, but may
it be that a physiological neuronal hypersyncronism is developing in the central nervous system,
thanks to which we might be able to access higher forms of knowledge such as mystic awareness
and the intuition of the intellectual and the artist
Unsatisfied with the explanation of extraordinary mystic phenomena as being simply
pathological, we propose that these psychic phenomena should be conceived as the result of a
physiological hypersynchronism firing in the brain, thanks to which we may access an intuitive kind
of knowledge different from that obtained by logical reasoning. And when this neuronal activity is
cultivated in a systematic way, it eventually becomes a relatively stable way of cerebral functioning
which gives rise to religious, artistic or intellectual productions which are quite out of the ordinary.
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As the reader will have noticed, this second hypothesis is at first sight very fragile, for it is
based on a preconceived idea that will not let us understand man’s most outstanding achievements
as having a pathological origin. However, what is most surprising is that as we have deepened our
knowledge of epilepsy, what at first arose as a sort of almost exclusively theoretical prejudice has
become an evidence that is more and more solidly reasoned, for we now have a whole set of new
arguments that reinforce our initial position and with which it is possible to establish it in a firm and
structured manner.
Naturally, our hypothesis is a completely open one, with which we seek merely to open up
pathways for research, but what is true is that it points to possible answers to a great many questions
concerning epilepsy and epileptogenesis, which had been obscure up to now and which have even
seemed paradoxical or difficult to reconcile. Let us just consider the following enigmatic questions:
How is it possible, if epilepsy is an illness, for its onset to be triggered by a neuronal mechanism
that seems completely physiological? Why are certain neurons in some areas of the brain
intrinsically prepared to function with epileptoid firing? Why are we unable to find any kind of
biochemical alteration in the neurons in these initial epileptic foci? Why should we consider
something to be pathological when everything seems to lead us to think that it is not?
But there is more. How can we reconcile such apparently paradoxical and contradictory facts
as we find in kindling and in long-term potentiation? In due course we shall explain in detail what
these two forms of cerebral functioning consist in, but for the moment we shall say that, although
they constitute models of epileptogenic activity of the brain, they are however intimately linked
with the processes of acquisition and storing data, that is, with the process of learning. How is it
possible that learning, an absolutely necessary function for the survival of the individual and of the
species, should be so closely bound up with the epileptic functioning of our brain that everything
leads one to consider that the two activities are the two sides of the same coin? Indeed, in reference
to this paradoxical association, Michael Baudry goes as far as to suggest literally “the possibility
that epilepsy may represent a dangerous side-effect of an efficacious learning mechanism” (4).
And we could still add more contradictions that would strengthen yet more our interpretation
of cerebral hypersynchrony as something physiological: as we shall explain in detail in due course,
we any of us can experience moments characteristic of partial epileptic fits such as experiences of
déjà vu, depersonalization or sudden bouts of highly intense pleasure and/or sadness, either
spontaneously or triggered by music, certain kinds of flashing light, a certain smell, meditation or
even the evocation of a word. When this happens and we have available an electroencephalogram to
allow us to confirm it, we speak of a spontaneous or a reflex epileptic attack, but what can we say
when we experience one of those extraordinary moments with all the characteristic phenomena but
cannot confirm it with an electroencephalogram?
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What can we conclude, then? Are we all epileptics? It would seem more suitable to conceive
these experiences as the expression of our brain’s physiological capacity to activate
hypersynchronically, a function which, though possessed by all of us, is much more highly
developed in some people than in the rest of the population.
In fact, and in line with our hypothesis, many prestigious epileptologists are bewildered by the
surprising fact that what has since time immemorial been taken to be an illness seems to have a
physiological origin. As a paradigm of all of them, we may cite Philip A. Schwartzkroin, a
professor of Surgical Neurology at the University of Washington: “Given the presence of these
bursting cells, and the occurrence of excitatory interactions among them in normal tissue, it may
actually seem somewhat surprising that epileptiform discharge is not a 'normal' characteristic of
such cell populations” (5).
Here we see illustrious epileptologists as Baudry and Schwarztkroin showing their surprise at
this hypersynchronic activity of the brain whereby a group of neurons, in an apparently
physiological way, fire all together and in an epileptiform manner. With the explanations in use so
far, the situation is not very clear: the hypersynchronic functioning of the brain would seem to be of
a physiological nature, while, at the same time, it is considered to be the origin and onset of a
pathological process, epilepsy.
Our hypothesis will serve to resolve this contradiction: we maintain that this activity, which up
to now has been lumped together with epilepsy, should from now on be considered as an
independent function from it and, unlike it, should be looked on as physiological.
For this hypersynchronic function of our brain we propose the name hyperia, which we derive
from the Greek particle υπερ, hyper, “prefix used to form adjectives that describe someone as
having a lot or too much of a particular quality” (6), in reference to the characteristic of
excessiveness present in all psychic phenomena occurring during this mode of cerebral functioning,
regardless of their content.
Indeed, it is not just that the experiences in question are due to an excess of neuronal
synchrony, but that, furthermore, the experiences themselves are always excessive, in such a way
that during the moments that this hypersynchrony lasts, the mind is occupied by a psychic product
with an overwhelmingly intense content: sudden and highly intense experiences of
depersonalization or déjà vu, panic attacks, very clear hallucinations, very penetrating feelings of
sadness or joy, often alternating with each other, extremely strong ideas that appear suddenly in the
consciousness and which impose themselves on it with the strength and feeling of absolute
conviction, irresistible suicidal impulses, etc.
In other words, these are experiences of sensorial hyperæsthesia, hyper-memory, hyper-affect,
hyper-idea, etc. In short, they are psychic experiences of excess, or hyperia, whence our proposition
of this name to designate such hypersynchronic activity.
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The alert reader will have already caught on: this complex hypothesis of hyperia has been built
up and consolidated in the gradual way which we have been describing. And it is just this
characteristic of the process that, in our opinion, constitutes the main argument for all our research:
what at first arose as a simply theoretical proposition has become strengthened a posteriori with a
good number of facts and data belonging to the field of epileptogenesis that until now were
impossible to explain, yet which begin to make sense and are perfectly integrated in the light of an
interpretation such as ours.
As these new links have come to light, the original object of our study – the relationship
between mysticism and epilepsy – has been forced into second place to make way for new themes
which would consolidate the hypothesis of hyperia and which had to be analysed and investigated.
Our work has thus become more and more complicated, acquiring the appearance of a Russian
matrioshka doll with another one inside containing yet another, and so on. Here it is the same, we
shall have several books in one: of course concerning the link between epilepsy and mysticism, but
also the links between epilepsy, or rather hyperia, and music, hyperia and literature, hyperia and
drugs, hyperia and mental illness, and so on.
Well, this is the barely charted world that we have been progressively exploring and to which
we invite the reader to accompany us now. And for the journey to be understandable, it will be
necessary first to thoroughly go over the clinical aspects of epilepsy and over the extraordinary
phenomena of mysticism. The first two chapters respectively concern these two fields. Then, in the
third chapter, we shall study epilepsy as it has manifested itself in some of history’s most
outstanding Christian mystics. In chapter four, we shall tackle the concept of hyperia in the in every
sense of the word: regarding both the various scientific data supporting this hypothesis of hyperic
hypersynchrony and the links which this function has with different cerebral productions such as
artistic creativity, mental illness and the mystic process, etc.
And to end this introduction, some words should be said about the language used, which is so
simple and readily understandable that it may seem surprising or out of place in research that seeks
to be thorough. The explanation is two-fold: in the first place, as our subject overlaps different
disciplines, such as neurology, psychiatry and spiritual theology, and is thus of interest in the three
areas, we have no choice but to make the different technical concepts specific to each of these
branches of knowledge available to the other two, so that specialists in all three fields will find it
intelligible.
And without further ado, we shall begin our account of the journey with a first chapter given
over to an overview of epilepsy. In it we shall be especially interested in the study of partial
epileptic seizures and, of them, we shall take a more detailed look at those that are characterized by
the psychic contents appearing during the discharge.
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References
1. Alvarez, J. 1997, Mística y depresión. San Juan de la Cruz, Trotta, Madrid.
2. Hippocrates. 1983, Tratados hipocráticos I, Gredos, Madrid, 387-421.
3. Temkin, O. 1971, The falling sickness, The Johns Hopkins University Press, London, 337.
4. Baudry, M. 1986, Basic Mechanisms of the Epilepsies, A. Delgado-Escueta (Ed.), Raven Press,
New York, 40.
5. Schwartzkroin, Ph.A. 1993, Normal Brain Mechanisms that Support Epileptiform Activities,
Introduction, Ph.A. Schwartzkroin (Ed.), University Press, Cambridge, 359.
6. http://dictionary.reverso.net/english-cobuild/hyper-

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EPILEPSY
1. What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is one of those illnesses that have been documented in the western world since the
earliest times. Although the first scattered references date from the Mesopotamian period, when it
was described in some documents under the name of antusubbû (1), it was among the Greeks that it
became perfectly distinguished from other illnesses and well described. Indeed, the Hippocratic
Treatises give no less than a whole volume over to it, entitled Sacred Disease (2), in which its
definition, aetiology, clinical manifestations and treatment are dealt with.
Behind the name “sacred illness” there lie hidden the beliefs of the day, not only those of a
popular nature, but those of the more erudite, concerning the divine origin of the illness, considered
to be sent by a god, the patient therefore being possessed by a divine force during an attack.
In Rome people were also convinced that the power taking over an epileptic was of
supernatural origin, as is borne out by the Roman practice of suspending the comitia (assembly for
electing magistrates and passing laws) whenever one of those present had a seizure, for it was
thought to be a bad omen. This custom gave rise to the name morbus comitialis, the English
equivalent comitial sickness, still occasionally occurring. We shall return later to the supposedly
divine origin of the disease.
The word epilepsy is derived from the Greek verb επιλαµβανο, meaning seize, take over,
attack. Epilepsy is a reference, then, to the vast amount of energy brusquely and suddenly seizing a
person and taking him over completely, in both body and mind, his reason being clouded and the
body being thrown to the ground and belaboured with violent convulsions.
The term “epilepsy” is the name which has stood most effectively the test of time and the one
that is in most widespread use today. Now as of yore, we still use it quite polysemically: the word
epileptic covers a variety of processes and functions, to the extent that we use the same word to talk
about an epileptic fit, which of itself does not constitute an illness, about the illness itself, and even
about cerebral activities which are apparently completely physiological, when we use the word
epileptiform or epileptoid. At the root of this terminological problem there lies a basic fact: not even
today have we been able to ascertain the essence of this activity that we describe as epileptic, its
true nature, its origin or its meaning.
In the light of this and at the risk of becoming long-winded, we have no option but to provide
some definitions in an attempt to clear up the various concepts that we are going to use in this study.
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In the first place, a clear difference must be established between the isolated epileptic discharge, on
the one hand, and epilepsy as an illness on the other, as F.M. Foster and H.E. Booker have said:
“Classification of seizure type is not synonymous with classification of the epilepsy, and failure to
make this distinction is a major source of confusion in classification of the epilepsies” (3).
Indeed, one thing is a one-off epileptic attack brought on by a definite triggering mechanism,
for instance a convulsive fit resulting from a fever in a child, and another is the epileptic illness, that
is the tendency for a given person to suffer repeated attacks throughout his life, whether the causes
are known or not.
Isolated fits in response to one-off causes are something that can happen to any of us. The
tendency to suffer them throughout one’s life is something quite different. So, when we define
epilepsy as an illness, reference must clearly be made to the repetitiveness of the attacks.
Regarding epilepsy as an illness, we must distinguish between two large groups: in the first
place, the so-called idiopathic, or primary, epilepsies arising from no apparent cause, of which all
that is known is that they have a strong hereditary and constitutional base, and, secondly, the so-
called secondary or symptomatic epilepsies, resulting from carious lesions or illnesses of the central
nervous system. As for the ultimate cause of the epileptic discharge, that is the neuronal
hypersynchrony or volley, practically nothing is known in either case.
The difference must always be borne in mind, then: on the one hand, the epileptic discharge,
whose ultimate cause is hardly understood at all, and which of itself does not constitute an illness,
and, on the other hand, epilepsy as an illness implying the tendency for a person to suffer repeated
epileptic fits, for which we shall attempt to mark out an aetiology, a clinical syndrome, a way in
which it evolves, a prognosis and a treatment.
2. Clinical aspects of epilepsy
So far we have dealt with what epilepsy is. We shall now move on to the main section of this
chapter, which is no less than the study of clinical fits of epilepsy, and more precisely of the psychic
manifestations of this illness, i.e. the description of the mental symptoms appearing in different
types of epileptic seizures.
The starting point for our work is the contrasting of the extraordinary phenomena occurring
during the mystic process with the psychic symptoms present during epileptic attacks. The
comparison gives rise to the first of our fundamental hypotheses: phenomenologically the two
processes are comparable, that is, the psychic manifestations appearing in them may be superposed.
Now, in order to establish a clear conclusion, first we must give a proper explanation of the
different psychic symptoms originating during epileptic discharges in order to be able to compare
them with the corresponding phenomena manifested during the mystic process.
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Let us remember before continuing what was set out in the introduction: an epileptic attack
may give rise to any type of behavioural manifestation, for this depends only on the site and size of
the cerebral area where the discharge occurs. By this criterion we divided epileptic seizures into two
main groups: generalized and partial, or focal, attacks. Concerning the treatment of the former we
shall say nothing, for as these attacks imply an immediate loss of consciousness and the patient
remembers nothing on awaking from the attack, it is impossible to say what psychic phenomena, if
any, he has been aware of. Even if such phenomena occurred during generalized attacks, it would
not be possible to study them.
We shall concentrate, then, on the study of partial attacks, which are the ones that really
interest us, for the patient, as he remains partly or totally conscious, can tell us about the psychic
manifestations that have taken place in his mind as a result of the hypersynchronic discharge.
2.1.Characteristics defining an epileptic experience
Before embarking on a detailed analysis of each of the different psychic contents to be found
in epilepsy, we must establish the characteristic phenomena of all these psychic manifestations, that
is the features that will allow us to decide whether a given psychic experience is epileptic in nature
or not.
Many studies, in fact, especially those of a neurological orientation, label a psychical
symptom epileptic or not depending on whether it has been possible to take a pathological
electroencephalogram during it. A depersonalization experience, or any other experience involving
strangeness or surprise, is therefore interpreted as epileptic if an electroencephalogram in agreement
with such a diagnosis can be provided. Otherwise, the same manifestation is considered psychic and
is classified as a mental disorder, or even as a normal psychic manifestation (4).
This does not seem to us to be the right way to work and implies overlooking the main
guiding principles of diagnostic criteria: clinical aspects must reign supreme and take precedence
over complementary explorations. And this is all the more evident in the case before us, for we all
know how inefficient the electroencephalogram is for registering epileptic seizures, for an attack
registered by means of electrodes situated directly on the cerebral cortex will not be registered
through the bones of the cranium. A simple encephalographic reading is not then sufficient for the
diagnosis of epilepsy. Our diagnosis must be based on clinical criteria.
In this regard, we shall attempt to demarcate now the eidetic characteristics occurring time
and again in the partial seizures mentioned and which, remaining always identical despite individual
variations, are what will allow us to define the genuine essence of the epileptic experiences.
That is to say, we shall try to discover those characteristics underlying each individual
manifestation and which are always repeated in the same way and which remain unchanged over
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time. It will be these features that are always identically reiterated, regardless of whether the
psychic content varies from one attack to another, that will define the epileptic syndrome and will
therefore determine whether a psychical manifestation is the expression of an epileptic seizure or
not.
And what are these characteristics that we see time and again in all the psychical
manifestations of epileptic seizures? After reviewing the classic psychopathological works on
epilepsy, and taking them as a basis, we have established the following:
1. Paroxysmal nature: these episodes always come on suddenly and usually end in the same
brusque manner as they start. Furthermore, the experiences occurring during them
characteristically appear to happen outside time, so the sufferer cannot reckon how long they
last. So, events that in a normal state of consciousness would need some time to take place seem
to be over in an instant. This is what P. Schmidt calls instantaneousness (5) of the experience.
2. Narrowing and intensification of consciousness: in the same paroxysmal and sudden way, one’s
attention, which until the moment of the fit was dispersed over the different contents of one’s
awareness arriving from both the outside world and the inner one of one’s own organism, as if it
were floating and not especially fixed on any of them, suddenly and remarkably reduces its field
of action and, with no regard for the environment, becomes concentrated with great intensity on
a certain inner experiential content which takes it over completely. Weber and Jung offer the
following description of this characteristic alteration of attention and consciousness occurring
during the epileptic aura
1
: “The axial syndrome of the epileptic aura is made up of disturbances
of the consciousness, which are more or less inseparable from the attention disorders. the aura
represents, in this regard, a structural alteration of the setting of the awareness, in such a way
that what is represented there has lost its character of unity, together with the normal
relationships with the experience as a whole” (5).
3. Loss or weakening of contact with the outside world: the narrowing down of consciousness onto
a single inner experiential content entails, in the first place, some degree of disconnection with
the surroundings. In extreme cases, there is a total lack of consciousness and the sufferer, for the
moments that the crisis lasts, is completely incapable of responding to environmental stimuli. In
reference to this loss of contact with the outside world, the authors mentioned point out: “A
dislocation of consciousness occurs and, at the same time and in the same measure, a sort of
concentration and narrowing of attention, which, leaving the outside world and loosing activity,
becomes concentrated on certain fragments of the representation” (5).

1
Aura is the term used until quite recently in psychopathology for the partial epileptic seizures that immediately
underwent a secondary generalization. The word comes from the Greek αυρα (gust of wind, breeze, aura), for the
patient would normally feel a sort of breeze heralding the onset of an attack.
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4. Great intensity of the inner experience: in parallel to the disconnection from the outside world,
there is an intensification of inner mental events. Indeed, while this phenomenon lasts, the
psychical experience now taking up the whole of the field of attention is experienced with
uncommon intensity, as though during those moments that psychical experience were being
observed under a powerful magnifying glass. Weber and Jung again, mention this extreme
intensification, manifested in the extraordinary clarity of the experience: “This narrowing, this
concentration of the consciousness confers on the experience a tone of extraordinary clarity,
which can even give the illusion of wonderful illumination, as in the famous Glücksaura (aura
of happiness) described in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot” (6).
5. Strangeness in the experience: the intensification is so great that the experience seems
extraordinary, unheard of, above and beyond normality, as though bringing a new value or
meaning and by the same token, often ineffable. All this causes the experience to be lived
through with a great deal of strangeness: the sufferer has the impression of something unusual
taking place in his mind. Henri Ey describes this sense of bewilderment thus: “All the authors
that have insisted on the ‘subjectivity’ of the aura experience, or on its bewildering nature, agree
on this point. Something fulminating happens, coming from we know not where and which is at
the same time very strong and very ‘figurative’, sometimes even marvellously detailed, crystal
clear, but something that develops and is experienced within the somato-psychic ego, something
that becomes part of the body itself despite being inexplicably alien to it. The aura is
experienced, then, as a sudden irruption of another world into the familiar one” (7).
6. Passiveness and automatic character: These experiences always appear in the mind in to the
complete passivity of the individual, imposing themselves on it in a manner that is beyond his
control and regardless of his will, in such a way that he can do nothing but look on at what is
happening automatically in his mind as a spectator. As we shall see in due course, several
techniques serve to bring on this hypersynchronic functioning, but once it has been fired, its
subsequent development is totally automatic.
These, then, are the phenomenological characteristics that the psychic manifestations
occurring during an epileptic discharge must have in order to be considered epileptic: experiences
that take over the mind suddenly and automatically and impose themselves on it so intensely that
one’s awareness cannot attend to anything else. Their psychic content is experienced with
extraordinary clarity and they are always accompanied by a strong feeling of strangeness. After a
few moments, the phenomenon stops as suddenly as it started.
Once the defining features of epileptic experiences are known, we are in a position to
describe the various psychic phenomena to be found in them. Indeed, these attacks can bring on
psychic manifestations of all kinds, be they simple mental symptoms or more complex psychiatric
16
syndromes, for this depends only on the site and size of the cerebral area where the neuronal
hypersynchrony takes place.
Of all these, we shall now analyse those occurring most frequently and which, curiously
enough, are those that appear time and again in the writings of different mystics.
2.2. Déjà Vu, or False Memory
This is an experience that suddenly bursts into the awareness and during which the subject has
a vivid impression that he has seen and lived through the scene taking place in his mind at that
moment at some point in the past, in exactly the same form. The French expression déjà vu means
“already seen” and is also known as déjà vécu (“already lived through”), for it is as though
something once experienced were being relived.
Henri Bergson, in an interesting article devoted to the study of this phenomenon, entitled Le
souvenir du présent et la fausse reconnaissance (“Present memory and false recognition”) gives the
following description of this psychic experience: “Suddenly, while one is watching a show or taking
part in a conversation, the conviction arises that what is being seen has been seen before, what is
being heard has already been heard and what is being said has already been said – the conviction
that one has been there, in that very place, in the same situation, hearing, observing, thinking and
desiring the very same things. It is the conviction that instants from one’s past life are being relived,
in the tiniest detail” (8).
According to Bergson, the déjà vécu experience is always linked to that feeling of strangeness
or bewilderment that we have just described as a characteristic of all epileptic experiences: “It is not
then rare, for the outside world to be perceived is a singular way, as in dreams; one becomes a
stranger to oneself, one comes near to getting outside oneself and observing as a simple spectator
what is being said and done. This illusion, carried to the extreme and converted into
depersonalization, is not indissolubly bound up with false recognition but is related to it” (8).
Indeed, false memory is always accompanied by those features of suddenness, intensity,
clarity and strangeness that we have pointed out as characteristic of the epileptic experience.
Actually, for epileptologists, such paroxysmal alterations of the memory are the expression of a
partial attack, as Devinsky and Luciano expressly state: “Déjà vu is a paroxysmal feeling of
familiarity that occurs infrequently in approximately half of normal people, but may occur as a
simple partial seizure” (9).
From the contents of this quote, it is clear that déjà vu, regardless of whether or not it can be
considered as the expression of an epileptic seizure, occurs in fifty per cent of the normal
population. It is therefore to be expected that there should be no agreement as to whether these false
recollections should always be considered as epileptic or if they could also be interpreted as
17
something physiological and normal. For R. Porter, despite the variety of conditions in which it
appears, “the phenomena of déjà vu are still considered highly suggestive of an epileptic discharge”
(10). Other authors, on the other hand, reserve the diagnosis of epilepsy for those cases where the
dysmnesic experience is accompanied by the corresponding pathological electroencephalogram.
It does not seem right that such an elaborate and complex phenomenon, yet also such a precise
one, as is déjà vu, and which is always repeated in such an unmistakable way, should be classed as
epileptic or as normal depending simply on an electroencephalogram, especially when the capacity
for resolution for that exploratory technique is taken into account. It would seem more advisable to
trust the clinical characteristics always shown by these sensations of déjà vécu. These arise
suddenly and without warning in our minds and impose themselves on it with force and
automatically for a few moments.
If we go on clinical practice, we shall have to incline towards the option offered by Porter:
déjà vu, with or without an electroencephalogram, as a simple partial discharge. The great problem
we are faced with will then be that we shall have to accept that no fewer than half the population is
epileptic. We shall come back to this question later.
On some occasions, while experimenting déjà vu, the subject has the impression that he can
predict what is going to happen next, just before it happens, which confers a strong feeling of
clairvoyance on the whole experience, as Devinsky and Luciano remind us: “Because patients often
feel that they know exactly what will occur next, the experience of clairvoyance is sometimes
associated” (11).
2.3 Experiences of Depersonalization
Another psychic symptom characteristic of partial epileptic attacks and which – as was the
case with false memories – many of us may have been through, comprises experiences of
strangeness and depersonalization.
These are short paroxysmal episodes when, suddenly and automatically, the awareness is
taken over by an intense feeling that a change has taken place in oneself or in the environment,
causing a sensation of strangeness, despite the fact that the subject is sure that his sensory organs
are working properly. When this experience of strangeness concerns the subject himself, we speak
in terms of a crisis of depersonalization, while, if what seems strange is the environment, we use the
term derealization. To clarify this point, let us consider the following example of one of Glatzel’s
patients, where both phenomena are clearly described: “Everything seems strange and unreal. When
I speak, I seem to be listening to myself...The worst part is looking at moving objects, for instance
when I walk round the town. Everything seems like a colour film – although my eyesight and my
hearing are working completely properly, everything seems unreal and distant. I play a passive part
18
myself. I have the impression of hearing my voice, but I’m not talking at all. When I wash my
hands, it is as though I were seeing someone else’s hands rub together. The same goes for other
parts of my body” (12).
At the end of the nineteenth century, Hughlings Jackson interpreted these experiences as the
expression of an epileptic discharge, taking this psychic manifestation as one more symptom of that
variety of partial epilepsy, which he himself termed a dreamy state: “The dreamy state is a fluid
mental condition characterized by an altered sense of reality that may affect the experience and
perception of one's own or external reality. Thus, it overlaps with depersonalization and
derealization” (13).
The same may be said for depersonalization as for déjà vu: it does not only appear as a
symptom of a partial epileptic seizure, but may just as easily be the expression of different
psychiatric patterns or even of normal psychic activity. Indeed, any of us may have experienced it,
especially at times of mental fatigue.
Again we can repeat what we have said about déjà vu: it does not seem reasonable for the
diagnosis of such a complex, detailed and precise psychic manifestation as a fit of depersonalization to
be labelled epileptic or psychogenic simply because of the existence of an electroencephalogram
bearing it out.
Before leaving this symptom we might mention a special kind of depersonalization: heautoscopy,
which, in the words of Japsers, “is the term used for the phenomenon when someone vividly perceives
his own body as a double in the outer world” (14). During the heautoscopic experience, the subject
suddenly experiences a vivid impression that his own ego has left his body, in such a way that the body
may be observed from without, generally from above.
As Devinsky and Luciano (15) state, heautoscopy can occur just as easily in healthy subjects as in
psychiatric patients, but it is also a typical manifestation of discharges of the temporal lobe. Again we
are faced with a psychic manifestation on the borderline between epilepsy, psychiatric disorders and
normality.
2.4. Time Warping
Another characteristic symptom of partial epileptic seizures is the alteration in our perception of
time, consisting in the inner or immanent time —as opposed to external or real time— undergoing a
distortion during the attack: the patient suddenly has the impression that the flow of inner time has
changed, as if the cognitive processes were taking place more quickly than usual or as if everything
were happening in the mind extremely slowly.
Let us remember the significant experiences of time warping that Dostoyevsky went through at
the moment of aura: “I do not know whether they last seconds or hours but believe me I would not
19
exchange them for all the lovely things that life can give… Yes, one such moment is worth a life time...
There are seconds when suddenly you feel the one eternal harmony fills all existence” (16).
At other times, the patient has the impression that time has quite literally stood still, as is the case
of this patient of Jaspers’: “I was suddenly caught up in a peculiar state; my arms and legs seemed to
swell. A frightful pain shot through my head and time stood still. At the same time it was forced on me
in an almost superhuman way how vitally important this moment was. Then time resumed its previous
course, but the time which stood still stayed there like a gate” (17).
The same applies to this warping of time as to what we were recently saying about bewilderment,
or strangeness: while for some authors it is just another symptom of epilepsy, for others it is one of its
defining characteristics, and it will always be present, whatever the content of the discharge. P.
Schmidt considers this feature, which he calls instantaneousness, as essential and crucial to any partial
seizure: “In his thesis, P. Schmidt studies in turn the psychology of the aura. According to him, this is
an extremely fine psychological disturbance whose essential character, for him, is instantaneousness.
The aura extends in such a way in the temporal universe that the patient has the impression of living an
experience of long duration in a single instant” (18).
2.5. Hallucinations
Distortions of perception are some of the most typical and frequent manifestations of epileptic
attacks, as was the case in the domain of mysticism, where we shall find hallucinations (either alone or
accompanied by the corresponding sensations of ecstasy) as the extraordinary mystical phenomenon
most commonly registered by religious over history.
They could be simple perception disturbances, but more normally genuinely hallucinatory
phenomena occur, that is perceptions with no object: something is heard or seen that is not actually
there. Before going into detail with regard to the different senses, we must focus attention on how very
intensely these hallucinations are felt when they occur during an epileptic fit. Thus, Krafft-Ebing, on
the subject of the psychic manifestations of the folie épileptique says: “The symptoms preceding in the
minutes, hours or even days before the epileptic seizure often have the character of an aura.[...] In the
psychic and sensorial fields, terrifying hallucinations take place in sight, hearing and sometimes also
smell” (19), ‘Terrifying hallucinations’, stresses Krafft-Ebing in reference to the incredible strength of
these epileptic experiences.
For his part, Henri Ey underlines the following phenomenological characteristics of the
hallucinations of the epileptic aura: “What most frequently occurs are visions coloured red, very bright
and mobile: visions of flames, of dazzling wakes, balls of fire, bundles of sparks, flashes repeatedly
coming on and going off, points of light whirling about. The patients experience them with great
aesthesia” (20).
20
Visual hallucinations appear in 16-25% of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy (21). As for
auditory hallucinations, these are less common than visual ones, occurring in only 8-21% of patients
with epilepsy of the temporal lobe (21). Still less frequent, though not altogether rare, are
hallucinations of the senses of taste and smell, which usually take the form of the perception of non-
existent bad smells.
2.6. Panic Attacks
Emotions and moods as the expression of epileptic discharges are another of the typical
manifestations of partial attacks: these are feelings that suddenly and automatically take over the
consciousness for a few minutes and impose themselves on it with overwhelming intensity. These
uncalled-for and extremely vivid emotions are relatively frequent symptoms of epileptic fits, as
Devinsky and Luciano say: “Ictal emotion occurs as a paroxysmal and spontaneous feeling. It occurs
during approximately 5-15% of partial seizures and includes a broad spectrum of phenomena: fear,
anxiety, anger, hate, distress, embarrassment, joy, religious ecstasy, love and sexual pleasure” (22).
These affective experiences can take the form of a pure feeling taking over the awareness, but
they appear more frequently accompanied by other psychic symptoms such as hallucinations or
cognitive manifestations of different types. As for their affective tonality, the feelings may be positive
or negative, the latter being more common.
Mood changes occurring during partial seizures would be the direct consequence of a
hypersynchronic discharge in the limbic areas of the temporal lobe and, these manifestations can
actually be reproduced experimentally by means of the electric stimulation of these areas.
Fear is the most clearly recognized affective manifestation and the most frequently mentioned as
an ictal emotion. It occurs in approximately thirty-five per cent of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy.
As Devinsky and Luciano point out, “Ictal fear is paroxysmal in onset (and usually termination) and is
undirected.” (22). The terror experienced during the few instants that this acute attack of anguish lasts
is so overwhelming – the sensation of death being so near, so vivid an impression that mental control
has been lost and that one has entered the realm of madness with no possible return – that the subject
will be definitely marked.
From that moment on, his main preoccupation will be to ensure that such a horrible situation shall
never arise again. Thus, he will develop behavioural patterns with a tendency to avoid a repetition of
the attack: he will avoid at all costs open spaces if the attack happened in the street or in the country
(agoraphobia), or will not go near enclosed spaces if it happened in a cinema or on public transport
(claustrophobia), or heights if it happened in the mountains or while looking out from a high floor
(acrophobia), or social gatherings for fear that during one he may be taken by another panic attack and
give rise to a feeling of intense ridiculousness (social phobia), etc. These phobias become installed in
21
the subject’s life for many years, notably restricting his capacity to function socially and forming a
highly invalidating illness.
Until not long ago, panic attacks were generally interpreted as overreacting to unconscious
conflicts or adverse life situations and are consequently diagnosed as psychiatric disorders. Now, there
is a growing weight of indication that these sudden discharges of anguish have a neurobiological
origin, to wit a dysfunction of the temporal lobe, which immediately makes us think in terms of
temporal epileptic attacks. Indeed, more and more scientific reports make this interpretation. In line
with this, Alemayehu states: “The genesis of panic attacks has long been considered overreaction to a
life stress or an unconscious conflict. Recently, however, evidence has accumulated implicating a
biologic basis for panic disorder, possibly associated with temporal lobe dysfunction” (23).
We have at our disposal another major argument in favour of considering these panic attacks as
epileptic seizures: this is the proven therapeutic effect on them of the different medicines available for
epilepsy, such as benzodiazepines, carbamazepine, valproic acid, serotoninergics, etc., all of which
give good results in the treatment of these attacks. It comes as no surprise, then, that Dantendorfer
concludes: “The hypothesis has been formed that, in a group of patients, the panic attack should be
considered an ictal process analogous to epilepsy” (24).
2.7. Depressive Attacks
Another of the affective manifestations sometimes attendant on epileptic seizures are sudden fits
of sadness and moral pain, always of great intensity, which are not triggered by adverse experiences of
life and have nothing to do with intellectual brooding on sad events, but which must be attributed to
partial discharges, the essential manifestation of which is an extremely vivid psychic suffering which
takes over the awareness completely automatically.
These ictal depressions as the expression of an epileptic attack have long been known to
psychopathology. Krafft-Ebing states: “As a psychic disturbance immediately following an epileptic
seizure, we may encounter a profound moral depression accompanied by excessive irritability,
combined with impulses that take on the size of fits which are in turn the result of terrifying
hallucinations, hostile perceptions or anguish, and which may lead to suicide, murder or pyromania
(25).
That these feelings have to be attributed to discharges in the temporal lobe is quite obvious, as
may be deduced not only from the electroencephalograms taken during fits occurring spontaneously in
patients, but also from those that can be brought on by electric stimulation of the lobe (26).
Occasionally, the epileptic discharge gives rise to affective symptoms resembling in every respect
the melancholic depression syndrome, when it becomes very difficult to distinguish in diagnosis
between endogenous depression and epilepsy. In this regard, Barcia states: “On occasions, however,
22
the affective pattern is isolated and may somehow be superposed on a manic depressive psychosis, one
of the few occasions when it is necessary to distinguish in diagnosis between the two illnesses, as has
been the case with patients affected by temporal tumours, such as those published by Baruk,
Marchand, Dupoy, Paillas and Subirana” (27).
Many authors, both psychiatrists and neurologists, have postulated an overlap between epilepsy
and depression: Flor-Henry (28) opines that psychomotor seizures and affective psychoses are
opposing manifestations of the same cerebral dysfunction. Kanner (29) stresses the complex
relationship between depression and epilepsy, and advises all clinicians to stop attributing patients’
depressed moods simply to a reactive process. Blumer, Montouris and Davis (30) propose the term
dysphoric mood disorder, which is characterized by a chronic depressive baseline, brief severe
depressive dips with impulsive suicide attempts, and unusually exacerbated irritability and hostility,
stating that, unlike the depression of the bipolar spectrum, it responds in a few days to low doses of
antidepressants. Finally, several authors (31-33) propose a kindling-type epilepsy and the
aetiopathogenic explanation of melancholic depression.
2.8. Fits of Ecstasy
At the opposite pole from feelings of sadness and moral pain are those epileptic fits with feelings
of joy and expansiveness. The term fit of ecstasy, a name which was used by Hippocrates (34) and
Aristotle (35), alludes to the impression that the subject has during it of having been taken outside
himself by an extraordinary force that transports him to another reality, a supernatural one (from the
Greek εκστασις, literally to take out or extract, and, by extension, suspension, transport, rapture,
madness, ecstasy). Indeed, during the paroxysm, the awareness is suddenly and automatically taken
over by such intense and inexpressible feelings of happiness and well-being that the subject interprets
the state as being of a divine nature and confers a religious value on it: he believes he has been
transported to a supernatural reality where his ego blends with the cosmic Ego.
Without a doubt, the ecstatic fits most widely studied in epileptology are those suffered by
Dostoyevsky, which have merited such important research as that of Alajouanine (36) and Gastaut
(37). So much have they been studied, that attacks with an ecstatic content are now often known by the
generic name Dostoyevsky epilepsy (38).
Together with the classic studies mentioned, we should also include other more recent ones which
also insist on presenting these ecstatic experiences as the expression of a partial epileptic seizure. So,
Boudouresques, Gosset and Sayag describe the case of a twenty-year-old man who since childhood
had been suffering partial attacks with a mystic content. This is part of the authors’ clinical report of
the patient: “This is a case of temporal epilepsy with certain original features that we consider
interesting [...] At about the age of 10, the misnamed “fainting fits” began, without actual loss of
23
consciousness. These paroxysms were preceded by a vague impression of discomfort in the
epigastrium, beginning in the prethoracic region and rising up to the base of the neck. At this moment,
the patient says that he had the impression of “being drugged”, of having already lived through the
scene, of already having made the movement he is making now. He then underwent a sensation that he
describes as “inexpressible”, comprising a great inner calm, euphoria, blessedness and absolute well-
being. (These are the patient’s own words.) This phase of ecstasy lasted a few seconds. The seizure
came to a sudden end and never generalized [...]. the attacks were fairly numerous, but they only lasted
a few seconds, so the patient never considered it necessary to stop them. In spite of the brevity of the
paroxysms, their different constituents remained the same, especially the feeling of blessedness” (39).
In this short description we encounter the association of déjà vu, a sensation of depersonalization
and an intense experience of ecstasy, all of it with the characteristic clinical features of epilepsy: a
paroxysm with a sudden and unexpected onset and end taking over the awareness automatically, and
with an affective content so intense that it becomes inexpressible.
Regarding the epileptic nature of these attacks, Boudouresques, Gosset and Sayag’s study allows
us to entertain no doubts, for it quite clearly mentions the presence of extensive calcifications in the
hypophysial region, which would affect the inner surface of the temporal lobes: “Radiographs and
tomographs of the cranium taken by Professor Salamon show the presence of two voluminous and very
dense calcifications of symmetrical and regular shape projecting onto the para-sellar region. They are
situated on the inner surface of the temporal lobes. Fractional gaseous encephalography enables us to
locate these calcifications at the level of the two hippocampa” (40).
Therefore the authors conclude that these fits are undoubtedly of an epileptic nature: “The
temporal origin of these fits of ecstasy is something that Alajouanine had clearly shown some years
before. We now bear out this origin objectively with the presence of calcifications in the temporal
lobes” (41).
Another highly interesting and very well documented study on fits of ecstasy as the expression of
epileptic discharges in the temporal lobe is that of Cirignotta, Todesco and Lugaresi. This study is
especially interesting with regard to the previous ones for an electroencephalogram was taken for the
first time during ecstasy. The authors describe thus the crises undergone by a man of thirty: “At the age
of 13 he began to have attacks of short duration characterized by psychomotor arrest, slight lapse of
consciousness, and, above all, an ineffable sensation of “joy”[…] Seizures generally come when he is
relaxed or drowsy. The subjective symptoms are defined by the patient himself as ‘indescribable’,
words seeming to him inadequate to express what he perceives in those instants. However, he says that
the pleasure he feels is so intense that he cannot find its match in reality. Qualitatively, these sensations
can only be compared with those evoked by music. All disagreeable feelings, emotions, and thoughts
are absent during the attacks. His mind, his whole being is pervaded by a sense of total bliss […] All
attention to his surroundings is suspended: he almost feels as if this estrangement from the environment
24
were a sine qua non for the onset of seizures. He insists that the only comparable pleasure is that
conveyed by music” (42).
This description has the same features of suspension of awareness, automatism, intensity of the
experience, estrangement and indescribability as in the case of the youth presented by Boudouresques,
Gosset and Sayag. There can be no doubt regarding the epileptic character of the seizure and more
especially its origin in the temporal lobe, for the authors were even able to take an
electroencephalogram while it was taking place: “The EEG in the waking state is normal. A focus of
spike activity appears in the right temporal zone during sleep. During a 24-hr polygraphic recording, a
psychomotor seizure was observed, at the end of which the patient said he had experienced one of his
short and sudden states of ecstasy” (43).
It therefore comes as no surprise that the authors end their study with a definite conclusion that
these paroxysms of the temporal lobe are of an epileptic nature: “The study of our patient indicates that
the agreeable mood and the inhibition of unpleasant feelings underlying the “ecstatic” experience
during seizures are undoubtedly related to discharges with the characteristics of typical temporo-
rhinencephalic seizures” (43).
2.9. Alternation of Phases of Depression and Ecstasy
Many authors have recognized that epileptics can present alternating affective patterns in
every way identical to the phases of depression and mania of manic depressive psychosis or bipolar
disorder. Henri Ey, for example, in his study of epilepsy, analyses the existence of patterns which
he calls les états comitiaux manico-dépressives, about which he says the following: “Epileptics have
fits of depression or elation: seizures of fury with violent behaviour and delirious agitation which
have been called seizures of epileptic mania, or attacks of deep despair with suicidal impulses,
constituting states of epileptic anxiety” (44).
The illustrious French psychiatrist stresses the connections between epilepsy, on the one hand,
and manic depressive psychosis on the other, for in clinical practice we are often faced with
epileptic patients with alternating manic and depressive phases, which should be understood, not as
intercritical bipolar disorders, but as the expression of the critical or ictal discharge itself: “The
affinity of epileptic and manic-depressive forms is an obvious fact that can be expressed by saying
that among the psychopathological symptoms of epileptics, manic-depressive states may replace
epileptic attacks. That is, just as cerebral affection manifests itself in paroxysms that are more or
less deep and quick, it can do so through various disorders of awareness, which constitute manic-
depressive states” (45).
The italics in previous quotation are ours, as we wish to stress this significant fact: epileptic
seizures and manic-depressive fits are sometimes comparable, indeed they are the same thing.
25
Therefore, the alternation of depressive and expansive phases as the expression of partial epileptic
discharges in the temporal lobe seems to be beyond all doubt. We shall return to this overlapping of
epilepsy and manic depressive psychosis later, in the conclusions in the last chapter.
2.10. Forced Thinking
The automatic occurrence of ideas with great force pervading the awareness is another of the
typical psychic manifestations of partial seizures, although such symptoms are not as frequent as the
affective manifestations we have just looked at. We refer to so-called forced thinking, which, as D.
Barcia says, “is the term proposed by Penfield to describe the old intellectual aura (46).
Despite being the most frequent cognitive manifestation, it has not yet received the attention
that it deserves, as Méndez, Cherrier and Perryman state: “Forced thinking is a kind of epileptic
aura which has been underdescribed and which is still insufficiently understood” (47). The patient
suddenly finds himself invaded by ideas that are so intense that they pervade his awareness as if
they were true, and it becomes totally impossible to concentrate on anything else.
For Henri Ey, during the intellectual aura, “clear and rational thought is replaced by an
incoercible and irrational idea that the patient obeys” (48). Despite this lack of rationality, the idea
imposes itself on the awareness with such force that it seems to have a new and significant value:
“It is precisely because of this irrepressibility with which the subjective illusion of clarity of thought
seems to be bound up” (48), Ey goes on to say.
Examples of forced thinking are those ideas that many of us will doubtless have experienced
in dreams: we are suddenly quite convinced that we have made a great discovery, or that we have
found the answer to an intricate problem that we had been trying to solve for some time. This
dreamy intuition is accompanied by such a sensation of certainty and obviousness that when we
wake up, the conviction takes a few moments to go away.
Primary delusional experiences, mainly that variety that Jaspers terms “delusional ideas” (49),
and which, as Henry Ey points out, are like “indescribable intuitions that will not be reduced to
concepts” (50), probably should be understood as intellectual auras in which (as the expression of
the hypersynchronic discharge) as a sort of “indescribable intuition” (primary delirious experience)
would rise up in the consciousness, to become, in a second moment, a precise and definite delirious
thought.
As we shall see in due course, forced thinking, conceived thus, that is as a vague idea content
which nevertheless pervades the awareness with an extreme force of conviction, is highly similar to
what in mysticism is known as intellectual visions, where the religious is convinced of having
acquired new knowledge with vast intensity and yet it is impossible for him to analyse its idea
content.
26
These epileptic auras in the shape of forced thinking seem to correspond to epilepsies of the
temporal lobe, although for Mendez, Cherrier and Perryman (51), when forced thinking is
accompanied by speech disorders, it will more likely be representative of frontal discharges.
3. Reflex Epilepsies
Now that the clinical pattern for epilepsy is known, that is the psychic manifestations
accompanying these hypersynchronic discharges, we must now analyse the so-called reflex
epilepsies (52), for, as we shall see later, they constitute a type of epilepsy that we shall find
especially often among the mystics whom we shall be examining.
Indeed, one of the facts which have surprised us most as our research went on was to learn that
the extraordinary phenomena present among mystics was very often determined by the same
situations and stimuli that, in epileptology, trigger so-called reflex epileptic seizures. That is, not
only is the same psychic content present in both processes, not only are the eidetic characteristics
the same when the psychic contents are manifested, but also, the same facilitating stimuli operate in
both cases.
Reflex epilepsies are epileptic seizures similar in every way to those we have been studying
and with the same clinical manifestations, but they are triggered by very definite stimuli or
situations. Zifkin and Andermann describe them thus: “Seizures are regularly elicited by some
specific stimulus or event” […]. “In simple forms, seizures are precipitated by simple sensory
stimuli (eg, light flashes) […]. In complex forms, the triggering mechanisms are elaborate (eg, sight
of one’s own hand, listening to a certain piece of music)” (53).
Seizures occur, then, when the subject is exposed to a particular situation, be it a simple
sensorial stimulus or more complex activities such as eating, laughing, reading, thinking, etc. There
is strong evidence that these reflex seizures are hereditary in nature, both in man and in other
mammals (54).
Let us now briefly analyse those reflex epilepsies which, for their frequency, may be
considered most significant: in the first case, photosensitive epilepsy (55), thus named because
seizures are triggered by a light shining repeatedly and intermittently into the eyes.
The oldest known example of photosensitive epilepsy is that described by Apuleyo in his
Apologia (56): A slave, ordered to turn a potter’s wheel, suffered an epileptic attack because of the
flashing light reflected by the wheel into his eyes as it turned.
Photosensitive epilepsy is the most common type of reflex epilepsy and occurs, according to
Jeavons (57), in ten percent of epileptics aged between seven and nineteen. Knowledge of these
epilepsies, together with the frequency of their diagnosis, has made significant progress in recent
27
years since the advent of the television screen, whose flashing light is far and away the most
common triggering stimulus.
In the middle of 1998 in Japan, many children had to be hospitalized because of partial
epileptic seizures triggered off by a cartoon programme on television featuring intense flashing of
coloured lights. The epidemic of photosensitive epilepsy was so widespread that the Japanese
authorities had to ban the programme forthwith.
Another major variety of reflex epilepsy is the so-called musicogenic epilepsy: not so rare as once
thought, seizures are brought one by hearing certain music. The Chinese poet Kung Tzu Chen offers us
a magnificent example of musicogenic epilepsy based on his own experience: “Since my remote
boyhood I have always been absent minded while hearing the sound of a street vendor’s flute. I fall
sick when I hear the sound of the flute in the evening sun, although I do not know the reason” (58).
The type of music triggering the seizure is usually very specific for each patient, and it seems that
the epileptogenic capacity of these stimuli depends on the degree of emotional content they may evoke.
Musicogenic seizures are almost always partial attacks, either simple or complex, and the anomalies of
the electroencephalogram are usually restricted to the temporal lobe.
Together with light and sound, there is another major variety of physical stimuli capable of
triggering a reflex epileptic attack. These can include seizures brought on by such varied
proprioceptive stimuli as voluntary or involuntary movements of parts of the body, by touching or
striking a part of the body, those produced by immersing all or part of the body in hot water, etc.
As well as sensorial stimuli, other very varied situations are just as capable as triggering reflex
attack, such as walking, reading, simply thinking, writing, playing cards or chess, arithmetic, solving
problems, non-specific mental activity, etc. Such is the variety of mental activities that can bring on
reflex epileptic seizures that one is tempted to conclude that any activity of the brain can trigger them.
Let us consider more fully eating epilepsy, a kind of reflex epilepsy brought on by the complex
act of eating, which was first cited by Boudouresques and Gastaut (59), and was beautifully described
by Marcel Proust in the famous petite madeleine incident: “[...] one day in winter, on my return home,
my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at
first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little
cakes called “petites madeleines”, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a
scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing
morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner
had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I
stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had
invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin [...]. I had ceased
now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I
28
sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended
those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature” (60).
Such clues as “no sooner”, “shudder”, “the extraordinary thing that was happening to me”,
“exquisite pleasure” and “all-powerful joy” are clear indications of a reflex epileptic seizure triggered
by the smell and taste of the cake.
In this question of reflex epilepsy, there is a grey area on which different authors do not seem able
to agree, that is the role possibly played by the emotions and by affective considerations in the
triggering of an attack. To what extent must a reflex epilepsy be attributed to the effect of a simple
sensory stimulus on the brain, such as a certain musical vibration, and to what extent to the feelings
that such music arouses in the mind?
The subject of the role played by affects as triggering mechanisms of reflex epileptic seizures
brings us directly to the much debated and exciting problem of hystero-epilepsy (61), a term introduced
in the mid 19th century by Landouzi and taken up subsequently by Briquet and by Charcot (61) to refer
to epileptic attacks apparently triggered by affective situations, and in which it is not quite clear if the
attack should be conceived as of a psychogenic nature or whether, on the other hand, it is genuinely
neurological. In 1907, Bratz and Leubuscher introduced the term affective epilepsy (61) to refer to
attacks of this kind, on the borderline between neurological and psychogenic: for them, attacks brought
on by affective stimuli are simply another type of reflex epilepsy.
In the light of this, we shall now go on to consider epileptic attacks triggered by words (62).
Indeed, a stimulus apparently so simple as hearing a word, or even just thinking about it, can be
sufficient cause for an epileptic discharge. It would seem that such verbal stimuli are more
epileptogenic the greater their capacity for evoking affect in the subject. Zifkin and Andermann point
out: “Patients with different complex reflex seizures often report that emotion plays a role in seizure
induction and, at times, in seizure inhibition. Gras et al. emphasize the influence of emotional content
in activating EEG spikes in a patient with reading epilepsy” (63).
For their part, Tsuzuki and Kasuga mention the case of a woman in whom seizures were triggered
by certain words charged with interest and affective meaning for her: "Paroxysmal discharges were
triggered most easily by verbal stimuli when someone spoke to the patient directly. Stronger responses
than usual were triggered by specific words, and apparently reflected the interest and concern of the
patient. The latency from stimulation to paroxysmal discharges ranged from 230 to 1,300 msec,
suggesting that the responses may have been a function of the perception and recognition of acoustic
stimuli” (64).

It would seem, then, that verbal stimuli are indeed more likely to bring on seizures the more
capable they are of activating emotion in the subject. Well, as we are about to see, mystics, in the
context of the meditation and concentration techniques used by them, have learnt to obtain
29
extraordinary experiences in every way comparable with epileptic discharges, by means of the use of
words charged with emotional content.
We could say that they have learned to act in the same way as many of our epileptic patients,
who are capable of bringing on their own seizures by subjecting themselves to the appropriate
triggering stimulus: these are the so-called self-induced seizures (65), in which the patient uses the right
stimulus in such a way that he can bring on attacks at will and thus enjoy, time and again, the
extraordinarily pleasant experiences that take place in his mind in those moments. In the search for
these pleasurable experiences, no fewer that forty-one per cent of patients with photosensitive epilepsy
induce their own attacks.
This is exactly the same process as we shall find among mystics: just like this patient, they too
have learned to use a set of stimuli and situations to bring on intensely pleasing experiences.
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H. Gastaut and R. Naquet (Eds), Editions Médicine et Hygiène, Geneva, 363-68.
32

2
MYSTICISM

1. What is mysticism?
We shall now begin our review of the phenomenon of mysticism. It should be said straight
away that we do not seek to make an exhaustive analysis of the subject, for such a task would be
completely beyond our scope. We shall, therefore, concentrate on reviewing the essential topics in
order to arrive at an acceptable understanding of the subject, while indeed spending more time on
those aspects of it that are more directly related to our ideas, as is everything concerned with
acquired contemplation.
The term mysticism comes from the Greek root µυ, like the verb µυω, which means close.
The meaning of closed evolved to the idea of secrecy in the word µυστηριον: arcane, secret,
occult, hidden, mysterious. From its etymology, then, we could define as mystical that capacity that
some people have to follow an inner hidden and secret life which is beyond the reach of most of us.
The Greek word µυστοι, initiates in mysteries, has been used since its origins in Classical
Greece in both the religious and secular senses, for it describes a concept that goes quite beyond
what is strictly religious, being just as readily used in the context of profane mysteries. This double
meaning is still with us.
The word mysticism, for its vagueness and lack of precision, has become widely accepted and
used in the most varied fields: religion, literature, art, sociology, politics, philosophy and so on.
Mystic, mystical and mysticism have then acquired so many different meanings that they have lost
their semantic precision, becoming polysemic terms applicable in any field.
What, then, are we to understand as mysticism? Authors do not agree, each one forming his
own opinion depending on his conception of the facts. For B. McGinn, it is the “direct awareness of
the presence of God” (1). This author’s definition, therefore, would exclude everything concerning
profane mysticism, as for example access to natural knowledge by means of intuition.
In the same way, Bergson understands mysticism as the highest possible expression of
religiousness, and its essence would be worthiness of Divine grace. He defines it thus: “In our eyes,
the ultimate end of mysticism is the establishment of a contact, consequently of a partial
coincidence, with the creative effort of which life is the manifestation. That effort is of God, if not
33
God himself. The great mystic is to be conceived as an individual being, capable of transcending the
limitations imposed on the species by its material nature, thus continuing and extending the divine
action” (2).
We could go on forever quoting definitions, but, as Montmorand says, “we could fill pages
and pages with them and still not have them all” (3).
2. Profane Mysticism and Religious Mysticism
The root cause of this lack of definition of concepts lies in the fact we do not have a clear and
universally shared notion of what is to be understood by the term “mysticism”, one that includes
varied and diverse phenomena difficult to bring together. In the first place, we are faced with the
double meaning, religious and profane, which the word has always had, for it may just as readily be
used to designate extraordinary experiences where the religious acquires a knowledge of a clearly
religious nature and which are integrated in a spiritual process, as to speak of extraordinary
phenomena which, though having the characteristics of passiveness on the part of the individual and
suddenness proper to spiritual mystic experience, occur in people who do not attribute any religious
significance to what they experience.
Thence there arises the first dilemma: should we consider the knowledge brought to us by
these experiences as being of a mystic nature, even if the truths thereby acquired are of a strictly
natural type? Following on from this, are the intuitions that come into our minds suddenly and to
our passivity, and which frequently form the basis for artistic and intellectual creativity mystic or
not? Is it right to speak in these cases of a mystic process if we mean a profane mystic process?
For indeed, as opposed to religious mysticism, we shall find in the field of the arts – and in
that of philosophy and human thinking in general – a whole range of experiences that quite clearly
possess the defining characteristics of the extraordinary mystic phenomenon.
What should be our point of view, then? With what attitude must we approach the study of all
these manifestations: from standpoint of faith, as set out in theology, or rather from the strictly
scientific one proposed by biology? Are the two mutually exclusive or should we do our best to
make them compatible?
And within the strictly religious sphere, we shall run up against similar questions that still
have not been cleared up: What should be considered fundamental in religious mysticism: the
existence of a process whereby the subject is gradually released from the bonds and desires that
impede his union with Godhead, or the irruption during that journey of extraordinary experiences
during which the religious has the impression that he is acquiring a higher knowledge of God?
Indeed, is the presence of these extraordinary experiences absolutely necessary for us to be able to
34
speak of mysticism, or is it enough for the process of renouncing to exist, which makes union with
God possible?
In fact, some mystics, for example St Teresa of Lisieux, have confessed that they have
experienced no extraordinary phenomenon at all in their lives, yet they seem to have reached the
greatest heights of mysticism.
From the foregoing, it would seem that it is clearly necessary to consider and analyse
separately at least three elements that converge on the path of religious mysticism. The first is the
ascetic period when the religious is acquiring the spiritual maturity necessary for union with God.
Secondly, there is the presence on the path of extraordinary experiences during which the religious
momentarily experiences ecstatic marriage with God in the shape of ineffable intuitions,
experiences which do not always make their presence. Finally, we have the last state, reached when
the mystical process is over, and which supposes union with God to be definite.
This journey usually begins with what in spiritual theology is called conversion, a point of
inflection after which, as Henri Pinard points out, “life is directed towards a new goal, to a new
ideal, different from the one it tended towards previously” (4) This drastic change in life is very
often brought about by an extraordinary experience, such as a vision, a locution or even an ecstatic
trance.
Thus begins the first stage of the religious itinerary, the period of purification, which is
basically the period of asceticism and voluntary renouncing. This is a heroic asceticism which
brings with it an extraordinary moral improvement. It is achieved with a voluntary effort on the part
of the religious, whence the phase is also known as active purification.
Next comes the second stage, illumination, during which voluntary purification is continued
and is now finished off with a purification to which the religious remains passive, and which is,
therefore, beyond his control. The mystic conceives this second stage as though Divine light, which
shines often and brightly into his soul, illuminated it in both its positive and negative aspects, which
translates into successive extraordinary psychic experiences of joy and pain.
Indeed, that “ray of darkness” (5) that is Divine illumination gives rise sometimes to extremely
blissful ecstatic experiences, during which the soul enjoys the approach to union with God, while in
others, amid great pain, it feels deprived of and separated from all goodness, whether spiritual or
human. Both types are completely automatic and in no way depend on the will of the religious,
who, once they have taken over his consciousness, can do nothing to avoid them, but only, like an
astonished onlooker, behold these strange and ineffable things passing through his mind.
Painful experiences usually repeat themselves enough to form more or less long periods of
automatic suffering. These stages of pain comprise the so-called passive purifications of the soul of
spiritual theology —the famous dark night of St John of the Cross— that appear systematically in
nearly all mystics, as we are reminded by Henri Delacroix: “We have pointed out in our mystics, as
35
an essential phase of their mysticism and as a characteristic of mystic evolution, a period of
profound depression following on from the period of ecstasy [...]. This anguish lasts as long as the
ecstasy and has the same acute character, it is like the other side of the coin, the opposite. The
sequence of anguishes makes up a fairly long period in the life of the mystic, ending in the entrance
into transforming union” (6).
This painful passive illumination, carried out over a sufficiently long time, completes the
necessary cleansing of the soul and the religious thereby reaches the final goal of the mystic
process, full union, a stable and lasting spiritual state which St John of the Cross describes thus: “It
is a complete transformation into the Beloved; whereby they surrender each to the other the entire
possession of themselves in the perfect union of love, where the soul becomes divine, and, by
participation, God, so far as it is in this life” (7).
So far we have seen the path that the religious has to go along during his mystic-religious
progress. Well, many religious – though not all – experience during this process a set of
extraordinary experiences reminiscent in every way of the psychic manifestations of epileptic
discharges.
We shall attempt then, to mark of the eidetic features of these extraordinary experiences, that
is, those elements of the mystic experience which, despite the variety of periods and cultures
concerned, always remain the same, in order to compare them with the experiences studied in the
previous chapter in the context of partial epileptic seizures.
And what are those features? William James (8), in his work The Varieties of Religious
Experience, indicates these: ineffability, noetic quality, transiency and passivity.
Since then, those four defining features have been repeated, with slight variations, in the
different treatises of spiritual theology as those that make up, determine and define the
extraordinary mystic experience. Thus, the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité (9) points out these: the
characteristic of “radical passiveness”, “idea of totality”, “acquisition of a knowledge during the
mystic experience” and the presence during the experience of “strong moments” and, finally, the
transformation brought about by the experiences throughout the individual’s whole being. Close
attention will show that this last point alone is new with regard to what was summed up by William
James.
Let us now examine the four essential elements of any extraordinary mystic experience:
1. Ineffability: it is impossible to express in words the sensations perceived in these moments. As
James points out, the subject who has had a mystic experience “immediately says that it defies
expression, that no adequate report of its content can be given in words”, “that its quality must
be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others”. (8) From this
ineffability, recognized unanimously by religious of all periods, there is derived the peculiar
language of mysticism, so full of symbols, metaphors and poetic images.
36
2. Noetic Quality: these mystic experiences, according to James, “are states of insight into depths
of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect; they are illuminations, revelations full of
significance and importance” (8). In this characteristic, the mystic experience verges into that
universal phenomenon of human psychology known as intuition. Human understanding may
achieve cognition through the gradual mechanism of reason or through a sudden illumination
which appears to one’s passivity and which imposes itself on the consciousness with force. This
is what happens in all mystic experiences, but also in all instances of artistic or intellectual
intuition.
3. Transiency: mystic states are always brief and transitory, they cannot last more than a short
period of time. They are paroxysmal states of consciousness, appearing and disappearing
brusquely and quickly.
4. Passivity: although the onset of these episodes may be brought about by certain techniques of
training (asceticism), when the state appears, it takes over our consciousness in a completely
automatic way, and our will can do nothing but attend the spectacle unfolding before it. In
religious mysticism, this experience, which is beyond the will of the individual, is interpreted a
gift from God.
Having set out the characteristics of the extraordinary mystic experience, we are now in a
position to establish a formal comparison with the corresponding eidetic features mentioned in the
previous chapter as definers of psychical experiences of epilepsy. The features found there were:
paroxysm, automatism, unusual intensity and strangeness, while here they are: ineffability, noetic
quality, transiency and passivity. We can order these elements in any way we think fit, but however
much we worry about them, they will remain the same. Indeed, the Mystic’s passivity towards the
mystic phenomenon and the automatism of the epileptic experience correspond exactly. The same
may be said for transiency and paroxysm, features that are equally superposable. As for ineffability
and the noetic quality of the mystic experience, they express the awesome intensity of the
hypersynchronic discharge that is translated into the sensation of strangeness and clairvoyance that
is always present during the epileptic experience.
We have, then, the same phenomenon in both cases, a psychical phenomenon that suddenly
invades the consciousness, imposing itself on it in a completely passive way and with great intensity
so that it takes it over completely. During the few moments that this content, be it hallucinatory,
cognitive or affective, remains in the awareness, it is accompanied by such a strength of experience
that it imposes itself furthermore to such a degree of passivity on the part of the individual that there
is nothing that can be done voluntarily to keep it up or reject it, and one can only stand by like a
bewildered onlooker as the unheard-of experience unfolds in one’s consciousness. The whole
experience is so intense, with such vivid affective and intellective contents, that they are strange and
ineffable, like bearers of a new meaning that is impossible to explain.
37


3. Acquired Contemplation

Having established the requirements to be fulfilled by an experience in order for it to be considered
mystic, and leaving aside the analysis of the different degrees of intensity that it can reach, we must
now say a few words about the study of acquired contemplation
2
, acquired in fact, in Saudreau’s
words, à force de méditer
3
, “by dint of meditating”.
So far we have spoken of extraordinary mystic experiences occurring in religious in a
spontaneous way, and which usually lead to the conversion with which the mystic process begins.
From that moment on, the religious is on a long journey, which, among many other things, includes
the learning of a set of methods suitable for triggering the appearance of the experiences in the
brain. What started as spontaneous is later achieved by training. Actually, the mystic perfects a set
of techniques whereby he is able to set in motion the cerebral mechanisms that make these
extraordinary mystic experiences possible.
Almost all authors agree as to what these tools for arousing the mystical consciousness are.
John White, although he lists a great number of them, ends:

The most systematic approaches, which often require strict observance and discipline,
include prayer, yoga, tantra and various forms of meditation.
4


For his part, Aldous Huxley explains the following practices as efficient formulæ for setting
the extraordinary mystic consciousness in motion:

This experience may be triggered in different ways. One method is hypnosis [...].
Concentration, the traditional method of yoga, consists in shutting out everything except a
particular point on which one’s attention is fixed[...], sensorial deprivation [...], systematic
breathing [...], fasting [...], going without sleep [...], taking certain chemicals: Indian soma,
peyote or LSD-25...
5



2
A. Saudreau, “Contemplation”, in M. Viller (ed.), Dictionnarie de Spiritualité [Dictionary of Spirituality] III, cit., p.
2163.
3
Ibid.
4
J. White, “Introducción” [Introduction], in id., (ed.), La experiencia mística [The Mystic Experience], cit., p. 16.
5
A. Huxley, “La experiencia mística” [The Mystic Experience], in J. White (ed.), op. cit., pp. 65 ss.
38
So, man has learnt to command a set of techniques whereby he is able to arouse the mystic
consciousness that normally lies dormant in him. Of all these we shall briefly examine those that, in
our opinion, have been most systematically cultivated, that is to say meditation and music.



3.1 Meditation and Concentration

Mental concentration must surely be the most widely accepted process and the most used in all
schools of religion to induce the onset of extraordinary mystic experiences. It is the Orientals who
have most thoroughly cultivated the practice of concentration and is one of the most essential
aspects of all the different types of yoga. The religious may concentrate on a point in space, on an
idea, or on a light in order to achieve illumination. Sri Ramakrishna describes it thus:

Meditate about God, be it a dark place or in the loneliness of the forest, or in the silent shrine
of your heart [...]. The easiest way to concentrate the mind is to concentrate on the flame of a
candle. [...]. During meditation, the beginner sometimes falls into a sort of sleep, called
mystic sleep, forgetting his own person and his surroundings. At such moments he
invariably has some kind of Divine vision [...]. In deep meditation, the functions of all the
senses cease. The outward flowing of the mind comes to a complete standstill.
6


A particular kind of concentration, used in a very special way in oriental religions, is the use
of mantras: the subject spends some hours repeating a single word, considered charged with power,
concentrating exclusively on this sound, which has to be uttered aloud for the vibrations to reach the
brain and thus afford illumination. Of all mantras, none is so well known or so widely used as the
sound om, of whose special effects on the mind, Swami Chidambram assures the following:

Repeat the basic sound that I give you and which will be your word of power, OM.
Concentrate on this word, which has existed since the beginning [...]. Concentrate your mind
on this pleasant sound, considered the word by which the worlds were created, the root of all
language, the aim of the vision.
7


And Ramakrishna, likewise referring to the consequences this mantra has on concentration,
states:

6
Ramakrishna, La sagrada enseñanza de Sri Ramakrishna [The Sacred Teaching of Sri Ramakrishna], Kier, Buenos
Aires, 1957, pp. 123-24 and 126.
7
Quoted by A. van Lisebeth, Perfecciono mi yoga [Perfecting my Yoga], Pomaire, Barcelona, 1968, p. 51.
39

The sound anahata is self-producing and goes on, never ceasing. It is the sound of the
pranava (OM). It comes from the Supreme Brahmin and is audible to the yogi. Worldly men
cannot hear it.
8


Oriental religions have not been alone in the practice of concentration. In Christianity, too, it
has been recommended time and again as a method of achieving illumination. In The Cloud of
Unknowing, a major work of English mysticism by an anonymous author, concentration is
repeatedly insisted on as a certain way of reaching ecstasy:

Lift up thine heart unto God with a meek stirring of love; and mean Himself, and none of
His goods. And thereto, look the loath to think on aught but Himself. So that nought work in
thy wit, nor in thy will, but only Himself. And do that in thee is to forget all the creatures
that ever God made and the works of them; so that thy thought nor thy desire be not directed
nor stretched to any of them, neither in general nor in special, but let them be, and take no
heed to them. This is the work of the soul that most pleaseth God. All saints and angels have
joy of this work, and hasten them to help it in all their might. All fiends be furious when
thou thus dost, and try for to defeat it in all that they can. All men living in earth be
wonderfully holpen of this work, thou wottest not how. Yea, the souls in purgatory be eased
of their pain by virtue of this work. Thyself art cleansed and made virtuous by no work so
much. And yet it is the lightest work of all, when a soul is helped with grace in sensible list,
and soonest done. But else it is hard, and wonderful to thee for to do.
Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list. For at the first time when thou dost it,
thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what,
saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is,
howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see
Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in
thine affection.
And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying
after Him that thou lovest. For if ever thou shalt feel Him or see Him, as it may be here, it
behoveth always to be in this cloud in this darkness. And if thou wilt busily travail as I bid
thee, I trust in His mercy that thou shalt come thereto.
9



8
Ramakrishna, op. cit., p. 190.
9
Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, Electronic Edition of MS Harl 674, 2nd Edition, London, 1922, Ch. 3.
40
Concentration, then, on a gentle feeling of affect for God and setting apart any other idea or
feeling as a certain formula for achieving the goal of feeling and seeing God as he is.
Just like the Oriental mantras, western religious culture has also cultivated the repetition of
words or short phrases as an efficient way of reaching illumination: these are the jaculatory prayers,
repeated over and over again in the hope of triggering the mystic experience. Perhaps none has been
so widely used and repeated throughout Christianity as the famous invocation Jesus, thou Son of
David, have mercy on me
10
. The systematic use of this simple sentence, the same one that the blind
Bartimæus used in the Gospel to call the attention of the Messiah, has its origin in ancient eastern
monasticism and has been one of the most enduring formulæ of Christian contemplative prayer,
having been used by countless monks and nuns down the centuries. Here, the strong and powerful
word is Jesus. The anonymous author of The Russian Pilgrim tells us how, in his effort to reach the
Pauline exhortation of praying without stopping, he discovered one day in the Philocaly, from the
mouth of St Simeon, this jaculatory prayer, which allowed him to fulfil the longed-for desire to
remain continuously at prayer:

Sit alone and in silence. Bow your head, close your eyes, breathe sweetly and imagine that
you are looking at your heart. Send to your heart all the thoughts of your soul. Breathe and
say: Jesus, have mercy on me. Say it moving only your lips and say it in the bottom of your
soul. Try to put away all other thoughts. Remain calm, be patient and repeat it as often as
you can.
11


So, continuous prayer, ceaseless repetition, leads the pilgrim to the hesychastic state
12
, that
is, to a state of mind where, all passions absent, absolute quietness and peace are established, to
open the way for contemplation.
But in Christianity we do not only find the use of jaculatory prayers: those Christians given
over wholly to the contemplative life, monks, have cultivated since time immemorial a technique
that is extremely reminiscent of the persistent repetition that we have been talking about, that is the
reading of the Word, the lectio divina
13
, one of the bastions of Christian monasticism.
The lectio of the Word is not just, as one might have first thought, the simple reading from
the Bible, but this task assiduously performed by the monk also includes meditatio or ruminatio
14
, a
process whereby, having learnt a Biblical text by heart, one then proceeds to ruminate on it:


10
Gospel according to St Mark, Ch 10, v. 47.
11
Anonymous, El peregrino ruso [Strannik, in Russian] , EDE, Madrid, 1987, pp. 52-53.
12
Pelagio and Juan [Pelagius and John], Las sentencias de los Padres [The Sententiæ of the Fathers], Desclée de
Brouwer, Bilbao, 1989, p. 47.
13
B. García Colombás, La lectura de Dios [The Reading of God], Monte Casino, Zamora, 1986.
14
Ibid., p. 97.
41
Ruminatio consists of two parts: first, repeating frequently, even continuously, a word or
text, and then savouring and inwardly assimilating that word. The image of chewing,
digestion and inward assimilation is the best possible analogy: to make the Word of God
pass not to the head, but to the heart.
15


This rumination, this sort of ceaseless chewing of the “cud”, or single word or phrase until
all its profound meaning is drawn from it, leads to contemplation as expressly stated by Guigo II,
prior of the Grande Chartreuse, in his Scala claustralium:

Reading puts as it were whole food into your mouth; meditation chews it and breaks it
down; prayer finds its savour; contemplation is the sweetness that so delights and
strengthens.
16


We find, then, that persistent mediation on a word and intense concentration on it lead, in
both the eastern and western religious cultures, to contemplation and mystic experience. It is not
beyond our notice that the use of a verbal formula, whether it is a complete sentence or just a word,
in order to produce an extraordinary psychical experience, works by exactly the same mechanism
that underlies a reflex epilepsy attack triggered by the repetition of one or more words.
Indeed, we saw in the previous chapter while examining the subject of induced reflex
epileptic seizures, just how hearing, or even evoking, certain words was one of the stimuli that often
trigger this type of attack. Likewise, we said there that such verbal stimuli are more epileptogenic
the greater their power to evoke emotions in the patients: they are the affective epilepsies of Bratz
and Leubuscher.
17

It is then, exactly the same process that we find in the field of religion: the repetition of a
word charged with affective meaning triggers the occurrence of an illuminating experience with the
same characteristics as an extraordinary mystic experience.
It would seem obvious that techniques of prayer, meditation and intense rumination of a
phrase or word, even its simple repetition, methods found in all schools of mysticism, both eastern
and western, act as efficient formulæ for producing ecstatic experiences quite simply because of
their capacity for working as stimuli that trigger neuronal hypersynchronies.

3.2. The Use of Music


15
Ibid., p. 98.
16
Guigo II, The Ladder of Four Rungs, electronic edition, Cloister Websites, 2003
17
M. Trimble, “Hysteria, hystero-epilepsy and epilepsy”, in M.R. Trimble and E.H. Reynolds (eds.), op. cit., p. 193.
42
The other technique universally recognized as capable of evoking extraordinary mystic experiences
is music. Indeed, music has been seen cloaked in an aura of magic power in many beliefs and
religions since earliest times. It is considered capable of warding off evil spirits and so, in Saturnal
rites, cymbals and bells were struck to keep the devils at bay. David, for his part, banished the evil
spirit that had possessed King Saul by playing the harp:

“You see, sir, how an evil spirit from God seizes you; why do you not command your servants
here to go and find some man who can play the harp? – then, when an evil spirit from God
comes on you, he can play and you will recover.”
And whenever a spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play on it, so
that Saul found relief; he recovered and the evil spirit left him alone. (1 Samuel 16, 15 and 23).

But it does not only drive out evil spirits. Music also has the power of drawing the soul
towards Godhead, bringing ecstatic experiences about in it. In the Bible, we find a narration where
Elisha, in order to prophesy as requested by the kings of Israel, Edom and Judah, first asks for the
presence of a musician to help him achieve illuminating ecstasy. This significant description, which
is highly suggestive of a musicogenic seizure, is to be found in the Second Book of Kings:

But the king of Israel said to him, “No; the LORD has called us three kings out to put us at
the mercy of the Moabites.” “As the LORD of Hosts lives, whom I serve, “ said Elisha, “ I
would not spare a look or a glance for you, if it were not for my regard for Jehoshaphat king
of Judah. But now, fetch me a minstrel.” They fetched a minstrel, and while he was playing,
the power of the LORD came upon Elisha and he said...[our italics] (2 Kings 3, 13-15).

We see how, thanks to the effect of music, Elisha achieves illumination and “the power of
the LORD came upon [him]”.
Likewise, the Greeks recognized this capacity of music to bring on ecstatic experiences and
that it was actually an important in facilitating revelation, in both Orphic and Dionysiac mysteries.
We offer below some examples from different classical Greek authors of references to this property
of music:

One has in one’s hands resonating flutes superbly worked and fills the air with melodies
plucked out with one’s fingers, with ominous chords that release frenzy (Æschylus, fr. 71).
18



18
G. Colli, La sabiduría griega [Greek Wisdom], Trotta, Madrid,
2
1998, p. 59.
43
So then, his melodies, whether played by the best musician or the most mediocre flautist, are
the only ones that, being Divine, have the power to capture the spirit and show who has need
of the Gods and of initiations (Plato, Banquet, 215 B.C.).
19


By means of music I soared up to the empyreum over the world (Euripides, Alcestis, 962-
72).
20


In the Western Christian Church, it would be Ambrose of Milan who was to introduce the
custom, already working in Byzantium, of setting the psalms to musical accompaniment. But it was
his great disciple, St Augustine, who would speak time and again of the great power that music
exercised on the spirit and of its power to arouse mystical experiences. Since he was first converted,
Augustine had experienced, on hearing canticles, that delightful and extraordinary effect that in
mysticism is known as the gift of sweet tears and which, from the epileptological point of view,
suggests musicogenic seizures with automatic weeping:

How much I cried too when I heard the hymns and canticles sung in your praise in church!
How their gentle sound moved me with force and aroused me to devotion and tenderness!
Those voices played on my ears and inspired emotions of piety, which made me cry copious
tears, which made me very happy.
21


A little later we find the Bishop of Hippo, in the middle of his inner struggle, trying to
decide whether it would be better to drive music out of the Church because of the joy and worldly
bonds that it supposed, or to keep it because of its obvious effect of facilitating spiritual
experiences:

So I am doubting between the harm that the delight of hearing singing can bring about, and
the usefulness that from experience I know it can have, and I am more inclined (but without
passing irrevocable or definite sentence) to approve of the custom of singing introduced in
the Church, so that through that joy and pleasure received by the ears, the weakest spirit
might be aroused and acquire the taste for piety.
22



19
Ibid., p. 75.
20
Ibid., p. 137.
21
St Augustine, Confesiones [Confessions], Plaza y Janés, Barcelona, 1961, p. 346.
22
Ibid., pp. 442-43.
44
More explicit, if that is possible, is the Pseudo-Dionysius, that great 5th-century mystic who
had so much influence on mysticism after him, who, speaking of that power of music to awaken the
mystic consciousness, says:

The sacred canticles, which sum up the holiest truths, have prepared our spirits serenely so
that we may be at one with the mysteries that we are to attend, for they have made us attune
to God. They set us in harmony not only with Divine realities but also with ourselves and
others, so that we can form a homogeneous choir of holy men.
23


It would therefore seem obvious that music awakens states of consciousness in which there
appear intense experiences with a religious content, experiences that, from the point of view of
epileptology, bear a clear correspondence with the musicogenic epileptic seizures described in the
previous chapter.
Together with music, we could add still more varied situations just as likely to trigger
mystical experiences and which have long been used to that end, such as the use of substances
acting on the central nervous system, including incense and other aromatics, dancing, certain kinds
of light, especially coloured and flashing light, the uttering aloud of words, etc. They all have
something very important in common, their rhythmic and repetitive nature. It would seem, then, that
our brain is prepared to respond to these reiterative stimuli by means of the hypersynchronic firing
of neuronal circuits, or with a state of mystic consciousness, which is the same.
With acquired contemplation, we can consider the section on extraordinary mystical
phenomena finished. Throughout it we have seen that time and again these experiences are typified
by such features as passiveness, the extraordinary experiential intensity with which they are lived
through (a feature conferring ineffability on them), the extremely vivid impression of acquiring
certain knowledge and, finally, transiency. Close attention will reveal that exactly the same
phenomenological features are present in the psychical manifestations of partial epileptic attacks:
paroxysm, automatism, a marked intensity of awareness giving the epileptic experience the
characteristic of something extraordinary and beyond normality, the impression of clairvoyance,
etc.

23
Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopagite, op. cit., p. 212.
45


3

SOME LEADING CHRISTIAN MYSTICS

Up to now we have reviewed the extraordinary phenomena of the mystic process and compared
them with the psychic symptoms of partial epileptic seizures. We have seen that the same psychic
experiences are lived through in both cases: flashes of emotion, cognitive bursts of intuition and
certainty, blazes of impulsion. Now is the time to see how such experiences are recorded in the
doctrinal writings and biographies of different Christian mystics.
It was difficult to decide whether it would be better to set out those experiences according to
content, that is, dealing first with hallucinations, then with affective disturbances to continue with
cognitive ones, or perhaps order them by authors. The first option would afford a better description
of each of the psychic symptoms analysed, while the second has the advantage of allowing us to
deal better with the different and varied psychical manifestations occurring in each mystic, that is to
give a clearer idea of the clinical pattern of each religious. From the description of the varied sets of
symptoms, one consequence will be immediately clear: for such a characteristic syndrome and one
in which such varied psychical manifestations are present, from the medical point of view, the most
appropriate diagnosis is one of epilepsy.
Before starting our review author by author, we should point out an interesting coincidence
that may surprise readers familiar with our previous study, Mística y depresión: San Juan de la
Cruz
24
: the mystics dealt with here, with such varied psychical symptoms, are practically the same
ones shown to be suffering from endogenous depression in that study. The fact that these religious
have been considered first endogenous depressives and later epileptics should not surprise us,
however, for, as we saw when we dealt with the clinical treatment of epilepsy, one of the frequent
symptoms of this illness is an affective experience of great sadness which, when repeated, is a
clinical pattern in every way similar to that of endogenous depression. It is even possible for these
depressive phases to alternate with opposing ones of joy and expansiveness, becoming in all ways
similar to bipolar disorders. In such cases, as Henri Ey says, “manic depressive states can replace
epileptic states”.
25


24 J. Álvarez, Mística y depresión: San Juan de la Cruz [Mysticism and Depression: St John of the Cross], Trotta,
Madrid, 1997.
25 Mentioned by H. Ey, Études psyschiatriques III [Psychiatric Studies III], Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1954, p. 571.
46
The mystics in question, as well as the affective experiences mentioned, will also show the
whole range of symptoms that we have been pointing out as characteristic of epilepsy: crises of
depersonalization or derealization, more or less complex visual and auditory hallucinations,
autoscopy, intense and disconcerting attacks of anguish compatible with panic attacks, experiences
of déjà vu and other paramnesias, psychical manifestations with a cognitive content such as flashes
of intuition imposing themselves on the consciousness with tremendous force, together with the
impression of absolute truth, vivid suicidal impulses, etc.


1. St Paul (10?-65 A.D.)

There are many passages in the Bible where epileptic phenomena appear in more or less larvate
forms, but in the Second Book of Kings we find what is without a doubt a clear case of a partial
epileptic seizure of musicogenic origin. The episode in question is the one referred to earlier in
which Elisha, in order to prophesy as requested by the kings of Edom, Judah and Israel asks for the
presence of a minstrel, who, with his melodies, helps him to achieve ecstasy.
Now, regarding the presence of epilepsy in the Bible, a case standing out from all the others
is that of St Paul, the Saul of the Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, since Jean Martin Charcot described
St Paul as an epileptic over a hundred years ago, there has been no shortage of scientific studies
along the same lines: all of them underline the epileptic nature which from the neurobiological point
of view may be ascribed to the visions and ecstasies of the apostle from Tarsus.
26
For a recent study,
let us see what P. Vercelletto maintains:

The Apostle Paul suffered from a chronic illness. Epilepsy seems the most probable
hypothesis. Certain passages in the Pauline epistles refer to facial contortions, both sensitive
and motor, occurring just after an attack of ecstasy.
27


The epileptic phenomena in St Paul are described quite clearly in the Bible. St Luke gives a
first description of them in the Acts of the Apostles:

While he was still on the road and nearing Damascus, suddenly a light flashed from the sky
all around him. He fell to the ground and hard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute

26 Among others, the following scientific papers may be consulted concerning epilepsy in St Paul: E. Foote-Smith and
L. Bayne, “Joan of Arc”, in Epilepsia 32 (1991), pp. 810-15; P. Vercelletto, “Saint Paul disease. Ecstasia and ecstatic
seizures”, in Rev. Neurol. (Paris) 150 (1994), pp. 835-39; D. Landsborough, “St Paul temporal lobe epilepsy”, in J.
Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry 50 (1987), pp. 659-64; E. Foote-Smith and T.J. Smith, “Emmanuel Swedenborg”, in
Epilepsia 37 (1996), pp. 211-18.
27 P. Vercelletto, art. cit., p. 835.
47
me?” “Tell me; Lord,” he said, “who you are.” The voice answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are
persecuting. But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you have to do.”[...] Saul got
up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could not see; so they led him by the hand and
brought him into Damascus. He was blind for three days, and took no food or drink. (Acts 9, 3-9).

An intense and sudden light flashing and throwing him to the ground, and a voice that
persuades him to change the direction of his life in an instant, together with the neurological
symptom of blindness, are the main semiological elements of this seizure. We can get some idea of
the force with which Saul must have lived this experience, with visual hallucinations in the form of
phosphenes and hallucinatory dialogues, from the fact that, from the moment of the famous vision
on the road to Damascus onwards, the man who up to then had made the persecution of Christians
the basic meaning of his life was thenceforth to devote all his efforts to defending and spreading
Christianity.
It would be Paul himself who was to complete the description of his probable epilepsy. He
did this in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. We refer to that charming passage in which,
convinced that he has no reason to be considered less than the other apostles who boast of their own
merits, he too dares to presume of his own ecstasy:

I am obliged to boast. It does no good; but I shall go on to tell of visions and revelations
granted by the Lord. I know a Christian man who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of
it, I do not know – God knows) was caught up as far as the third heaven. And I know that this same
man (whether in the body or out of it, I do not know – God knows) was caught up into paradise, and
heard words so secret that human lips may not repeat them. (2 Corinthians 12, 1-4).

The intensity of the experience of this attack of ecstasy is summed up well in the ineffability
of the words that the Apostle heard, which are so strong and so rich in content that “human lips may
not repeat them”.


2. St Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430)

St Augustine, considered “the greatest of the Fathers of the Church”
28
, was born at Tagaste in the
year 354 and died in the city of Hippo, of which he was bishop, after seventy-six years of very
intense and fecund life. The expert on patristics B. Altaner has said this of him:

28 M.F. Sciacca, “St Augustine”, in V. Bompiani (ed.), Diccionario de autores I [Dictionary of Authors I], Hora,
Barcelona, 1992, p. 26.
48

What Origen was for the theological science of the 3rd and 4th centuries, Augustine was in a
much more lasting and efficient way for the whole life of the Church in all later centuries
[...] He was the great artificer of western culture in the Middle Ages.
29


Like Paul, he was one of humanity’s most outstanding figures and, again like Paul, he shows
significant evidence of having been an epileptic. And why do we think this?
In the first place, St Augustine describes in his works the psychical phenomena occurring
during ecstasy with an accuracy and detail that no author had offered before and, indeed, his
classification of the mystic visions as corporal, imaginary and intellectual has remained alive in
spiritual theology down to the present.
But we also have available biographical data that suggest that the great African bishop may
have suffered from epileptic fits throughout his life. Let us first remember the important role played
by music in inducing and evoking extraordinary religious experiences. Indeed, referring to his own
experience, Augustine describes sudden fits of weeping, accompanied by intense joy, which for his
passiveness and their intensity are totally reminiscent of musicogenic epileptic seizures:

How greatly did I weep in Thy hymns and canticles, deeply moved by the voices of Thy
sweet-speaking Church! The voices flowed into mine ears, and the truth was poured forth
into my heart, whence the agitation of my piety overflowed, and my tears ran over, and
blessed was I therein.
30

Notwithstanding, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of Thy Church, at the
outset of my recovered faith.
31


These paroxysms of “sweet weeping” passively and automatically induced by music in St
Augustine lead us to think in terms of reflex seizures. But there are not only musicogenic seizures in
St Augustine’s life. In his Confessions, we also find signs of other types of epileptic discharge. So,
in the famous scene of his conversion, which took place when he was with Alipius in the garden of
his house in Milan, he offers us the description of what would seem to be a psychomotor attack.
Feeling very excited and full of inner turmoil because of the intense pressure he had been subjecting
himself to over the past few months in search of his definite conversion, this extraordinary thing
happened to him:

29 Mentioned by G. Reale and D. Antiseri, Historia del pensamiento filosófico y científico I [History of Philosophic and
Scientific Thought], Herder, Barcelona, 1988, p. 379.
30 St Augustine, Confessions, electronic edition, New Advent Catholic Supersite, Barclona, 1961, book 9, chapter VI,
section 14.
31 Ibid., book 10, chapter XXXIII, section 50
49

Finally, in the very fever of my irresolution, I made many of those motions with my body
which men sometimes desire to do, but cannot, if either they have not the limbs, or if their
limbs be bound with fetters, weakened by disease, or hindered in any other way. Thus, if I
tore my hair, struck my forehead, or if, entwining my fingers, I clasped my knee, this I did
because I willed it. But I might have willed and not done it, if the power of motion in my
limbs had not responded.
32


Although the niceties that St Augustine uses here to distinguish between will as a way of
wanting, on the one hand, and as a decision-making function on the other, tend to obscure the facts
rather than clear them up, he would seem to be describing an attack involving a storm of
involuntary movements, which points to a psychomotor seizure. But he goes on to add, as though
continuing his description of the same episode, other extraordinary psychical manifestations
happening at the same time as the motor seizure and which are an even stronger indication of a
partial epileptic attack:

But when a profound reflection had, from the secret depths of my soul, drawn together and
heaped up all my misery before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm,
accompanied by as mighty a shower of tears. I flung myself down, how, I know not, under a
certain fig-tree, giving free course to my tears, and the streams of mine eyes gushed out [...]
I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo, I
heard the voice as of a boy or girl, I know not which, coming from a neighbouring house,
chanting, and oft repeating, "Take up and read; take up and read." So, restraining the torrent
of my tears, I rose up, interpreting it no other way than as a command to me from Heaven to
open the book of St Paul’s Epistles, and to read the first chapter I should light upon.
33


This experience, tears flowing automatically together with the hallucination of a voice
interpreted as being of heavenly origin, contains two of the symptoms typical of ecstatic epileptic
attacks. The words “I do not know how or in what posture I lay” added by St Augustine here are
more evidence of an alteration of consciousness, also typical of epileptic seizures.


3. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)


32 Ibid., book 8, chapter VIII, section 20.
33 Ibid., book 8, chapter XII, section 28.
50
Hildegard of Bingen is, without a doubt, one of the leading figures of German mysticism. This
12th-century Benedictine nun, who achieved great renown in her lifetime, corresponding with popes
and emperors, was to exert great influence on monastic circles in the centuries after her death.
Though frail of health, she was endowed with a formidable personality. She stood out especially as
a mystic writer and composer of music.
She was born in the German town of Bermesheim in 1098. The daughter of noble parents,
she was entrusted at the age of eight to the Benedictine nuns at Disibodenberg, near Bingen. In
1136, on the death of her beloved Jutta, who had always been her spiritual mistress, she was
appointed magistra (abbess) of the convent. Four hundred years before the great Teresa of Ávila
was to do the same, she devoted herself to the founding of new monasteries of her order, something
unheard of in a woman of her day. She founded communities at Rupertsberg and Eibingen, where
she died on the 17th September 1179.
She set out her mystic experiences both in her religious writings and in her musical
compositions. Outstanding among the former are the Liber vitæ meritorum, the Liber divinorum
operum and, more especially, the Scivias
34
, in which she narrates her visions and explains why she
gave the book its name:

In a vision, I understood that the first book of my visions would be called Scivias, because it
is through the path of living light that it has come about.
35


She was a woman who was exceptionally gifted for music and she composed many scores of
a religious nature which she herself attributed to Divine inspiration, which explains why she called
them Symphonia harmoniæ cælestium revelationum. She conceived the universe as a great
symphony, just like the human soul, on which, in her Liber vitæ meritorum, she says: “Anima
hominis symphoniam in se habet et symphonizans est”.
36

It is not by chance that the titles of her works, both literary and musical, refer to supernatural
visions and revelations. Indeed, from beginning to end, Hildegard’s life was punctuated with
extraordinary experiences that seem to have the characteristics of intensity, passivity and paroxysm
normal in partial epileptic attacks.
The remarkable fact that these psychical phenomena began to show at the age of three
obliges us to rule out other possible psychogenic process and lead us to think even more in terms of
epilepsy. She herself tells us that it was at that early age when she began to have simple visual
hallucinations in which she saw many lights. She also says that she spoke innocently with

34 Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias: Conoce los caminos, Trotta, Madrid, 1999.
35 M. Scharader, “Sainte Hildegarde de Bingen”, in M. Viller (ed.), Dictionnaire de Spiritualité VII [Dictionary of
Spirituality VII], Beauchesne, Paris, 1969, p. 513.
36 Ibid., p. 514.
51
everybody about here experiences until, at about fifteen, she realized how overwhelmed people
were by the content of her conversation:

I was born in those days and my parents in their inspiration offered me to God, and at the
age of three I saw such a great light that my soul was beside itself, but because of my tender
years I could not reveal anything about my visions. However, when I was eight, I was taken
to a spiritual conversation with God and until the age of fifteen I saw many things and spoke
spontaneously about them, and those who heard me were amazed.
37


From then on she shared this delicate and peculiar information with nobody but her spiritual
mistress, Jutta. These visions were with her throughout her life, as she herself says in a letter to
Sigebert of Gembloux:

Since childhood, when I still had no strength in my bones, in my nerves and veins, up to the
present, when I am over seventy, I have contemplated this vision of my soul. And my soul
ascends in this vision following God’s wishes, right up the height of the firmament and very
varied atmospheres, and extends to many towns and villages far from me, in immense
countries and regions [...] And I do not perceive this with my outer ears, or in the thoughts of
my heart, or through any of the five senses.
38


Having told us that her visions do not occur through the senses and are not present in the
outer visual field, but take place in the inner consciousness, she goes on to explain the
characteristics of the vision that she experiences:

However, the light that I see is not physical, but infinitely clearer than the shining of the sun
[...]. What I see and learn in this vision remains in my memory for a long time, so I
remember what I have seen and perceived. I see it and hear it, and I know that I know it at
that very moment, I possess it in an instant.
39


Once again, in this description we find the intensity and strength of an epileptic discharge:
light infinitely clearer than the shining of the sun, immediate learning of an extremely vivid
intuitive knowledge that is engraved in the memory with indelible force. Furthermore, however,

37 J.P. Migne, Patrologiæ CXCVII, Petit Montrouge, 1855, pp. 102-103.
38 Mentioned by M. Buber, Confessions extatiques [Ecstatic Confessions], Éditions Grasse & Fasquelle, Paris, 1995, p.
64.
39 Ibid., p. 64.
52
Hildegard mentions expressly the phenomenological feature that Schmidt considers central to and
defining of the epileptic aura: instantaneousness.
40

This religious speaks repeatedly of these visual hallucinations that she had experienced since
childhood in a completely passive way, and of the great intensity of the dazzling light coming from
the sky and that suddenly floods her whole brain:

In the year 1141 of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, when I was forty-two
years and seven months old, a burning light coming from heaven appeared in my mind. Like
a flame which does not burn but rather enkindles, it enflamed my heart and my breast, just
as the sun warms something with its rays.
41


In short, the visions experienced by Hildegard started at such an early age and include some
characteristic phenomena that, for an interpretation arrived at from a neurophysiological angle, no
process other than epilepsy may be considered.


4. The Blessed Angela of Foligno (1245?-1309)

And what can be said of Angela of Foligno, the blessed Italian in whose biography we shall come
across so many visual and auditory hallucinations, joyful ecstasies alternating with sudden
depressive dysthymia, fits of depersonalization, panic attacks, etc.?
She was born at Foligno, an Italian city where she lived with her mother, her husband and
her eight children until she was forty-two. Like so many other mystics, Angela changed the
direction of her life suddenly just when she was “nel mezzo del cammin della sua vita” (“halfway
through her life).
42
At that age she went through one of those intense ecstatic experiences that we
shall find so often repeated in her Memorial. She herself tells us in the ninth of the twenty-six steps
comprising the work:

I was instructed, illumined, and shown the way of the cross in the following manner: I was
inspired with the thought that if I wanted to go to the cross, I would need to strip myself in
order to be lighter and go naked to it. This would entail forgiving all who had offended me,
stripping myself of everything worldly, of all attachments to men and women, of my friends
and relatives, and everyone else, and, likewise, of my possessions and even my very self.

40 H. Ey, op. cit. III, p. 545.
41 Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, Bear and Company, Santa Fe, 1986, p. 2
42 Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia [The Divine Comedy], BAC, Madrid, 1965, p. 21.
53
Then I would be free to give my heart to Christ from whom I had received so many graces,
and to walk along the thorny path, that is, the path of tribulations.
43


Having decided to start a new life, she sought counsel from Brother Arnold, a Franciscan
monk working as the bishop’s chaplain and who from then on would be the blessed lady’s spiritual
director and biographer. Indeed, to Angela’s dictation, Brother Arnold was to write down the
spiritual and mystic journey of his pupil, from her conversion up to the heights of mystic union: this
is the Libro della Vita, ordered in twenty-six passages, or steps.
Her mother, her husband and her eight children were unable to understand what had
happened. In under three years, they would all be dead. Free of these affective bonds, she began a
new life: she disposed of all her goods and, attracted by the life of poverty of the Franciscan
tertiaries, she joined them.
From the very moment of her conversion, she began to have visions, some consoling, others
painful, the former being doubtless more frequent:

In the fourteenth step, while I was standing in prayer, Christ on the cross appeared more
clearly to me while I was awake, that is to say, he gave me an even greater awareness of
himself than before. He then called me to place my mouth on the wound in his side. It
seemed to me that I saw and drank the blood, which was freshly flowing from his side. His
intention was to make me understand that by this blood he would cleanse me. And at this I
began to experience a great joy, although when I thought about the passion I was still filled
with sadness.
44


These ecstatic visions were accompanied by the characteristic passivity of epileptic
experiences and were experienced with such force that they were never forgotten, so whenever she
recalled them, she would relive the bliss and knowledge that they entailed:

Once I was in the cell, where I had enclosed myself for the Great Lent. I was enjoying and
meditating on a certain saying in the gospel, a saying which I found of great value and
extremely delightful [...]. Immediately I was led into a vision and I was told that the
understanding of the Epistle is something so delightful that if one grasped it properly, one
would completely forget everything belonging to this world. And he who was leading me
asked me: “Do you want to have this experience?” As I agreed and ardently desired it, he
immediately led me into this experience. From it I understood how sweet it is to experience

43 The Book of the Blessed Angela of Foligno in Complete Works, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1993, p. 126
44 Ibid., p. 128.
54
the riches of God and I immediately and completely forgot the world [...]. I opened my eyes
and felt an immense joy from what I had seen, but also great sorrow at having lost it.
Recalling this experience still gives me great pleasure. From then on I was filled with such
certitude, such light and such ardent love of God that I went on to affirm, with the utmost
certainty, that nothing of these delights of God is being preached. Preachers cannot preach it;
they do not understand what they preach.
45


On other occasions, Angela adds interesting details about the neurological symptoms
accompanying the seizures, which lends even more weight to the idea that they are of an epileptic
nature, as in this new example, where the attack is accompanied by aphasia:

One time, I was inspired and drawn to meditate on the delights one experiences in
contemplating the divinity and humanity of Christ. From it I received the greatest
consolation I had yet experienced. It was so great that for most of that day I remained
standing in my cell where I was praying, strictly confined and alone. My heart was so
overwhelmed with delight that I fell to the ground and lost my power of speech.
46


Alongside blissful ecstasies, she also describes experiences with an intensely painful
content, often inexplicable feelings of guilt taking over her consciousness in a paroxysmal and
automatic manner, and which alternate with equally intense sensations of joy for no apparent
reason. It is just what we saw when dealing with partial epileptic seizures, in which there were
automatically alternating affects of joy and sadness:

Once when I was meditating on the great suffering which Christ endured on the cross [...].
And then such was my sorrow over the pain that Christ had endured that I could no longer
stand on my feet. I bent over and sat down; I stretched out my arms on the ground and
inclined my head on them. Then Christ showed me his throat and arms.
And then my former sorrow was transformed into a joy so intense that I can say
nothing about it. This was a new joy, different from the others. I was so totally absorbed by
this vision that I was not able to see, hear or feel anything else. My soul saw this vision so
clearly that I have no doubts about it, nor will I ever question it. I was so certain of the joy
which remained in my soul that henceforth I do not believe that I will ever lose this sign of
God’s presence.
47



45 Ibid., p. 130-31.
46 Ibid., p. 131.
47 Ibid., p. 145
55
The italics are ours, and are there to underline the sudden change from a feeling of
depression to the opposing one of expansiveness. No more concise a description could be given of
this alternating of grief and joy characteristic of epilepsy: “And then my former sorrow was
transformed into a joy so intense...” Angela goes on to say that during the experience she “was not
able to see, hear or feel anything else”, referring to the disturbance experienced in her
consciousness, with the consequent inability to react to her surroundings.



5. John Tauler (1300-61)

The German John Tauler, probably the writer with the greatest influence on the mysticism of the
Spanish Golden Age
48
, is another religious in whom we detect such a varied and polymorphic
psychopathology that we immediately think in terms of partial epileptic seizures.
Hardly anything is known of his life. Practically all that is known for certain is the date of
his death, as it was engraved on his tombstone: “In the year of Our Lord 1361, on the 16th day of
the month of June, the feast of Saints Cyricus and Julietta, our brother John Tauler died”
49
, aged
about sixty. At fifteen, he joined the Order of Preachers and was a disciple of Eckhart at the
Dominicans’ Studium Generale in Cologne, where a fellow disciple was the Blessed Henry Suso.
Despite the lack of biographical information, sufficient evidence exists to lead us to believe
that the Strasbourg mystic suffered from paroxysmal attacks in which he experienced blissful
ecstasy, but also sudden sadness and anguish, an indication of epileptic discharges. We shall begin
with the experiences of bliss:

Once when he was weeping bitterly, two angels appeared to him to console him, whereupon
he said unto the Lord: No consolation do I seek, my God, enough it is for me to keep the
place where you, Lord, dwell in my soul, so that nothing may appear in it. When he had said
this, he was completely surrounded by so much light that it cannot be described in words.
50



48 Regarding this major influence of the Rhinish mystic on Spanish mysticism, we refer readers to such complete
studies as that of B. García Rodríguez, entitled “Taulero y San Juan de la Cruz” [Tauler and St John of the Cross], in
Vida Sobrenatural [Supernatural Life] 50 (1949), pp. 49-62, and 51 (1950), pp. 423-36; J. Orcibal’s monograph San
Juan de la Cruz y los místicos renano-flamencos [St John of the Cross and the Rhineland-Flemish Mystics], FUE,
Salamanca, 1987; and P. Groult’s Los místicos de los Países Bajos y la literatura española del siglo XVI [The Mystics of
the Low Countries and Spanish Literature in the 16th Century], FUE, Madrid, 1976.
49 P. Groult, op. cit., p. 93.
50 J. Tauler, Instituciones. Temas de oración [Institutions. Matters for Prayer], Sígueme, Salamanca, 1990, p. 43.
56
On another occasion, when giving details of the qualities of the sublime light perceived in
this state, he sums up precisely the eidetic features proper to epileptic discharges, that is intensity,
passivity and their paroxysmal nature:

In short, that shining light (if thus it must be called), because of its incomprehensibility and
our blindness, could also legitimately be called darkness or mist. But is momentariness,
suddenness and brevity is a result of its nobility and of our smallness, and of the workings of
our understanding, whose capacity it quite beyond, for while our understanding tries to take
it in, it suddenly takes flight.
51


As usual, alongside these experiences of bliss, there are those of intense purifying anguish,
which also have the features of a comitial attack:

God gives yet another myrrh with a much more bitter taste: inner anguish and darkness.
Sufferings that consume the body, the blood and the whole being of those who experience
them fully. Inner works are even capable of changing the hue of the face much more than
anything applied to the outside, for God visits on us horrible temptations, extraordinary,
exceptional and unheard-of ordeals that are only known and understood by those who suffer
from them.
52


Here we find the same ineffability that characterizes the ecstatic experiences, but applied to
inexplicable affects of grief: “extraordinary, exceptional and unheard-of ordeals that are only
known and understood by those who suffer from them”.
Like so many other mystics, Tauler speaks of suffering alternating suddenly, automatically
and for no apparent reason with experiences of bliss and joy:

Later, when Our Lord had prepared this man with unbearable oppression, for this prepares
him much better that all the practices available to all men, the Lord comes and leads this
soul to the third degree. There he removes the veil from his eyes and reveals the truth to him.
At that moment, the sun bursts out shining, putting his grief completely to flight. Anguishes,
miseries, calamities, all are dissipated and he seems to pass from death to life.
53



51 Ibid., p. 145.
52 Ibid., p. 238.
53 Ibid., p. 293.
57
Again the sudden and paroxysmal change of mood – “At that moment, the sun bursts out
shining, [...] and he seems to pass from death to life” – from suffering to bliss. Just what happens in
partial epileptic discharges, with the alternation of depressive and expansive feelings.


6. The Blessed Henry Suso (1295-1366)

Unlike John Tauler’s life, of which little is known, his compatriot Henry Suso’s is recounted in a
biography written by one of his disciples, Elisabeth Stagel, and retouched by Suso himself at the
end of his life, and which can therefore almost be considered an autobiography.
He was born into a noble family at the end of the 13th century at Uberlingen, a village on the
shore of Lake Constance. At the age of thirteen, he entered the local Dominican monastery, where
he did the noviciate and basic studies of Philosophy and Theology. Around 1325, he was sent to the
Studium Generale in Cologne to finish his studies of Theology. There he met John Tauler, both of
them being disciples of Eckhart.
At the beginning of his conversion, it came to pass that one day, the feast of St Agnes, your
servant returned to the choir after the midday meal. He was alone, on the last level of the nave. At
the time he was suffering deeply, for an irksome grief oppressed his heart. He was there, with
nobody near, when his soul was suspended in his body, or outside it. He saw and heard what no
tongue is capable of expressing:

What he beheld had no manner at all of being and yet it afforded a pleasure like that
he could experience on beholding everything. His heart was full of wishes and, nevertheless,
all his wishes were fulfilled. The Brother Preacher did nothing but behold this shining
brightness, completely forgetting himself and his surroundings. Was it day or night? He did
not know. It was as though he was in a manifestation of the sweetness of eternal life, with
the sensation of rest and silence that one must experience in that life.
54


Here we have the young Suso steeped in an amorphous state of blissful ecstasy, unable to
say exactly whether it is happening “inside or outside his body”, which strongly suggests an
experience of autoscopy in which the ego is taken outside the body, and during which he only
perceives a “shining brightness” that brings his bliss to a climax, while satisfying all the desires in
his heart. Previous pains have disappeared as if by magic. What he went through was of such a
nature and intensity that he was made to see and understand what no tongue could express. Again,
all the signs of the psychical experiences of an epileptic discharge.

54 H. Suso, Œuvres mystiques I, Lecoffre, Paris, 1899, pp. 16-17.
58
That said, Suso’s works contain many other examples of experiences with similar
characteristics to this one occurring throughout his life, some blissful, some grievous, all of them
strongly suggestive of partial hypersynchronic paroxysms, both for their vivid intensity and for the
automatic way in which they take over his consciousness. Especially frequent are those concerning
ecstasy accompanied by auditory hallucinations or pseudo-hallucinations:

One day round about then, when your servant was having his morning meal in the refectory,
he heard inside himself a gentle melody and his heart straight away felt possessed. While the
morning star rose over the horizon, the voice uttered sweet and sonorous words inside him:
Stella Maria maris hodie processit ad ortum. This song that he was hearing was so sweet
and so spiritual that his soul felt itself transported, and he began to sing with joy.
55

One day around Shrovetide [...], angelic spirits suddenly began to intone the
beautiful prayer: Illuminare, illuminare, Jerusalem, etc. and this singing resonated in a
wonderful and sweet way in the bottom of his soul. When the angels had been singing for
some time, his soul was overflowing with joy, and his body, weakened by the excitement,
could no longer bear so much bliss and burning tears welled up from his eyes.
56


Likewise, he reports manifestations with a content of grief, where a sudden and intense
moral suffering automatically invades his consciousness. Like so many mystics, Suso also presents
a pattern of experiences of grief suddenly alternating with corresponding ones of bliss, no apparent
cause existing for either, nor for the rapid changes:

When You leave me, my soul feels like a sick man who has lost all taste and for whom all
seems bitter. The body feels slothful, the spirit weighed down, inwardly my heart seems
hardened and outwardly I am steeped in a profound sadness. Everything I see, everything I
hear is to my disliking, even those things containing goodness, for I have lost the ability to
measure my conduct [...]. But, Lord, when the bright morning star rises in the middle of my
soul, then all grief is gone, the darkness disperses, and with the light, joy takes over. Then
my heart smiles, my spirit is renewed and my soul is jubilant; I bathe in joy and everything
around me speaks of You [...]. The soul is so inundated with brightness, truth and sweetness,
that it forgets its pains and fatigues, the heart feels free and ready for contemplation, the
tongue prone to speak with eloquence and the body ready for any task [...].Oh, Lord, might I

55 Ibid., p. 29.
56 Ibid., p. 31.
59
be given the power to remain thus for a long time! For, often everything disappears in an
instant and again I feel completely abandoned and stripped of everything.
57


Again, the sudden and inexplicable succession of states of bliss alternating with states of
sadness, so characteristic of partial epileptic attacks, like fits with an alternation of the depressive
and manic phases of manic depression, or bipolar disorder. Indeed, this quotation from Suso is
doubtlessly a precise and polished description of the exaltation experienced by all the psychical
faculties during the manic phase: an expansive mood with euphoria and affects of bliss, extreme
sureness of oneself to take on and carry out any task, a heightened feeling of self-esteem, and so on.


7. St Ignatius of Loyola (1495-1556)

St Ignatius of Loyola is not normally included among that select group of Spanish mystics who
always appear together crowning the Spanish Golden Age: Francisco de Osuna, Friar Luis of León,
St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross and others. Yet, he represents one of the highest points of
16th-century Spanish mysticism. It may be because his mystical writings have not won any literary
recognition on a par with those of St Teresa of Ávila or St John of the Cross. Be that as it may, his
Autobiography, though written in a rough and coarse style, with the over-use of infinitives typical
of people who grow up speaking Basque, does however possess surprising force and beauty. To our
way of thinking, it is one of the most beautiful documents of spiritual literature of the 16th century.
He was born in Loyola, a village in the province of Guipúzcoa, probably in 1495, although
the exact date of his birth is unknown. Íñigo (his original name) himself accurately sums up the first
part of his life in a few words:

Up to his twenty-sixth year he was a man given to worldly vanities, and having a vain and
overpowering desire to gain renown, he found special delight in the exercise of arms.
58


At that age he was wounded by the French in the siege of Pamplona, after which the course
of his life changed drastically. One winces at the thought of the courage and fortitude with which he
bore the suffering of the various medical butcherings he voluntarily underwent in the attempt to
recompose his sorely afflicted leg. He himself brings it out as an example of vanity and youthful
arrogance:

57 Ibid., pp. 66-67.
58 A Pilgrim’s Journey. The Autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1991,
p. 7.
60

And being in Pamplona some twelve or fifteen days, they transported him on a litter to his
home country. His condition was serious and the physicians and surgeons, summoned from
many places, agreed that the leg should be broken again and the bones reset. [...] The
butchery was repeated and during it, as in other such operations that he had undergone
before and would later undergo, he never uttered a word, nor did he show any sign of pain
other than clenching his fists.
59


While convalescing from the serious illness, which kept him on his back in bed, and for a
lack of other more interesting works, he was given the Vita Christi of Ludolf of Saxony, better
known as Ludolf the Carthusian, and a book of the lives of saints in Spanish. As has traditionally
been maintained, the man who had been dreaming up to then of being a worthy hero in the service
of the Emperor would thenceforth become, because of those religious readings, just as much a
hero – a greater one perhaps – but in the service of the King of Heaven.
For us the explanation of the religious readings as the origin of his sudden and definite
conversion is not enough. Indeed, it does not seem that the sudden change of course undergone by
Ignatius’s life could have been a gradual process established by the reading of texts. On the
contrary, everything points to an event that took place suddenly and instantaneously. Let us not
forget that while he was still convalescing, Ignatius made an explicit confession of wanting to
remain in this world, for which he considered it absolutely necessary to rid himself of the hideous
spectacle offered by his leg:

When the bones did knit together, the one below the knee rested on top of the other, so that
the leg was shortened and the bone so protruded that it made an unsightly bump. Because he
was determined to make a way for himself in the world he could not tolerate such ugliness
and thought it marred his appearance. Thus he instructed the surgeons to remove it, if
possible. They told him that it could certainly be sawn away, but the pain would be greater
than any he had suffered up to now, since the leg had healed, and it would take some time to
remove the bump. Nevertheless, he was determined to endure this martyrdom to satisfy his
personal taste. His older brother was horrified and said that he himself would not dare to
undergo such pain, but the wounded man suffered it with his accustomed patience [our
italics].
60



59 Ibid., pp. 9-10.
60 Ibid., pp. 10-11.
61
This was not a change gradually incubated while certain reflections were made and
meditated on. Rather we are led to believe that that is was sudden and instant. Indeed, his
conversion was so sudden that he had no time to adapt his old courtly habits to the new situation
and we see him, newly converted, still affecting the manners of the world to defend the woman who
is now the Lady of Heaven:

Of the many idle things that came to him, one took such a hold on his heart that without his
realizing it, it engrossed him for two or three hours at a time. He dreamed what he would
achieve in the service of a certain lady and thought of the means he would take to go to the
land where she lived, the clever sayings and words he would speak to her, and the knightly
deeds he would perform for her. He was so enraptured with these thoughts of his that he
never considered how impossible it was for him to accomplish them, for the lady was not
one of the lesser nobility, neither was she a countess, nor a duchess, but her station was
much higher than any of these.
61


And if it was not the reflecting on his reading, what was it, then, that brought about that
sudden and radical conversion? What experience could have left such a deep mark, making his life
take a completely new course?
For us it is obvious: it was the same cause as we have seen time and again in so many other
mystics, the occurrence in his life of an “excessive experience”, that is a seizure of ecstasy. Ignatius
himself tells us in his Autobiography, in great detail, not just the content of that extraordinary
experience that he had in Loyola during his convalescence, but the far-reaching consequences it was
to have:

One night, as he lay sleepless, he clearly saw the likeness of Our Lady with the holy Child
Jesus, and because of this vision he enjoyed an excess of consolation for a remarkably long
time. He felt so great a loathsomeness for all his past life, especially for the deeds of the
flesh, that it seemed to him that all the images that had been previously imprinted on his
mind were now erased. Thus from that hour until August 1553, when this is being written,
he never again consented, not even in the least matter, to the motions of the flesh. Because
of this effect in him he concluded that this had been God’s doing, though he did not dare to
specify it any further, nor say anything more than to affirm what he had said above.
62



61 Ibid., p. 13.
62 Ibid., p. 16.
62
“Because of this effect in him he concluded that this had been God’s doing.” Ignatius was
convinced inwardly that the vision that he had just experienced was of a Divine nature, but he did
not yet see fit to reveal it (“though he did not dare to specify it any further”). It would not be until
thirty years later, when he realized the tremendous force of an experience whose effects were still
being felt, that he dared to speak openly on its supernatural origin. For the time being, then, he
preferred to adduce as the cause of his conversion what has been traditionally maintained: the effect
on his soul of his reading on religion. Again we must insist: because of the sudden, radical and
definite nature of the change, we are inclined to consider the ecstatic experience to be the cause of
such an utter transformation.
From that moment on the founder of the Society of Jesus would undergo a number of
psychical phenomena, such as visions, ecstasy, auditions, forced thinking, and sudden changes of
mood, which, from the medical point of view, can only be explained by the diagnosis of epilepsy.
The epileptic nature of all these symptoms seems quite clear, and is borne out by numerous
scientific studies. Especially interesting from this point of view is W.W. Meissner’s monograph
Ignacio de Loyola. Psicología de un santo
63
, which has a copious bibliography on the subject. We
may conclude, like the Jesuit psychiatrist Meissner, that all this pathology is only explicable in
terms of discharges in the limbic or temporal lobe:

His experiences of apparitions and visions, as well as states of mystic elevation and ecstasy,
with their intense and physically painful affective reactions, may well have been caused by
such limbic attacks.
64


But if the first crisis experienced by Loyola during convalescence may still offer some
doubt, all doubt disappears when we read about the events at Manresa some months later. Let us
examine his account of his vision there, which is very suggestive of phosphenes of epileptic origin:

While living in this hospital it many times happened that in full daylight he saw a form in
the air near him and this form gave him much consolation because it was exceedingly
beautiful. He did not understand what it really was, but it somehow seemed to have the
shape of a serpent and had many things that shone like eyes, but were not eyes. He received
much delight and consolation from gazing upon this object and the more he looked upon it,
the more his consolation increased, but when the object vanished he became disconsolate.
65



63 W.W. Meissner, Ignacio de Loyola. Psicología de un santo [Ignatius of Loyola. The Psychology of a Saint], Anaya
and Mario Muchnik, Madrid, 1995.
64 Ibid., p. 404.
65 St Ignatius of Loyola, op. cit., p. 29.
63
In this description we find sufficient semiological elements to make us think immediately in
terms of a partial epileptic seizure: a simple visual hallucination appearing spontaneously and
accompanied by an intense sensation of bliss.
And there is yet another ecstasy of cognitive content, together with very vivid affect and
automatic weeping:

One day, as he was saying the Hours of Our Lady on the monastery’s steps, his
understanding was raised on high, so as to see the Most Holy Trinity under the aspect of
three keys on a musical instrument, and as a result he shed many tears and sobbed so
strongly that he could not control himself.
66


Aside from these ecstatic experiences, with visual hallucinations and sensations of intense
joy, other attacks in which the basic psychical experience is made up of auditory hallucinations also
accompanied by very pleasurable emotions are likewise characteristic. They are the enigmatic
loqüela attacks that Ignatius describes time and again in his Spiritual Diary, but without actually
saying what they consist of:

Before mass in my chamber and in the chapel, with many tears; in most of the mass without
tears and with much loqüela; also bringing on doubts about the pleasure or gentleness of the
loqüela that it should not be an evil spirit to bring an end to the spiritual visitation of tears; a
little later on, it seems that I took too much delight in the tone of loqüela regarding the
sound, without paying so much attention to the meaning of the words and of the loqüela.
67


But Ignatius contributes still more psychopathological manifestations apart from the ecstasy
seizures hitherto described, and which are also compatible with temporal epileptic discharges.
Indeed, during his stay in the city of Manresa (from March 1522 to February 1523), a number of
psychical symptoms would appear with an affective content that he himself lived through with great
bewilderment because of the absolutely passive nature of their imposition on his consciousness:

After the above-mentioned temptation he began to feel notable changes in his soul.
Sometimes he was so dejected that he found no enjoyment in the prayers he recited, nor
even in attending Mass, nor in any other form of prayer. Sometimes the exact opposite
happened to him, and so suddenly that it seemed he had stripped away all sadness and
desolation, just as one strips a cloak from another’s shoulders. He was astonished at these

66 Ibid., p. 36.
67 St Ignatius of Loyola, Autobiografía y Diario espiritual [Autobiography and Spiritual Diary], BAC, Madrid, 1992
pp. 286-87.
64
changes, which he had never before experienced, and said to himself: “What kind of new
life is this that we are now beginning?”
68


Again we have the time-honoured alternation of joy and sadness with no exterior cause to
explain the sudden changes. Again, all the ingredients of an epileptic discharge: the overwhelming
intensity of affective experiences, the suddenness of their appearance, and great bewilderment at the
automatic nature with which they are felt, so much so that Ignatius himself could not help saying
how surprised he was by the nature of the “new life...that we are now beginning”.
Together with these sudden affective changes, he also describes other experiences of his
time in Manresa of which the fundamental content consisted of forced thinking imposing itself on
his consciousness with no possibility of it releasing itself voluntarily from it:

Now he began to be greatly troubled with scruples [...] Though he understood that these
scruples were doing him much harm and it would be good to be free of them, still he could
not cast them off.
69


Here we find him suffering from serious scruples, on the other hand perfectly compatible
with his provenly obsessive personality. Yet at once he goes on to mention the phenomenological
characteristics, so that we immediately thing of forced thinking imposing itself automatically and
paroxystically on the awareness during the epileptic discharge.

Taken up with these thoughts he was many times vehemently tempted to throw himself into
a deep hole in his room which was near the place where he used to pray.
70


In short, in the biography of Ignatius of Loyola we discover such varied symptoms – ecstatic
experiences with visual and auditory hallucinations, intense consolation and bliss, sudden changes
of mood occurring without reason, forced thinking, obsessions and automatic impulses – that only
epilepsy allows us to include them in a single diagnosis.


8. St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82)


68 A Pilgrim’s Journey. The Autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1991,
p. 7.
69 Ibid., pp. 31-32.
70 Ibid., p. 33.
65
Born on the 28th March, 1515 in Ávila, at the age of eighteen she entered the Carmelite Order and
at forty-five set out to reform it. She is one of the leading figures of mysticism and literature of the
Spanish Golden Age.
Let us begin by pointing out that in the case of St Teresa, enough biographical information
exists for us to think that she suffered from generalized epileptic seizures at some point during her
life. This is what she tells us herself:

That night I had a fit, which left me unconscious for nearly four days, more or less. During
that time they gave me the Sacrament of Unction, and from hour to hour, moment to
moment, thought I was dying; they did nothing but repeat the Creed to me, as though I could
have understood any of it. There must have been many times when they were sure I was
dead, for afterwards I actually found some wax on my eyelids.
71



After this fit, which lasted for four days, I was in such a state that only the Lord can know
what intolerable sufferings I experienced; my tongue was bitten to pieces; nothing had
passed my lips; and because of this and of my great weakness my throat was choking me so
great that I could not even take water. All my bones seemed to be out of joint and there was
a terrible confusion in my head. As a result of the torments I had suffered during these days,
I was all doubled up, like a ball, and no more able to move arm, foot, hand or head than if I
had been dead, unless others moved them for me. I could move, I think, only one finger of
my right hand [our italics].
72


In this description there are objective signs that leave little room for doubt for a diagnosis of
generalized epileptic seizures: especially the biting of the tongue as a consequence of the tonic-
clonic convulsions typical of epileptic attacks. As Rof Carballo points out, “any student of Medicine
knows that tongue biting altogether excludes an attack of hysteria and that, therefore, the saint had a
cerebral meningeal process that gave rise to convulsions, and which left her in a ‘clamped-up’
position, rolled into a ball”.
73

On the other hand, the same varied and polymorphic symptoms come together in her as we
have just analysed in St Ignatius, and these are very suggestive of epilepsy. Just as in the case of the
founder of the Society of Jesus, here too there are many studies defending the idea of epilepsy as an

71 The Complete Works of St Teresa of Jesus, Vol. 1, Sheed and Ward, London, 1982, pp. 30-31.
72 Ibid., p. 32.
73 Mentioned by E. García-Albea Ristol, Teresa de Jesús: una ilustre epiléptica [Teresa of Ávila: an Illustrious
Epileptic], Wellcome Foundation and the Príncipe de Asturias University Hospital, Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, 1995, p.
19.
66
interpretation of the extraordinary phenomena undergone by the great mystic and Carmelite
reformer.
Along these lines, the neurologist Esteban Gacía-Albear Ristol has recently published a
short but interesting piece entitled Teresa de Jesús: una ilustre epiléptica that supposes a complete
review of St Teresa’s epilepsy, which concludes thus:

We think that, given her record, the morphology of the attacks and their similarity to other
cases, the saint suffered from ecstatic or Dostoyevskyan attacks possibly originating in the
right temporal lobe.
74


Indeed, from 1558 on, that is when she was forty-three years old, St Teresa went through a
number of ecstatic experiences, but also through a set of abnormal psychical manifestations – acute
crises of depersonalization, highly intense feelings of grief or joy automatically imposing
themselves on her consciousness, sharp turns in her mood, which would change from the most
abject sadness to the greatest bliss – experiences which show all the clinical characteristics of
partial epileptic seizures.
Let us first examine the Saint’s fits of ecstasy, but before looking at each one in turn, let us
see the phenomenological characteristics common to all of them, for this overview will set us
definitely on the trail of epilepsy. Indeed, as García-Albea Ristol says:

The ecstasies never occurred after different periods of retreat or culminated progressive
changes in the awareness as was common in other mystic experiences, but appeared
suddenly, surprising Teresa in very different situations, often not desired by her: “when I
was doing this, I was suddenly taken by a turn...”, “One year on St Paul’s Day when I was at
Mass, I saw a complete representation of this most sacred Humanity”, “While I was
meditating in this way, a strong impulse seized me...” The unexpected and unforeseeable
nature of the attacks, and the embarrassment of suffering from them in public, perturbs the
Carmelite so much that, far from telling everyone about them, she goes as far as begging for
them to disappear [...]. They were generally short or “very short”, the “space of an Ave
María” or a “whole Salve”, and only on one occasion does she tell of a longer duration, “an
hour and a half”.
75


But not only the sudden and brief nature that these ecstatic seizures have, but also our
observation in them of the typical awareness disturbance and sensorial hyperæsthesia typical of

74 Ibid., p. 37.
75 Ibid., p. 22.
67
complex partial discharges point the same way. For the neurologist García-Albea, there would seem
to be no doubt:

The sequence could be thus. Onset was with an elementary visual hallucination in the form
of light [...], whereupon “the senses were suspended”, that is attention and awareness were
greatly altered, so she cut herself off from external reality and paid attention to the “inner
reality”, to the extraordinary events about to take place [...]. Occasionally, when the attack
was especially intense, then the interior intensity would disappear and consciousness was
lost [...]. In this state the hallucinations occurred. They were usually complex [...], affected
several of the senses [...], were seen very clearly (“very real”) but with awareness of
hallucination.
76


Let us now analyse some of the contents of the fits, just as the saint herself describes them:

One year on St Paul’s Day when I was at Mass, I saw a complete representation of this most
sacred Humanity just as in a picture of his resurrection body [sic], in very great beauty and
majesty; this I described in detail to Your Reverence in writing, at your very insistent
request [...]. For if I spent years and years imagining how to invent anything so beautiful, I
could not do it, and I do not even know how I should try, for, even in its whiteness and
radiance alone, it exceeds all that we can imagine.
It is not a radiance which dazzles, but a soft whiteness and an infused radiance
which, without wearying the eyes, causes them the greatest delight [...]. It is light which
never gives place to night, and, being always light, is disturbed by nothing. It is of such a
kind, indeed, that no one, however powerful his intellect, could, in the whole course of his
life, imagine it as it is.
77


In this first quote we find the characteristic phenomena of the psychical symptoms of
epilepsy, that is intensity of the experience, and its passivity and automatic nature, imposing itself
on the awareness like something surprising and totally strange.
On other occasions she tells us of seizures in which the basic symptom of the ecstatic
paroxysm is not a visual hallucination but one of an auditory nature together with the mood
accompanying it:


76 Ibid., pp. 23-24.
77 The Complete Works of St Teresa of Jesus, op. cit., pp. 179-80.
68
While things were in that position, I went to a very lonely hermitage, of which this convent
has a number, and which contains a representation of Christ bound to the Column, and there
I begged Him to grant me this favour. Then I heard a very soft voice, speaking to me, as it
were, in a whisper. My whole body quivered with fear
and I tried to catch what the voice was saying, but I could not, and very soon it was gone.
My fear quickly left me, and, when it had passed, I experienced a calm, a joy and an inward
delight, and it amazed me that the mere hearing of a voice with my own bodily ears,
unaccompanied by any understanding of what it said, should have such an effect upon the
soul.
78


Alongside these visions and locutions of a blissful nature, St Teresa includes in her works
another set of symptoms also indicative of an intensification and paroxysmal narrowing of the
awareness, but now with a grievous content, with feelings of strangeness and derealization:

This favour also leaves a strange detachment, the nature of which I cannot possibly describe
[...] and [the body] will thus experience a new estrangement from things of the earth.
79


Likewise, she relates intense experiences of depression that install themselves in her mind
automatically and for no apparent reason:

Afterwards it produces a distress which we cannot ourselves bring about or remove once it
has come. I should very much like to explain this great distress, but I am afraid I cannot
possibly do so: still, I will say something about it if I can.
80


[…] very often a desire unexpectedly arises, in a way which I cannot explain. And this
desire, which in a single moment penetrates to the very depths of the soul, begins to weary it
so much that the soul soars upwards, far above itself and above all created things, and God
causes it to be so completely bereft of everything that, however hard it may strive to do so, it
can find nothing on earth to bear it company, Nor does it desire company; it would rather die
in its solitude. Others may speak to it, and it may itself make every possible effort to speak,
but all to no avail; do what it may, its spirit cannot escape from that solitude.
81

Sometimes it makes me so restless that I cannot remain seated and this trouble attacks me
without my having done anything to bring it on: it is of such a kind that my soul would like

78 Ibid., p. 280.
79 Ibid., p. 121.
80 Ibid.
81 Ibid. p. 122
69
never to be free from it as long as I live. For my yearnings not to live, even while I seem to
be living, there can be no relief, the only relief for them is the vision of God, which comes
through death, and this I cannot obtain of Him.
82


In short, we could go on listing quote after quote from St Teresa’s works, where, time and
time again, we would find the eidetic features characteristic of epileptic experiences and which at
the same time define them.





9. St John of the Cross (1542-91)

Juan de Yepes was born at Fontíveros in the province of Ávila. He joined the Carmelite Order at the
age of twenty-one and from 1568 onwards, he followed the reform undertaken by his compatriot
and sister in the Order, St Teresa of Ávila.
Buried alive, as it were, in different monasteries of Castile and Andalusia, he died at Úbeda,
in the province of Jaén, when he was only forty-nine years old, and nobody would have heard of
this obscure Spanish monk had he not composed a few lines that made him the greatest Spanish-
language poet of all time. He also wrote some treatises on spiritual theology that represent for no
mean few specialists the culmination of Christian mysticism: “the highest spiritual flight of the
Western world.”.
Very little is known about his life, and many enigmas enshroud it. Despite the lack of
reliable information, and by dint of scanning his life and work, we are able to find here and there
aspects of the motley symptomatology characteristic of partial epileptic discharges with psychical
content.
Firstly, he has left us some magnificent descriptions of fits of an ecstatic nature. Thus the
poem I Entered into unknowing
83
is no more than the poetic recreation of an ecstatic fit, in which
the mystic – who has lost contact with the surrounding reality – is completely absent and
withdrawn:

I was so 'whelmed,

82 Ibid., p. 306.
83 St John of the Cross, Poetry of St. John of the Cross From: The Collected Works Of St. John Of The Cross, translated
by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, revised edition (1991), electronic edition
70
so absorbed and withdrawn,
that my senses were left
deprived of all their sensing
84


The same may be said of his poem Tras un amoroso lance (“After an Episode of Love”), an
ecstatic experience in which he describes the disturbance of consciousness characteristic of complex
partial crises, which involves a suspension of the senses and therefore a loss of contact with reality:

When I ascended higher
my vision was dazzled,
and the most difficult conquest
came about in darkness.
85


His prose work also contains descriptions of ecstatic crises that are so well done and which
have so many precise details that we are inclined to think that the saint is narrating his own
paroxysmal experiences. Thus, for example, in Ascent of Mount Carmel, while describing
intellectual visions, he points out the following phenomenological characteristics:

The soul cannot attain to these lofty degrees of knowledge by means of any comparison or
imagination of its own, because they are loftier than all these; and so God works them in the
soul without making use of its own capacities. Wherefore, at certain times, when the soul is
least thinking of it and least desiring it, God is wont to give it these Divine touches, by
causing it certain remembrances of Himself. And these are sometimes suddenly caused in
the soul by its mere recollection of certain things – sometimes of very small things. And
they are so readily perceived that at times they cause not only the soul, but also the body, to
tremble. But at other times they come to pass in the spirit when it is very tranquil, without
any kind of trembling, but with a sudden sense of delight and spiritual refreshment.
86


But its in the Spiritual Canticle that St John of the Cross gives us his best description of an
ecstatic seizure. Indeed, commenting on the line “Set them aside, Beloved, for I am flying!”, he
compares this flight of the soul with flights of ecstasy and describes it as a complex partial attack
with a total absence of awareness and accompanied by abundant symptoms, not only psychic but
neurological ones:

84 Ibid.
85 Ibid.
86 St John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, translated by E. Allison Peers, Electronic edition, Christian Classics
Ethereal Library.
71

For such is the misery of the natural of this life, that what to the soul is more life and what it
so longs for, that is communication with and knowledge of the Beloved, when it is granted,
it cannot receive it without it almost costing one’s life [...]. And for us to better understand
the nature of this flight, it should be noted (as we have said) that in that visitation of the
Divine Spirit, that of the soul is torn away with such great force to communicate with the
Spirit, and it dismisses the body, which is left without feeling and without actions, for they
take place in God [...]. And this is why in these raptures and flights, the body has no senses
and even if great pain is inflicted on it, it will not feel it.
87


Apart from the mentions made in the works of the Carmelite mystic, some biographical
information is available about St John of the Cross which leads us to think that he did indeed
undergo these suspensions of awareness that he describes so well. Thus, Ana de San Alberto tells us
in the declarations for the process of beatification of a confession that the saint made in his lifetime
which is strongly suggestive of a partial epileptic discharge with ecstatic feelings accompanied by
automatic tears:

He sometimes said to me, “God help me, my daughter, what torment it is for me to have to
deal with secular people when I walk or when I am alone and it is sometimes my glory for
the impetus of the spirit to cause me to groan or shout without being able to stop.
88


In this “impetus of the spirit to cause me to groan or shout without being able to stop” we
recognize the passivity and automatic nature typical of epileptic attacks.
But there are other testimonies that go even farther to suggest that our mystic underwent, at
different times of his life, those intense experiences of bliss that are accompanied by sweet tears:

One day he was saying Mass to the discalced nuns of Caravaca. When he reached
Communion, he took far more time than is normal to take the bread and wine. Ana de San
Alberto, the prioress of the convent, observed the celebrant and noticed that from Friar
John’s eyes there flowed brilliant and serene tears. When Mass was over, he heard
confession and the prioress asked him:
“Father, why did you take so long over the holy sacrament of Mass?”
“Did I really take so long?”
“I think so,” answered the nun.

87 St John of the Cross, Obras Completas [Complete Works], BAC, Madrid, 1991, pp. 786-87.
88 Quoted by J. Baruzi, San Juan de la Cruz y el problema de la experiencia mística [St John of the Cross and the
Problem of the Mystical Experience], Junta de Castilla y León, Valladolid, 1991, p. 303.
72
And Friar John replied:
“Daughter, God has given me great mercy in my soul, and you must not be surprised
that I took so long.”
89


In the life of St John of the Cross we do not only find ecstatic attacks. Just like Angela of
Foligno, Suso, Tauler, Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius of Loyola, he also relates affective episodes of
suffering and anguish appearing suddenly and forcefully in his mind and which therefore seem
compatible with epileptic seizures with a painful content. This is the famous “dark night” of the
mystic from Fontíveros, in which we find wonderful descriptions of those profound attacks of
sadness “leaving the understanding dark, the will dry, the memory empty and the affections in the
deepest affliction, bitterness and constraint”.
90
They are always experiences that impose themselves
on the awareness in a completely automatic way and to the individual’s passivity, as the saint
himself expressly says:

This dark night is an inflowing of God into the soul[...] Herein God secretly teaches the soul
and instructs it in the perfection of love, without its doing anything or understanding of what
manner is this infused contemplation.
91


As in the mystics dealt with before, here too we note the familiar alternation of phases of
grief and bliss typical of psychical epilepsy resembling bipolar disorder:

In these intervals, there are spells of relief in which, by the dispensation of God, this dark
contemplation stops attacking in a purgative way and comes in an illuminating and loving
manner, and the soul, as though liberated from that dungeon and that prison and set at
recreation and liberty, feels and enjoys great gentleness of peace and loving friendship with
God.
92


Alongside these crises of sadness and bliss, St John of the Cross includes among the
torments of the “dark night” the oft-alluded-to experiences of derealization and strangeness:


89 J. Vicente Rodríguez, Florecillas de san Juan de la Cruz [Flowerets of St John of the Cross], Paulinas, Madrid,
1990, p. 156.
90 St John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, Ch 3, section 3, translated by E. Allison Peers, Electronic edition,
Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
91 Ibid., Ch 5, section 1.
92 St John of the Cross, Obras Completas [Complete Works], BAC, Madrid, 1991, p. 534.
73
On other occasions he thinks that he is charmed or spellbound, and marvels at the things he
sees and hears, which seem to him very weird and strange, although they are what he
normally saw and heard.
93


So far we have seen the extraordinary mystic phenomena present in some of the major
Christian mystics. We could go on to mention other religious who have undergone experiences
suggestive of epileptic seizures, such as María de la Encarnación, Jean Joseph Surin, Juana Chantal,
Madame Guyon, Pablo de la Cruz, and so on, but those already mentioned will suffice.
We have seen that it is always a question of manifestations with the phenomenological
characteristics of psychical content of epilepsy. Together with strangeness, or bewilderment, are the
instantaneousness and passiveness which we have mentioned time and again, always to the fore is
the enormous intensity with which the person undergoing these experiences lives through them.
They are psychical contents on which the awareness, withdrawn from the outside world,
concentrates with all its attention, which is why they are felt with such supreme intensity. In this
regard, we might point out that they are always excessive experiences and that they have such force
that the moods and ideas unfolded during them acquire connotations different from those of normal
experiences: sadness is no longer simply sadness and joy no longer just joy – they become a new
feeling, a strange one, something indescribable and impossible to communicate.

93 Ibid., p. 541.
74

4
BEYOND ECSTASY

1. Epilepsy: the Other Side of the Coin

So far we have seen mystic phenomena as epilepsy. Now, we said in the introduction that we did
not find this explanation satisfactory. We said there that if this hypothesis were sufficient of itself,
then we should have to attribute Humanity’s most outstanding religious and artistic achievements to
a pure and simple pathological state.
For, indeed, the case is this: all that we have been saying about mystics is just as valid for
numerous artists and thinkers that have also shown, throughout their lives, psychical characteristics
characteristic of partial epileptic discharges that have subsequently served as the bases for many of
their artistic creations, as is borne out by the evidence that they have left in their works of such
experiences. Such is the case of William Blake, Vincent Van Gogh, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Walt
Whitman, Marcel Proust, Hermann Hesse, Jack Kerouac, and others.
Many of man’s best artistic, religious and scientific achievements would, therefore, have
their starting point in extraordinary experiences of an epileptic nature, that is, of a pathological
character, something that would not appear to stand up to logic. Why then continue to consider
these experiences, whose origin is a neuronal hypersynchrony, as something pathological? Why not
consider them physiological? It they serve mystics, artists and philosophers as starting points for
their great creations, why go on labelling them as illness-related? Would it not be better to posit the
hypothesis that they are normal (or even higher) cerebral workings, derived from the physiological
capacity that neurons in certain areas of the brain possess of functioning hypersynchronically?
And there is yet another argument in favour of this interpretation of the facts: did we not see,
when dealing with the clinical treatment of epilepsy, that many of the psychical manifestations of
the illness, such as depersonalization, attacks of déjà vu, experiences of strangeness and
derealization, isolated panic attack, can be experienced by any person, especially when tired?
The extraordinary experiences found principally in mystics and artists, but also occurring in
any of us, are no more than the expression of that hypersychronic firing of neurons that we call
hyperia.
But before going on to analyse this concept in depth, let us first report a surprising fact that
we have met with since the beginning of our research and which, as it went on, has increasingly
commanded our attention: from the very moment when we started to work on the hypothesis of
75
hyperia as a form of physiological hypersynchrony, we have discovered a mass of information that
clearly strengthens the position.
In fact, concerning epilepsy, there is a wealth of clinical and laboratory data that up to now
has seemed confusing and which, on the other hand, would be logical and easy to integrate by
means of an explanation like ours, whereby neuronal hypersynchrony – at least the first part of it –
would be considered a physiological activity.
Indeed, a revision of scientific literature offers abundant references in the field of
epileptology that clearly point this way. From all the paradoxical information we have formed three
great questions, which we shall now briefly look into.
Firstly, if the epileptic attack has to be considered completely as something pathological,
how is it possible that each time that researchers have sought to unravel the essence of its first
cause, we have unerringly come across the same surprising fact: the onset of the epileptic firing is
due to the setting in motion of certain groups of neurons that are naturally prepared to activate
hypersynchronically, as though it were their physiological way of functioning?
At the end of the nineteenth century, Hughlings Jackson expressed his surprise in this
regard, going so far as to point out that an epileptic attack may be regarded not only as something
normal but even as something healthy: “A sneeze is a sort of healthy epilepsy”
94
, the great English
epileptologist went on to say.
Similar surprise has been shown since then by many of his colleagues, faced by an activity
whose onset seems to be of an endogenous and physiological nature. Thus, Philip Schwartzkroin
states: “The activity that we call epilepsy, then, may reflect a basic underlying propensity of the
central nervous system.”
95

Massimo Avoli also expresses astonishment concerning an activity in which everything
points towards its having a physiological origin: “The patterns of activity generated by neurons in
human epileptogenic cortex appear in most instances to be remarkably normal.”
96

Well, we could go on listing many other epileptologists who are just as taken aback by an
activity that, although conceived wholly as pathological, in the face of much evidence might be
considered, at least at first, to be of a physiological nature.
Reviewing scientific literature on epilepsy, we have found, furthermore, a second paradox,
just as striking and as yet unexplained: epileptologists have little by little determined two successive
moments in the brain’s epileptic functioning. These two phases of neuronal hypersynchrony seem to

94
Quoted by O. Temkin, The Falling Sickness, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore & London, 1971, p.
337.
95
P.A. Schwartzkroin, “General Introduction” in P.A. Schwartzkroin (Ed.), Epilepsy, Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, 1993a, p. 3.
96
M. Avoli, “Electrophysiology and pharmacology of human neocortex and hippocampus in vitro”, in P.A.
Schwartzkroin (Ed.), op cit., 1993, p. 274.
76
correspond to activities that are not only different, but also made possible by neuroreceptors that are
also different. In reference to this double activity, Wilson and Bragdon point out:

We were fascinated to find that the EBs [epileptiform bursts] and the EGSs [electrographic
seizures] had different sites of initiation [...].
These data suggest a possible new principle for the relationship between EBs and
EGSs, namely, that EBs and EGSs can arise in separate, mutually interactive, locations.
Moreover, although EBs can trigger EGSs, their main effect may be to suppress seizures
arising in their target areas. Thus, interictal spikes in humans may have a suppressive effect
on seizure discharges.
97


Interictal hypersynchronic activity – or hyperic activity – appears here not only as different
from ictal hypersynchronic activity – or epileptic activity – but as an antagonist or even a suppresser
of it. How can this apparent contradiction be reconciled? It will come as no surprise, then, that these
two authors conclude their work with a question:

Is interictal activity pro- or anti-epileptic? It seems to depend on the state of the network.
Apparently, if the interictal activity is very strong and if the underlying pacemakers for it are
hard to inhibit, then persistent bursting can suppress EGSs. How they do it is not at all clear.
On the other hand, if the EGSs are easy to trigger, if the bursting is strong, and if the
pacemaker for it is inhibited for a while after the EGS, then the EBs can apparently build up
and develop into a full EGS.
98


And finally, a third paradox: how can the close relationship be explained between the
epileptiform functioning of the brain and learning? There is abundant scientific evidence that long-

97
W.A. Wilson and A. Bragdon, “Brain slice models for the study of seizures and interictal spikes”, in P.A.
Schwartzkroin (Ed.), op. cit., 1993, p. 380.
98
Ibid., p. 386.
6 For a review of long-term potentiation and its relationship with learning, see, inter alia, the following articles: R.C.
Malenka, “Postsynaptic Events Mediating LTP” in H.V. Wheal and A.M. Thompson (Eds.), Excitatory Amino Acids
and Synaptic Transmission, Academic Press, London, 1991, pp. 303-32; W. Singer and A. Artola, “The Role of NMDA
Receptors in Use-dependent Synaptic Plasticity of the Visual Cortex” in “H.V. Wheal and A.M. Thomson (Eds.), op.
cit., 1991, pp. 333-54; M-A. Lynch, “Presynaptic Mechanisms in the Maintenance of Long-Term Potentiation: the Role
of Arachidonic Acid”, in H.V. Wheal and A.M. Thompson (Eds.), op. cit., 1991, pp 356-74; L.F. Abbott and K.I. Blum,
Functional significance of long-term potentiation for sequence learning and prediction”, in Cereb. Cortex, 6 (1996): pp.
404-16; I. Izquierdo and J.H. Medina, “Correlation between the pharmacology of long-term potentiation and the
pharmacology of memory”, in Neruobiol. Learn. Mem., 63 (1995), pp. 19-32; R.A. Rison and P.K. Stanton, “Long-term
potentiation and N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors: foundations of memory and neurologic disease?”, in Neurosci.
Biobehav. Rev., 19 (1995), pp. 53-52; G. Riedel, W. Wetzel and K.G. Reyman, “Comparing the role of metbotropic
glutamate receptors in long-term potentiation and learning and memory”, in Prog. Neuropsychopharmacol. Biol.
Psychiatry, 20 (1996), pp. 761-89.
77
term potentiation (a model of cerebral epileptogenic activity) is closely linked to the learning
process.
Indeed, certain neuronal circuits in our brain, having been stimulated for some time
electrically, “learn” to work hypersynchronically, and as a consequence of that hypersynchronic
firing, those neurons synthesize new proteins in certain areas of their membranes. Moreover, there
is a body of evidence suggesting that it is precisely in these proteinic structures that learning data
are deposited. That is to say, these tiny vesicles, arising from epileptiform activity, are no less than
the repository of the memory.
99

Indeed, in reference to this close relationship between neuronal plasticity derived from long-
term potentiation and the processes of acquiring and storing data, and to the more-than-likely
physiological basis common to the two processes, Schwartzkroin states:

In searching for cellular factors that might contribute to epileptiform activity, investigators
have identified many attributes of normal cell activity. Modulation of transmitter effects, of
voltage-gated channels, and of cell electrical properties, involves processes that presumably
occur continually during normal brain function. This plasticity allows the cortex to ‘learn
from experience’ and alter the discharge properties of key elements. Current data suggest
that the same plastic mechanisms may be involved in epileptogenicity – that risk of
epileptiform activity is the price we have had to pay for a nervous system that is so adaptive.
[Our italics].
100


Here, literally expressed, is the same hypothesis that we have been defending: epileptic
activity conceived as an expression of a physiological and higher cerebral activity.
And echoing the various investigators who express surprise at this amazing link between
neuronal plasticity and the epileptiform functioning of the brain, by way of a summary,
Schwartzkroin concludes:

Is it simply coincidence that cortical regions – brain areas clearly involved in normal
learning and experience-dependent behaviors, and thus presumably “plastic” – are the most
common sites of epileptic abnormalities? One could argue that mechanisms that are
responsible for the plasticities underlying normal behaviors are just those features that
support epileptiform activities.
101



7
P.A. Schwartzkroin, op. cit., 1993c, p. 366.
8
Ibid., p. 200.

78
It should come as no surprise, then, that Michael Baudry should go as far as literally
suggesting “the possibility that epilepsy may represent a dangerous side-effect of an efficacious
learning mechanism”.
102

In any event, we would not wish to blind the reader with interminable quotes of a strictly
scientific nature.
103
What has so far been said should be sufficient: all these paradoxical questions
would be easily answered by means of our hypothesis, according to which what is currently
included jointly within the epileptic attack would have to be divided into at least two different parts,
corresponding to two equally different activities. The first one is the moment in which the
hypersynchronic firing occurs of a group of neurons and its propagation through certain circuits,
which would translate as a psychical production of extraordinary experiential intensity, paroxysmal
in nature and completely automatic. In the second phase another type of neuronal hypersynchrony is
set off, convulsive activity, which is different from the first one and is probably controlled by
different receptors, as its mission would be to bring an end to a hyperia that had become excessive.


2. What is Hyperia?

The time has come, then, to explain in detail just what we mean by hyperia: what this supposed
nervous activity is, what it consists of, and what it is for. We conceive hyperia as a physiological
function of the central nervous system thanks to which certain neuronal circuits in our brain fire
hypersynchronically, giving rise to paroxysmal psychic experiences that are so extraordinarily
intense that they always involve some degree of qualitative alteration of conscience.
And as, in our view, the basic feature characterizing the psychic phenomenology occurring
during this mode of neuronal functioning is excessiveness – an excess of neurons working together,
an excess of electrical activity made manifest on the electroencephalograph as an interictal spike,
and an excessive intensity of the psychic experience triggered – we propose to give this cerebral
functioning the name hyperia. We derive this word from Greek particle υπερ, which means “over,
beyond, over much, above measure”.
104
,
105

Therefore, hyperia is to be understood as a nervous activity characterized by the
hyprsynchronic function of a certain group of neurons working as a network, and which in clinical

102
M. Baudry, “Long-Term Pontentiation and Kindling: Similar Biochemical Mechanisms?”, in A. Delgado-Escueta et
al. (Eds.), Basic Mechanisms of the Epilepsies, Raven Press, New York, 1986, p. 401.
103
Those who wish to carry out a more thorough study of the scientific evidence and indications supporting the
epileptiform activity of the brain as a physiological activity may consult our article “Neuronal Hypersynchronization,
Creativity and Endogenous Psychoses”, in Medical Hypotheses and our doctoral thesis Mística y Epilepsia [Mysticism
and Epilepsy].
104
Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition), Oxford University Press, 1989.
105
Hyperia is the anglicized spelling of hiperia, the term proposed by the author in Spanish.
79
terms would translate as psychic experiences charged with excessiveness, of hypersynchrony, of
hyperæsthesia, of hypermnesia, of hyperconsciousness, in short, hyperness.
All authors underline again and again the characteristic of unbridled intensity of the
experience, whether a religious is analysing them from the point of view of mystic phenomenology
or the psycopathologist sees them from the point of view of epilepsy or the artist uses them for more
sophisticated poetic images: For Henri Ey, these experiences are quelque chose qui est à la fois très
fort et très «figuré», et parfois même merveilleusement détaillé, net et vif (“something that is at the
same time very strong and very ‘figurative’, and sometimes even marvellously detailed, clear and
vivid”).
106
Jaspers reminds us that in this state, “sounds are heard loud, all the colours are seen
bright: a red tile looks like a flame, the action of closing a door sounds like canon fire, wood
creaking is like an explosion and the wind like a tempest”.
107
Krafft-Ebing speaks of hallutinations
terrifiants de la vue, de l’ouïe, parfois aussi de l’odorat (“terrifying hallucinations of sight, hearing
and sometimes also the sense of smell”).
108
St Ignatius speaks of “very intense tears”
109
and “many
and very intense tears and sobs”
110
; St Teresa, for her part, says that “the vision has such exceeding
great power”
111
; Dostoyevsky points out “very fleeting moments...prodigious impetus...blinding
brightness...total knowledge...sublime minute...flashes of intuition
112
; Marcel Proust “shudder...
extraordinary thing...exquisite pleasure...all-powerful joy.
113

The intensity of the experiences will therefore be their most characteristic feature: whatever
their content – sensory, affective, intellectual, mnesic – they will always be accompanied by a
highly vivid impression of excessiveness, hyperæsthesia when there is excessive sensory
perception, hypermnesia when a recollection is too intense, hyperaffect when affects of bliss or
grief are felt so strongly that they become heart-rending, hyperidea when our attention is fixed on a
very vivid idea that imposes itself in such a way that it gives us total conviction of being in
possession of the truth... It should, therefore, come as no surprise that we propose the term hyperia
to designate these excessive experiences that are above and beyond normality.
Furthermore, the designation affords us a link with the concept of neuronal
hypersynchrony
114
proposed by Hughlings Jackson and which has proved so fortunate in
epileptology. Indeed, according to the illustrious English epileptologist, at the root of every
epileptogenic process we will always find an excessive neuronal discharge, a hypersynchrony, as

106
H. Ey, Études Psychiatriques [Psychiatric Studies], Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1954, Paris, III, p. 546.
107
K. Jaspers, Psicopatología General [General Psychopathology], Beta, Buenos Aires, 1973, p. 81.
108
R. Krafft-Ebing, Traité Clinique de Psychiatrie, A. Maloine, Paris, 1897, p. 559.
109
St Ignatius of Loyola, Autobiografía y Diario Espiritual [Autobiography and Spiritual Diary], BAC, Madrid, 1992,
p. 215.
110
Ibid., p. 217.
111
The Complete Works of St Teresa of Jesus, Vol. 1, Sheed and Ward, London, 1982, p 182.
112
F. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot, Juventud, Barcelona, 1964, p. 256-57.
113
M. Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, Swann’s Way, 1, Chatto and Windus, London, 1982, p. 48.
114
Quoted by E.H. Reynolds in “The clinical concept of epilepsy: an historical perspective”, in M.R. Trimble and E.H.
Reynolds (Eds.), What is Epilepsy?, Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, 1986, p. 4.
80
his definition of epilepsy literally says: “an occasional, sudden, excessive, rapid and local discharge
of grey matter”.
115

Together with this excessiveness, the other most distinctive characteristic of hyperia is the
passiveness and involuntariness of the individual in whom the experience unfolds in the
consciousness for a few brief moments. We can induce or favour the apparition of this mode of
cerebral functioning by means of various techniques and manœuvres, but once it starts, the
experiences to which it gives rise happen completely automatically and we are unable to do
anything but undergo them passively, like onlookers at a scene that is completely beyond our
control.
These two associated elements, the marked intensity of the experience and its automatic
development, give the hyperic experience its third chief feature: the strong feeling of strangeness
with which it is lived through: always as though it were overwhelming and extraordinary, often with
a special and ineffable meaning.
For a better understanding of the concept thus far expounded, it might be useful to analyse
an example of hyperic production that is apparently physiological and normal: orgasm. Does this
psychical experience not constitute a characteristic example of hyperic firing? The production
during it of a neuronal hypersynchrony is obvious from the frequency with which it has been
possible to register the excessive electrical discharge in the shape of an interictal spike on the
electroencephalogram.
116
On the other hand it is a phenomenon, as everybody knows, that is
automatic and paroxysmal, taking over our consciousness suddenly and imposing itself on all of it
with overwhelming intensity, so much so that it always entails a qualitative alteration of
consciousness. For the moments it lasts, one’s attention is entirely taken over by this vividly
pleasurable experience, where there is a certain degree of disconnection with surrounding reality
and, sometimes, an almost complete lack of consciousness.
It is a complex psychical production in which it is necessary to synchronize in a single
instant many previous memories and experiences. When the brain has any difficulty in achieving
these brief moments of hypersynchrony essential to hyperia, one is not capable of reaching an
orgasm. This is just what happens with certain drugs used in psychiatry which, because of their
dopamine-blocking activity, produce anorgasmia: the male patient can carry on normal sexual

115
Quoted by O. Temkin, The Falling Sickness, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1971, p.
337.
116
A. Daniele et al., “Sexual behavior and hemispheric laterality of the focus in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy”,
in Biol. Psychiatry, 42 (1997), pp. 617-24; G.T. Guldner and M.J. Morrell, “Nocturnal penile tumescence and rigidity
evaluation in men with epilepsy”, in Epilepsia, 37 (1996), pp. 1211-14; G. Murialdo et al., “Sex hormones and pituitary
function in male epileptic patients with altered or normal sexuality”, in Epilepsia, 36 (1995), pp. 360-65; P.D.
Williamson et al., “Complex partial seizures of frontal lobe origin”, in Ann. Neurol., 18 (1985), pp. 497-504; G.M.
Remillard et al., “Sexual ictal manifestations predominate in women with temporal lobe epilepsy: a finding suggesting
sexual dimorphism in the human brain”, in Neurology, 33 (1983), pp. 323-30; D.E. Jacome and M.S. Risko, “Absence
status manifested by compulsive masturbation”, in Arch Neurol., 40 (1983), pp 523-24; D.E. Jacome et al., “Postural
reflex gelastic seizures”, in Arch Neurol., 37 (1980), pp. 249-51.
81
activity as far as erection and ejaculation are concerned, but is incapable of experimenting an
orgasm, that is to say, the hyperic firing that we have been talking about does not take place.
And we could go on to add other examples of nervous activity present in most of the
population, which nevertheless have the characteristics typical of the hyperic experience: what we
mean is those dreams in which the sleeper experiences the ineffable intuition of having discovered
an absolute truth, a conviction that is accompanied by a strong feeling of clairvoyance. In fact,
Eugène-Bernard Leroy compares this type of dream (in which we think that we have solved an
intricate mathematical or philosophical problem) to the intellectual visions described by St Teresa,
for in them he finds the same phenomenological elements as the Carmelite mystic describes in her
mystical experiences.
117

And as much as we have said about orgasm and dreams could also be said concerning
certain activities that obviously have to be considered as normal and which, however, give rise to
experiences of an unmistakably hyperic nature. Such is the case, for example, of intense physical
exercise, which is capable of bringing on panic attacks, sudden discharges of pleasure or sudden
ideas of an intuitive kind. Several possible mechanisms have been postulated whereby prolonged
physical exercise might have such effects: an increase in the lactic acid in the blood, an increase in
brain endorphins, a drop in serotonin through hyperventilation, and so forth.
Whatever the mechanism, what is true is that intense and prolonged sporting activity is a
notable inducer of psychical experiences of a hyperic type, as will be borne out by the multitude of
joggers that we see running around city streets. Curiously, while they are running, many of them
listen to music through headphones, which is another highly hyperizing stimulus, which would
favour still more the onset of neuronal hypersynchrony.
This hyperic functioning often occurs spontaneously and apparently without cause, but we
know that there are also many stimuli and situations that make such neuronal firing more likely to
happen: generally speaking, we can say that our brain is prepared to respond with hypersynchronic
activity to any physical stimulus applied to it rhythmically and repeatedly. This is what happens in
the so-called reflex epilepsies, where various sensorial stimuli of a repetitive nature, be they the
flashing lights of photosensitive epilepsy
118
or the sound vibrations of musicogenic epilepsy
119
, give
rise to the psychical paroxysms central to hyperia.
Yet we also know of other situations in which, thanks to a sufficiently prolonged repetition
of complex stimuli, such as the evocation of, or meditation on a word, hyperic functioning will

117
E. Leroy, “Interprétation psychologique des «visions intellectuelles»” [The Psychological Interpretation of
“Intellectual Visions”] in Revue d’histoire des religions, 1907, vol. LV, p. 2.
118
G.F. Harding and P.M. Jeavons, Photosensitive Epilepsy, MacKeith Press, London, 1994.
119
H.G. Wieser et al., “Musicogenic Epilepsy: Review of the Literature and Case Report with Ictal Single Photon
Emission Computed Tomography”, in Epilepsia, 38 (1997), p. 201.
82
eventually set in. It would seem that the epileptogenic element here would be the moods that the
word in question arouses in the patient: it is the hystero-epilepsy
120
of Bratz and Leubuscher.
Once more, then, we have the striking tendency of our central nervous system to respond
hypersynchronically, not only to repetitive physical or chemical stimuli, but to any kind of
stimulation, however complex, as long as it is sufficiently reiterated.
In short, hyperia should be conceived as a higher cognitive function in which, thanks to the
simultaneous firing of a large number of neurons, our mind gains access to psychical experiences of
extraordinary characteristics that provide it with an intuitive knowledge of reality that is very
different from that acquired through logical reasoning. This psychical faculty is probably distributed
in the same way as the other cognitive functions, whereby a curve would be centred on people with
an average degree of hyperic capacity, i.e., the immense majority of the population, with, at the
ends of the curve, that small percentage of people who, on the one hand, hardly have any hyperic
capacity at all, and, on the other, those whose capacity is highly developed.
Just like other intellectual activities in general, hyperia is cultivatable and may be easily
strengthened. It will be enough for a person to learn the right stimuli, as mystics, schools and
civilizations have done throughout history.
With what we know now about hyperia we are able to decipher all those striking paradoxes
that we have been faced with throughout our study and which so far have been surprising and
impossible to understand: in the first place, how can we explain the fact that the extraordinary
experiences described by mystics should be so similar to those occurring among the mentally ill, so
much so that in many scientific studies researchers have sought to equate extraordinary mystical
phenomena with psychopathology? We could express a similar surprise at the overwhelming
experiences aroused by music and light, not just in epilepsy sufferers, but also in mystics and artists.
And there is more: Are those experiences up to now interpreted as symptoms of reflex epilepsies
not the same as those that any one of us might experience under the effects of the same light or
sound stimuli? Can we then go on considering them as pathological? If so, then we should have to
conclude that absolutely all of us are epileptic.
Our interpretation of hyperia, however, makes these apparently contradictory situations easy
to reconcile: in all cases, the same physiological activity is at work: hyperia, which is highly
developed among certain social groupings, though heavily subdued in the rest of the population. We
are actually all hyperic, for we all have the capacity for hypersynchronic firing but – and now we
know – in some people this cognitive capacity is much greater than in most. And who make up the
small percentage of hyperically gifted? Well, simply those three groups already mentioned: mystics,
the mad and artists.

120
M. Trimble, “Hysteria, hystero-epilepsy and epilepsy”, in M.R. Trimble and E.H. Reynolds (Eds), op. cit., 1986, p.
193.
83


3. Hyperia and Mysticism

In the light of this new way of understanding the facts, let us now analyse the links between
mysticism and hyperia. We saw that the different religious studied had shown the psychical
phenomena of partial epileptic attacks – and not just the same content, but also the same eidetic
features. The similarity is so overwhelming that it should come as no surprise to us that it has
always aroused the attention of investigators, many of whom end up equating mystic
phenomenology with psychopathology. Our interpretation, however, of hyperic hypersynchrony
will allow us to get round that problem, for it is no longer a pathological activity that lies at the root
of these mystical productions, but a physiological one, even a higher one.
These extraordinary mystic events often occur apparently simultaneously, as a direct
manifestation of the strong hyperic capacity which these people naturally possess. But on many
other occasions they occur with a clear causal link with the same situations and stimuli which we
found in the so-called reflex epilepsies.
Thus, in musicogenic epilepsy, it is the hearing of a certain piece of music that gives rise to
the appearance of a psychical experience possessing the features typical of a hypersynchronic
discharge. Well, mystics describe over and over situations in which a certain melody produces in
them ecstatic experiences of this type. St Teresa offers us the following example:

Last night, when I was with the whole community, they sang a little song about how hard it
is to endure life without God. I was in great distress at the time; and so powerful was the
effect which the song produced upon me that my hands began to get numb, and it was
useless for me to resist; but just as I go out from myself with raptures of joy, just so my soul
was suspended with the exceedingly great pain, and I became unconscious. It is only today
that I have realized this.
121


This case is especially interesting for us, for here we see the saint frankly surprised by the
same fact that we have underlined time and time again: fit or ecstasy, that is, an ecstatic discharge
can just as easily bring on feelings of joy and bliss as the opposite ones of grief and sadness. St
Teresa of Ávila, with that profound intellectual anxiety characteristic of her and which so often
made her dissatisfied with the explanations of her spiritual advisers, shows here her awe (“It is only
today that I have realized this”) in the face of the daunting fact that the ecstatic crisis sometimes
runs a joyful course and sometimes a sorrowful one.

121
The Complete Works of St Teresa of Jesus, op. cit., p 340.
84
St John of the Cross also suffered from reflex epilepsy attacks. Let us examine the following
account of an attack of musicogenic ecstasy that happened in the parlour of the Discalced
Carmelites at Toledo. He had just escaped from prison and was still very weak, so the nuns, to
please him and take his mind off his plight, sung a song to him:

He who knows nothing of sorrows
In this vale of tears
Knows nothing of good things,
Nor has he tasted love,
For sorrow is the outfit of love.

The saint, who knew sorrow well, on hearing the song, fell into a state of ecstasy:

And so great was the pain that it caused him that his eyes began to distil abundant tears that
flowed down his face in streams, and with one hand he seized the grille and with the other
signalled to this witness and the other nuns that they should be silent and stop singing; and
then he gripped the grille with both hands and remained there, elevated and holding on for
an hour. After this, when he came to, he said that Our Lord had had given him much to
understand about how good it is to suffer for God.
122


But not only music, but light too, especially when it hits the retina as flashes, is capable of
producing reflex epileptic attacks. In such cases, we speak of photosensitive epilepsy. Religious
also tell us of ecstatic experiences with epileptic characteristics undergone under the effect of light
stimuli. We shall mention the case of the great German mystic Jakob Böhme whom, and I quote
literally, “the bright light on the dark bottom of a tin pot takes to the vision of the basis or very
centre of Nature”.
123

For his part, St Ignatius tells us of an episode that happened to him on the banks of the River
Cardoner. While resting there for a few moments, he became absorbed looking into the depths of
the stream, when he felt a sudden illumination that was imprinted on his mind with extraordinary
force. He describes the episode thus:

He was once on his way, out of devotion, to a church a little more than a mile from Manresa,
which I think was called St Paul. The road followed the path of the river and he was taken

122
Testimony of Mother Francisca of the Mother of God, quoted by J. Vicente Rodríguez, Florecillas de san Juan de la
Cruz [Flowerets of St John of the Cross], Paulinas, Madrid, 1990, p. 158.
123
A. Andreau Rodrigo, “Introducción” [Introduction], in J. Böhme, Aurora [Aurora], Alfaguara, Madrid, 1979,
LXXIV.
85
up with his devotions; he sat down for a while facing the river flowing far below him. As he
sat there the eyes of his understanding were opened and though he saw no vision he
understood and perceived many things, numerous spiritual things as well as matters touching
on faith and learning, and this was with an elucidation so bright that all these things seemed
new to him.
124


Everything seems to point towards an attack of reflex epilepsy triggered by the light and
acoustic stimuli of water in motion.
Something similar happened to St John of the Cross, who often went into ecstasy on
contemplating the flow of water. The following is the account of an ecstatic seizure experimented
by the Carmelite mystic on observing the movement of fishes in water:

On other occasions he takes them to a garden on the banks of the Genil and the Darro [a
confluence near Granada – translator’s note]. While they rest and enjoy themselves, Friar
John, sitting on the river bank, stares in rapt concentration at the little fish swimming to and
fro under the water. “Come here, brothers,” he tells them, and you will see how these little
animals and creatures of God are praising Him...” And half-way through the conversation he
broke off in suspense...The monks noticed it and withdrew in silence to carry on with their
recreation while the Prior continued in the pleasure of his ecstatic contemplation.
125


This was not a chance occurrence, for St John of the Cross apparently knew of the capacity
of flowing water to trigger experiences of ecstasy, which seems to be borne out by the fact that the
mystic systematically sought to say his prayers beside a stream. In this regard, Baruzi contributes
the following testimonies, taken from different statements made in the beatification process:

And the time when he was not in the community in the morning, he went away from the
convent near a fountain... where there were many trees growing wild and there, alone, either
kneeling or in some other position, he would spend the whole time praying.
126


He would rise before daybreak and go to the garden, where, among some reeds, next to an
irrigation canal he would kneel down, and would remain at prayer there until the heat
obliged him to leave.
127



124
St Ignatius of Loyola, op. cit., 1992, pp. 38-39.
125
Crisógono de Jesús, Vida de san Juan de la Cruz [The Life of St John of the Cross], BAC, Madrid, 1991, pp. 263-64.
126
J. Baruzi, San Juan de la Cruz y el problema de la experiencia mística [St John of the Cross and the Problem of the
Mystic Experience], Junta de Castilla y León, Consejería de Cultura y Turismo, Valladolid, 1991, p. 291.
127
Ibid., p. 291.
86
He would look for an isolated spot where he could withdraw and pray and praise God, which
he did gazing at the water, if there was a stream or a river...[our italics].
128


Of course, of all the different techniques used by religious to bring on the brain’s hyperic
functioning, the most important are prayer and meditation. Indeed, in the chapter on the review of
epilepsy we said that another very useful stimulus for triggering neuronal hypersynchrony was
listening to or meditating on a certain word, although authors have not reached agreement as to
what is the real epileptogenic content here, the word itself or the affects that it arouses in the brain.
Well, assiduously meditating on certain words has, in all schools of mysticism, constituted
an extremely efficient tool for reaching illumination and is surely the most systematically cultivated
one in all of them. Thus, the Christian mystic, by means of oratio, meditatio and ruminatio, by
means of masticating and savouring in his mind the same Biblical texts, eventually has at his
disposal a stock of jaculatory prayers charged with affective meaning, with which he easily arouses
ecstatic experiences: “I shall see thy face, and be blest with a vision of thee when I awake.” (Psalms
17, 15); “You surpass all mankind in beauty, your lips are moulded in grace...” (Psalms 45, 3);
“You have shone with the dew of youth since your mother bore you.” (Psalms 110, 3); “Take the
veil from my eyes, that I may see the marvels that spring from thy law (Psalms 119, 18)”, the
religious repeats to himself over and over again in his mind.
These and other phrases, reiterated countless times, eventually become charged with a
tremendous emotive value and the brain, and now we know this well, ends up responding to these
iterative stimuli with hypersynchronic firings. Again we have the phenomenon of kindling, although
the high-frequency electrical stimulus has been replaced by an affective one: the scene meditated on
eventually becomes an efficient stimulus for arousing the ecstatic experience, so that when the
religious hears these words, perhaps accompanied by the music of a religious service (“…this
desire, which in a single moment penetrates to the very depths of the soul”,
129
as St Teresa says), he
bursts out crying in an automatic way, with sweet tears and intense joy. Let us now examine an
example told by Angela de Foligno of an ecstatic attack brought on by meditating on a certain
word:

Once I was in the cell, where I had enclosed myself for the Great Lent. I was enjoying and
meditating on a certain saying in the gospel, a saying which I found of great value and
extremely delightful [...]. Immediately I was led into a vision and I was told that the

128
Ibid., p. 291.
129
The Complete Works of St Teresa of Jesus, op. cit., p 122.
87
understanding of the Epistle is something so delightful that if one grasped it properly, one
would completely forget everything belonging to this world, but even oneself.
130


St Teresa also recounts a significant case of an ecstatic crisis triggered by meditating on a
word:

One kind of rapture is this. The soul, though not actually engaged in prayer, is struck by
some word, which it either remembers or hears spoken by God. His Majesty is moved with
compassion at having seen the soul suffering so long through its yearning for Him, and
seems to be causing the spark of which we have already spoken to grow within it so that,
[…] When it is thus cleansed, God unites it with Himself, in a way which none can
understand save it and He, and even the soul itself does not understand this in such a way as
to be able to speak of it afterwards, though it is not deprived of its interior senses; for it is
not like one who suffers a swoon or a paroxysm so that it can understand nothing either
within itself or without. (Our italics)
131


Mystics, then, just like epilepsy sufferers, seem to learn to use various techniques in order to
bring on partial attacks with psychical manifestations. With progressive repetition they become
more and more frequent, but we should not forget the characteristic of conditioned response that
these reflex seizures can sometimes acquire,
132
so that once the conditioning has been established,
the seizures will be automatically set off by the slightest presence of the triggering stimulus. A
psychical state would thus be set up in which the reflexive seizures would occur almost continually.
It may be thought that the process, from the neurobiological point of view, unfolds thus: as
the hyperic firing is repeated and reinforced, its extraordinary manifestations will become
proportionally mitigated, that is, the more often hyperia is repeated, the less exaggerated its
manifestations will be, until the point is reached where, eventually, all the psychical and
neurological paraphernalia at first accompanying the attacks of ecstasy will disappear. And in this
way, when he comes out of his trance, the mystic, alongside his normal psychical functioning, will
have a practically permanent state of mystic intuition, although the hyperic hypersynchrony on
which it is based will have become so attenuated that it will be completely unnoticed.

130
Angela of Foligno, The Book of the Blessed Angela of Foligno in Complete Works, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New
Jersey, 1993, p.130.
131
The Complete Works of St Teresa of Jesus, op. cit., Vol. 2 p. 287.
132
On the point of the reflex seizure as a conditioned response, see the following articles: F.M. Forster et al.,
“Conditioning in musicogenic epilepsy”, in Trans. Am. Neurol. Assoc., 92 (1967), pp. 236-37; P. Jallon et al.,
“Musicogenic epilepsy”, in A. Baeaumanoir et. al. (Eds.), op. cit., 1989, pp. 269-74; D. Scott, “Musicogenic epilepsy”,
in M. Critchley and R.A. Henson (Eds.), Music and the Brain, Heinemann Medical, London, 1977, pp. 354-64.
88
This is exactly the situation described by Henri Delacroix on confronting the final
theophanic state to which the mystic process leads, where the religious undergoes intuitive
experiences of an ecstatic nature practically continuously:

This tendency towards passive intuition, this aptitude to experiment with ineffable and
ecstatic infusion, as opposed to the discursive type, is characteristic of mysticism [...]. The
appearance of spontaneous intuitions that invade and take over the consciousness and which,
by dint of repetition, become a sort of habit, and being linked together, form an almost
continuous intuition, is very characteristic of mystics.
133
]

We have before us, then, one of the most striking and surprising facts of our study: the
capacity both of the mystic phenomenon and of reflex epilepsy to be reinforced by the right kind of
learning. This educable side of the two processes represents, in our opinion, a strong argument in
favour of their physiological nature.
Before ending this section, and in the light of possible objections that may be raised, we
should like to make one point quite clear: we are describing meditation and the extraordinary
phenomena to which it gives rise from a neuropsychological point of view but leaving aside any
religious significance that it might entail. We intentionally forego any theological value possibly
bound up with this dialogue with the Other, and simply effect a strictly biological analysis. We
consider this to be our duty, for as Hildegard of Bingen said: homo corpus est ubique
134
– in any
situation man is his body. Therefore, as the doctors we are, we are obliged to carry out a scientific
and medical analysis of all these cerebral productions, however sublime they may be and however
varied their meanings may be.
Therefore, nobody should interpret our scientific approach to the mystic experience which
we offer here as an attempt to undervalue the underlying religious process, for that is not at all what
we set out to do. On the contrary, for us there is no incompatibility whatsoever of what is
neurobiological and what concerns religion.


4. Hyperia and Mental Illness

As well as mystics, we have already intimated that there is a second group in the population among
whom hyperic activity is especially common: the mentally ill. Indeed, throughout their lives, these

133
H. Delacroix, Études d´Histoire et de Psychologie du Mysticisme [Studies on the History and Psychology of
Mysticism], Félix Alcan, Paris, 1908, p. 361.
134
Quoted by P. Laín Entralgo, Antropología médica [Medical Anthropology], Salvat, Barcelona, 1985, p. 218.
89
patients will demonstrate, in different clinical patterns and one after another the symptomatological
manifestations that we have described as hyperic: experiences of déjà vu, feelings of strangeness
and depersonalization, intense depressions or bipolar patterns of indescribable grief and bliss, very
vivid visual and auditory hallucinations, automatic thinking imposing itself with the absolute force
of a delirious idea, etc.
Now, we maintain that hyperia should be considered as a physiological function of our
brain. On what basis, then, can we consider the psychical manifestations that such activity gives rise
to as the origin and basis of mental illness? According to our hypothesis, it would be logical to
interpret the symptoms shown by such patients as the expression of a higher functioning of the
brain.
In that case, what is the difference between our conception of mental illness and that
proposed by antipsychiatry in the nineteen seventies? According to that school of thought, which
arose as a reaction to asylum psychiatry, mental illness was understood not only as something
normal but also as the only psychological process valid for liberating oneself from the alienating
effects of a sick society. For R.D. Laing, the father of antipsychiatry, schizophrenics, as they did not
bow down before the reigning social values, were the only people who had demonstrated sufficient
capacity to neutralize a sick social influence that would keep the rest of the population subjected
and alienated. To use the terms of antipsychiatry, mental illness would operate in the patient a
veritable metanoia
135
, the term proposed by Laing for that sort of trip occurring during the
schizophrenic process and which, in the words of the Scottish psychiatrist, would suppose “a
transformation of the mind of a liberating nature”.
136

Shall we sustain something similar with regard to hyperia and interpret the painful
manifestations brought about by it as a liberating process – the metanoia of the antipsychiatrists –
that we must all go through? Or, on the other hand, shall we opine that any psychical manifestation
of hyperia, for the simple fact of being painful, must simply be considered as an illness which must
be avoided? And if we agree with neither of the two, is there a half-way point between these two
positions?
Naturally, we do not accept mental illness, with all that it entails in the destruction of the
individual, as a simple road to freedom. Neither, however, do we think that a psychical
manifestation should be considered as something morbid in itself for the simple reason that it is
painful, however intense the suffering might be. Suffering alone is not synonymous with illness.
Indeed, it could be looked on as thoroughly positive. As Meister Eckhart says: it is man’s best
master, “the animal that most quickly leads him to perfection”.
137
It is therefore not sufficient for
there to be moral pain in order to speak of mental illness, and in practice, these painful psychical

135
R.D. Laing, Hacia la locura, Editorial Ayuso, Madrid, 1975, pp. 19-28.
136
Ibid., p. 23.
137
Eckhart, Tratados y Sermones [Treatises and Sermons], Edhasa, Barcelona, 1983, p. 254.
90
manifestations are often found as the bases of major artistic and intellectual creations that can in no
way be considered morbid.
Now, sometimes these very tough psychical experiences, be it because of their great
intensity, be it for occurring in people with fragile personalities, incapable of supporting their
tremendous onset, far from being the starting point for genial creations, are the beginning of a
disease process ending with the patient’s total breakdown. This destructive suffering, in which the
patient can find no sense whatsoever, if kept up long enough, eventually becomes a genuinely
pathological state, that is “an afflictive and anomalous way of living”, as Laín Entralgo
138
defines
the illness.
And at the root of the mental patient’s “afflictive and anomalous way of living”, what we
find is a marked hyperic functioning, with the consequent extraordinary psychic experiences which
intermittently and spontaneously break into his life: terrifying hallucinations, sudden dysthymic
disorders, delirious intuition, irresistible impulses, panic attacks, highly intense depersonalization
experiences and the like. Thus far the mentally ill coincide with mystics and artists: in all three
cases we find, at the root of their respective processes, a marked propensity to hyperia. Yet, though
similar in their hyperic experiences, from here on their differences appear: while the mystic and the
artist are able to confer value on their suffering, the mentally sick person will find no sense at all in
the pain of his suffering. This divergence is only theoretical, for in practice it is not rare to find a
strong artistic capacity coexisting with an obvious mental pathological state in the same person.
The mentally ill, then, will display all the symptoms characteristic of hyperia, in such a way
that, according to the time of life when we make the diagnosis , we shall find one clinical pattern or
another, and what now seems to be a dissociative disorder will later appear more like a manic or
depressive pattern, or a schizophrenic disorder, depending on whether at that moment some hyperic
manifestations predominate, or others. This for us would be the explanation of the high comorbility
existing in psychiatry which gives rise to a single patient being diagnosed differently in different
examinations. It would also explain the major overlapping of different psychiatric syndromes that
often make diagnosis so difficult.
Therefore, the hyperic functioning of our brain, with its very vivid psychical manifestations
makes up the basis of the most diverse clinical patterns in psychopathology. Now, regardless of
whether such hyperic symptomatology appears forming different psychiatric disorders, there is a
group of mental illnesses where the presence of these hypersynchronic manifestations takes on a
very special significance, so much so that in our opinion, it is this marked hyperic functioning
common to all of them that makes it possible to go on conceiving them as a homogeneous group
with a common basis.

138
P. Laín Entralgo, op. cit., 1985, p. 224.
91
The group in question is that of endogenous psychoses, that group of mental diseases
comprising the backbone of psychiatry and which have manifested themselves in the same way,
always invariably the same, for over two thousand years: manic depression (now called bipolar
disorder) and schizophrenic psychosis. These are serious psychiatric patterns that, from time to time
and for no apparent reason, take over the patient’s psyche and fill it right up with their grave and
complicated psychotic symptoms, leaving the patient into the world of madness. After a time,
weeks or months, the symptoms recede in the same inexplicable way as they appeared. They are,
then, recurrent processes that seem to have their origin within the patient.
From as early as the mid 19th century, classical authors established the “group of
endogenous illnesses as a set with a similar nucleus, in which it is difficult to define the limits
between one illness and another”.
139
So, what might that central nucleus be that is common to all of
them? Well, what is central to and what defines these diseases comprises the high capacity for
endogenous hyperic functioning, which is probably constitutional and hereditary, shared by the
patients concerned. This marked propensity for hyperia is what splashes their biographies with
recurring psychotic symptoms characteristic of hyperia: visual and auditory hallucinations,
delusional thinking, very strong suicidal tendencies, fits of sadness or bliss and episodes of
depersonalization.
Therefore, what would bring all these endogenous psychoses together is the special
sensitivity of the patients to undergo the extraordinary experiences characteristic of hyperic
hypersynchrony. The fact that the morbid process then becomes organized in one way or another –
as a schizophrenia or as a bipolar disorder – will depend both on the patient’s personality before
falling ill and on the type of hyperic experiences predominant in the clinical pattern. Thus, for
example, in schizophrenia, together with a previously withdrawn and introverted personality with
great difficulties in interpersonal communication, there would be a greater incidence of hyperic
experiences with a cognitive content, which would explain the preponderance in the clinical
patterns of these patients of delusional thinking. On the other hand, in bipolar disorder there would
be a predominance of psychic experiences of an affective type, that is the sudden and intense
dysthymic episodes typical of partial epileptic discharges, whether with feelings of sadness and
moral pain, as would be the case of endogenous or melancholic depression, or with an alternation of
feelings of grief and bliss, as in bipolar disorder. As for the feelings of strangeness and
depersonalization, and the hallucinations, these would be present in both psychoses.
This interpretation of ours – hyperic hypersynchrony as the basis of different endogenous
psychoses – would explain a body of clinical and pharmacological facts that have not yet been
cleared up.

139
V. Conde and M. Martínez Roig, “El concepto de endogeneidad en Psiquiatría” [The Concept of Endogeneity in
Psychiatry], in J. Vallejo Ruiloba (Ed.), Update. Psiquiatría, Masson, Barcelona, 1995, pp. 3-4.
92
In the first place, let us underline the considerable overlapping of epilepsy and endogenous
psychoses. This is true in the case of schizophrenic psychosis
140
, but much more so for manic-
depressive psychosis or bipolar disorder, as is shown in countless scientific publications.
141
Thus,
for example, D.O. Lewis et al., having presented a paper about six patients diagnosed with bipolar
disorder, in whom there simultaneously appeared symptoms of partial seizures such as olfactory
hallucinations, déjà vu and mystic experiences, conclude: “Psychomotor symptoms may be more
prevalent in bipolar patients than has hitherto been recognized.”
142

But this close relationship between epilepsy and endogenous psychoses is at the same time
surprising and paradoxical, although no convincing explanation has yet been found for it. Indeed,
on the one hand there are epidemiological data to prove the obvious comorbility that we have been
defending: they are illnesses that often appear together in the same person. But on the other hand,
there is evidence, also very consistent, pointing towards an exclusive relationship between the two
processes, that is, that when epilepsy appears, the psychosis that the patient showed thitherto
disappears. On this odd relationship, M.S. Starr says:

One of the great unresolved medical controversies of the twentieth century concerns the
relationship between epilepsy and psychosis. Limbic structures are suspected of being
intimately involved in the pathophysiology of both of these neurological conditions (Nielsen
and Kristensen, 1981), yet for more than a century medical thinkers have failed to agree

140
On the relationship between schizophrenia and epilepsy, see, among other studies, the following: S. Barcia, “Psicosis
epilépticas intercríticas de aspecto esquizofrénico. Etiopatogenia. Fenómeno Kindling”[Schizophrenia-Like Inter-
Seizure Epileptic Psychoses. Etiopathogeny. The Phenomenon of Kindling”], in J.J. De la Gándara (E.d), op. cit., 1993,
pp. 135-51; P. Malabia Navarro, “Esquizofrenia, epilepsia, locura circular maníaco-depresiva e intoxicaciones
cerebrales”[“Schizophrenia, Epilepsy Manic-Depressive Circular Madness and Cerebral Intoxications”], in D. Barcia,
(Ed.,), Esquizofrenia, ELA, Madrid, 1997, pp. 307-12; F. Marco Merenciano, “Interpretación epiléptica de la
esquizofrenia” [The Epileptic Interpretation of Schizophrenia”], in D. Barcia (Ed.), op. cit., 1997, pp. 359-68; F.
Lamprecht, “Epilepsy and Schizophrenia: a Neurological Bridge”, in J. Neural. Transm., 1977, 40, pp. 157-70; M.
Trimble, “The Relationship Between Epilepsy and Schizophrenia: a Biochemical Hypothesis”, in Biol. Psychiatry,
1977, 12, pp. 299-304; M. Pérez and M.R. Trimble, “Epileptic Psychosis: Diagnostic Comparison with Process
Schizophrenia”, in Br. J. Psychiatry, 1980, 137, pp. 245-49; M. Hejazi, “Temporal Lobe Epilepsy with Schizophrenia”,
in South Med. J., 1987, 80, pp. 1043-45; J.R. Stevens, “Psychiatric Aspects of Epilepsy”, in J. Clin. Psychiatry, 1988,
49, pp. 49S-57S; H. Kido and N. Yamaguchi, “Clinical Studies of Schizophrenia-like State in Epileptic Patients”, in
Jpn. J. Psychiatry Neurol., 1989, 43, pp. 433-38; M.R. Trimble, “First-Rank Symptoms of Schneider: A New
Perspective?”, in Br. J. Psychiatry, 1990, 156, pp. 195-200; C.J. Mace, “Epilepsy and Schizophrenia”, in Br. J.
Psychiatry, 1993, 163, pp. 439-45; M.F. Méndez et al., “Schizophrenia in Epilepsy: Seizure and Psychosis Variables”,
in Neurology, 1993, 43, pp. 1073-77; J.M. Gold et al., “Schizophrenia and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. A
Neuropsychological Analysis”, in Arch. Gen. Psychiatry, 1994, 51, pp. 265-72; C.J. Bruton et al., “Epilepsy, Psychosis
and Schizophrenia: Clinical and Neuropathologic Correlations”, in Neurology, 1994, 44, pp. 34-42.
141
For the relationships between epilepsy and bipolar disorder, see: N.M. Collins and R.R. Jacobson, “Changing
interactions between bipolar affective disorder and anoxic brain damage”, in Br. J. Psychiatry, 156 (1990), pp. 736-40;
D. O Lewis et al., “Psychomotor epileptic symptoms in six patients with bipolar mood disorders”, in Am. J. Psychiatry,
141 (1984), pp. 1583-86; R.H. Howland, “Bipolar disorder associate with primary generalised epilepsy”, in Br. J.
Psychiatry, 162 (1993), pp. 699-700; P. Barczak et al., “Hypermania following complex partial seizures. A report of
three cases”, in Br. J. Psychiatry, 152 1988), pp. 137-39; J.C. Garbutt and G.M. Gillette, “Apparent complex partial
seizures in bipolar patient after withdrawal of carbamazepine”, in J. Clin. Psychiatry, 49 (1988), pp. 410-411; D.V.
Forrest, “Bipolar illness after right hemispherectomy. A response to lithium carbonate and carbamazepine”, in Arch.
Gen Psychiatry, 39 (1982), pp. 817-19.
142
D.O. Lewis et al., “Psychomotor epileptic symptoms in six patients with bipolar mood disorders”, in Am. J.
Psychiatry, 141 (1984), p. 1583.
93
upon whether these two common disorders are closely associated, unrelated, or mutually
antagonistic to one another.
143


There is in fact an unquestionable clinical fact: very often an acute psychosis gives rise
spontaneously to a generalized epileptic seizure which brings an end to the psychiatric symptoms
from which the patient has been suffering for several days. Everything points towards the epileptic
attack having served to neutralize the mental disorder. This clinical observation, moreover, is
backed up by the corresponding electroencephalogram: epileptiform activity disappears from it as
soon as the acute psychosis sets in. And inversely, when the psychosis disappears, the epileptiform
activity returns. This phenomenon is known in Psychiatry as Landolt’s forced normalization.
144

There is yet another act that confronts us unequivocally with this paradoxical relationship
between epilepsy and psychosis: electroconvulsive therapy depends on the mutually exclusive
nature of the two processes.
145
This method of treatment, also known as electric shock therapy,
consists in sending an electric current through the psychotic patient’s brain in order to bring on a
generalized epileptic seizure. Well, today, after more than fifty years of use, it is still one of the
most effective therapeutic techniques for suppressing psychotic experiences and it is one of the
treatments of first choice in psychotic depression, and in persistent manic phases. The same
phenomenon as in clinical manifestations, whereby a seizure puts an end to an acute psychotic
pattern, is what is brought on by the current circulating around the brain and triggering a
generalized grand mal seizure which puts an end to hyperic manifestations.
So there is unmistakable evidence to suggest a mutually exclusive relationship between
psychosis and epilepsy. But not only exclusive, but paradoxical, for, although they are mutually
repellent, they do co-occur in the same patient. How can this contradiction be explained? What
hypothesis can clear up the dilemma? Regarding this matter, D. Pollock proposes the following
interpretation:

A model explaining both the etiology and the reciprocal nature of seizures and psychosis in
temporal lobe epilepsy is developed. Preictal and interictal spikes kindle both proconvulsive
and inhibitory pathways of seizure expression and behaviorally relevant limbic systems.
That system currently expressive, either seizure or psychosis, while under high synchronous
drive would ten to fail allowing for the emergence of the opposing system.
146


143
M.S. Starr, op. cit., 1996, 22, p. 160.
144
P. Wolf, “Acute behavioral symptomatology at disappearance of epileptiform EEG abnormality. Paradoxical or
‘forced’ normalization”, in Adv. Neurol., 1991, 55, p. 127.
145
J.E. Rojo Rodés and J. Vallejo Ruiloba (Eds.), Terapia Electroconvulsiva [Electric Shock Therapy], Masson-Salvat,
Barcelona, 1994.
146
D.C. Pollock, “Models for understanding the antagonism between seizures and psychosis”, in Prog.
Neuropsychopharmacol. Biol. Psychiatry, 1987, 11, p. 483.
94

According to Pollock, in both cases there is one and the same cerebral functioning at work,
its activity sometimes expressed as epilepsy and sometimes through psychotic symptoms. This
interpretation does not, however, explain why this happens, or why the two expressions of the same
function are mutually exclusive at certain times.
On the other hand, our explanation, whereby hyperia and epilepsy are separated, would seem
to make things much clearer: the primary psychotic symptoms are determined by what we called
hyperic hypersynchrony, a firing which would be mediated by non-NMDA excitatory amino acid
neurotransmitters, probably through the their reinforcement of dopaminergic activity.
147
Epileptic
hypersynchrony, however, would have to be considered as a side effect of a hyperic activity out of
control, extending out of its normal pathways. Then epileptic hypersynchrony would appear,
mediated by the NMDA excitatory amino acid receptors as a means of dealing with a hyperia that
had got out of control and become pathological. This is why hyperia and epilepsy so often appear
together, despite being incompatible: epilepsy is to hyperia what the fireman’s water is to a fire.
This would explain the apparent contradiction supposed by the frequent comorbility of the
symptoms of psychosis and epilepsy despite their incompatibility. Our interpretation would, then,
clarify the clinical observation according to which a generalized epileptic attack puts s swift end to
an acute psychotic syndrome thitherto evolving with a wealth of symptoms.
But there is also another set of facts, in the realm of psychopharmacology, which also seem
confusing, even contradictory, and which, however, our interpretation would explain completely.
For example, how might we explain that the medications effective in the treatment of
epilepsy are just as efficient in combating the psychotic manifestations of bipolar disorder? First
there was carbamazepine
148
, which proved its efficacy as a mood regulator. A few years later it was
the turn of valproate
149
, then clonazepan
150
. And now, every new antepileptic drug that comes onto

147
A. Imperato et al., “Dopamine release in the nucleus caudatus and in the nucleus accumbens is under glutamatergic
control through non-NMDA receptors: a study in freely-moving rats” in Brain Res. 530 (1990), p. 223.
148
On the use of carbamazepine in the treatment of bipolar disorder, see, among others, the following articles: W.A.
Nole, “Carbamazepine, a Possible Adjunct or Alternative to Lithium in Bipolar Disorder”, in Acta. Psychiatr. Scand.,
67 (1983), pp. 218-25; J.C. Garbutt and G.M. Gillette, “Apparent Complex Partial Seizures in a Bipolar Patient after
Withdrawal of Carbamzepine”, in J. Clin. Psychiatry, 49 (1988), pp. 410-11; M. Tohen et al., “Concomitant Use of
Valproate and Carbamazepine in Bipolar and Schizoaffective Disorders”, in J. Clin. Psychopharmacol., 14 (1994), pp.
67-70; E. Spina et al., “Clinically Significant Pharmacokinetic Drug Interactions with Carbamazepine. An Update”, in
Clin. Pharmokinetic, 31 (1996), pp. 198-214; T.W. Uhde et al., “Lack of Efficacy of Carbamazepine in the Treatment
of Panic Disorder”, in Am. J. Psychiatry, 145 (1988), pp. 1104-09.
149
See, among many others, the following articles. S.L. McElroy et al., “Valproate in Psychiatric Disorders: Literature
Review and Clinical Guidelines”, in J. Clin. Psychiatry, 50 (1989), pp. 28-29; J.A. Deltito, “The Effect of Valproate on
Bipolar Spectrum Temperamental Disorders”, in J. Clin. Psychiatry, 54 (1993), pp. 300-04; K.T. Brady et al.,
“Valproate in the Treatment of Acute Bipolar Affective Episodes Complicated by Substance Abuse: A Pilot Study” in
J. Clin Psychiatry, 56 (1995), pp. 118-21; J.R. Calabrese et al., “Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder and its Treatment with
Valproate”, in Can. J. Psychiatry, 38 suppl 2 (1993), pp. S46-S50; V. Sharma et al., “Treatment of rapid cycling bipolar
disorder with combination therapy of valproate and lithium”, Can. J. Psychiatry, 38 (1993), pp. 137-39; R.T. Joffe,
“Valproate in bipolar disorder: the Canadian perspective”, in Can. J. Psychiatry, 38 suppl. 2 (1993), pp. S46-S50; D.R.
Guay, “The Emerging Role of Valproate in Bipolar Disorder and Other Psychiatric Disorders”, in Pharmacotherapy, 15
95
the market – lamotrigine
151
, gabapentin
152
, etc. – after a few months on sale as an anticonvulsant, is
then presented as equally useful in the treatment of bipolar disorder.
This surprising fact begs the question: What are we really treating here: bipolar disorders
that respond to substances that in psychiatry we call mood-stabilizing drugs or, if not, partial
epileptic attacks with affective manifestations (for us, hyperia) that respond to the same drugs,
except that in neurology they are called antepileptic? Let us remember once more how extremely
difficult it sometimes is to reach a differential diagnosis between bipolar disorder and partial
epileptic seizures in which depression alternates with ecstasy.
Again the hyperia hypothesis would convincingly explain this apparent contradiction:
probably the whole sequence of moods of sadness and joy experienced by bipolar patients are
nothing more than the expression of a neuronal hypersynchrony, or hyperic functioning of the brain.
Naturally, this hypersynchrony would be officially countered with antepileptic drugs, which are no
more than substances designed to cushion neuronal excitability, that is to diminish the hyperic
functioning of the brain.
And there is still one more argument to support our thesis of hyperia as the common root for
all these psychopathological disorders. Just as anticonvulsant drugs give good results in the
treatment of mood disorders, it is equally true that the so-called serotoninergic antidepressants are
proving their usefulness in the treatment of psychic manifestations of partial epileptic discharges. It
is the same reasoning, but from the opposite point of view: first we had antepileptics used as mood
stabilizers, now we have antidepressants being used as antepileptics.
Indeed, serotoninergic antidepressants, apart from being effective in eliminating the mood
changes of depression, are just as useful for the suppression of other psychic symptoms, such as
panic attacks, phobias, social anxiety and obsessions. And do not all these manifestations make up
the varied and polymorphic symptomatology of partial epileptic attacks? But it is not just that we

(1995), pp. 631-47; C.L. Bowden et al., “Relation of Serum Valproate Concentration to Response in Mania”, Am. J.
Psychiatry, 153 (1996), pp. 765-70.
150
On the use of clonazepan in bipolar disorder, see G. Chouinard, “The use of benzodiazepines in the treatment of
manic-depressive illness”, in J. Clin. Psychiatry, 49 (1988), pp. 15-20; D. Mungas, “Interictal behavior abnormality in
temporal lobe epilepsy. A specific syndrome or nonspecific psychopathology?”, in Arch. Gen. Psychiatry, 39 (1982),
pp. 108-11.
151
On lamotrigine use in bipolar disorder, see the following publications: J. Walden and B. Hesslinger, “Value of Old
and New Anticonvulsivants in Treatment of Psychiatric Diseases”, in Fortsch. Neurol. Psychiatr., 63 (1995), pp. 320-
35; J. Walden et al., “Addition of Lamotrigine to Valproate May Enhance Efficacy in the Treatment of Bipolar
Affective Disorder”, in Pharmacopsychiatry, 29 (1996), pp. 193-95; E. Spina et al., op. cit., pp. 198-214.
152
On the study of gabapentin as a mood regulator in bipolar disorder and in other psychiatric applications, see, among
others, the following: S. McElroy et al., “A Pilot Trial of Adjunctive Gabapentin in the Treatment of Bipolar Disorder”,
in Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, 9 (1997), pp. 99-103; L. Trevor et al., “Acute Treatment of Bipolar Depression with
Gabapentin”, in Biol Psychiatry, 42 (1997), pp. 851-53; S. Dubovsky et al., “Novel Alternatives and Supplements to
Lithium and Anticonvulsivants for Bipolar Affective Disorder”, in J. Clin. Psychiatry, 58 (1997), pp. 224-42; G.A.
Mellinck and M.L. Seng, “The Use of Gabapentin in the Treatment of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy and Phobic
Disorder”, in Am. J. Pain Manage, 5 (1995), pp. 7-9.
96
postulate this, for there are numerous scientific publications in which this anticonvulsant activity of
serotoninergic drugs is evidenced, especially as suppressers of partial epileptic attacks.
153

We must therefore ask ourselves the same question again: What are we treating: depressive
patterns, expressions of anxiety, obsessive disorders or the like, according to Psychiatry, or rather
various manifestations of neuronal hypersynchrony that would be efficiently curtailed by the
inhibitory factor that these drugs exert on neuronal transmission?
There are, then, many arguments in favour of a hypersynchronic activity linked with
epileptic hypersynchrony, but different from it and comprising the common substrate of all these
psychopathological disturbances.
In short, our interpretation of mental illness as the expression of a cerebral function, not only
physiological but higher, would be completely compatible with the Platonic concept of madness as
a process with a clearly positive value:

…the best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god [...]. The
people who designed our language in the old days never thought of madness as something to
be ashamed of or worthy of blame; otherwise they would not have used the word “manic”
for the finest experts of all – the ones who tell the future – thereby weaving insanity into
prophecy. They thought it was wonderful when it came as a gift of the god. [...]
Third comes the kind of madness that is possession by the Muses, which takes a
tender virgin soul and awakens it to a Bacchic frenzy of songs and poetry that glorifies the
achievements of the past and teaches them to future generations. If anyone comes to the
gates and expects to be an adequate poet by acquiring expert knowledge of the subject
without the Muses’ madness, he will fail, and his self-controlled verses will be eclipsed by
the poetry of men who have been driven out of their minds.
154


How can Plato’s positive evaluation of madness be reconciled with the traditional notion of
hypersynchrony as a negative and invalidating epileptic illness? It is, however, in line with our
hypothesis of hyperia as a higher cerebral functioning from which extraordinary experiences are

153
On the use of serotoninergics as antepileptics, see, among others, the following studies: J.D. Leander, “Fluoxetine, a
selective serotonin-uptake inhibitor, enhances the anticonvulsivant effects of phenytoin, carbamazepine and ameltolide
(LY201116)”, in Epilepsia, 33 (1992, pp. 573-76; S. Prendiville and K. Gale, “Anticonvulsivant Effect of Fluoxetine on
Focally Evoked Limbic Motor Seizures in Rats”, in Epilepsia, 34 (1993), pp. 381-84; Q.S. Yan, et al., “Evidence that a
Serotoninergic Mechanism is Involved in the Anticonvusivant Effect of Fluoxetine in Genetically Epilepsy-Prone
Rats”, in Eur. J. Pharmacol., 252 (1994), pp. 105-12; H. Kabuto et al., “Chronic Administration of Citalopram
Inhibited E1 Mouse Convulsions and Decreased Monoamine Oxidase-A Activity”, in Acta Med. Okayama, 48 (1994):
pp. 311-16; A. Salgado and K.A. Alkadhi, “Inhibition of epileptiform activity by serotonin in rat CA1 neurons”, in
Brain Res., 669 (1995), pp. 176-82; Q.S. Yan et al., “Further evidence of Anticonvulsivant Role for 5-
Hydroxytryptamine in Genetically Epilepsy-Prone Rats”, in Br. J. Pharmacol., 115 (1995), pp. 1314-18; H.W.
McConnell et al., “Treatment of psychiatric Comorbidity in Epilepsy”, in H.W. McConnell and P.J. Snyder (Eds.),
Psychiatric Comorbidity in Epilepsy, American Psychiatric Press, Washington, 1998, p. 282.
154
Plato, Complete Works, Hackett, Indianapolis 1997, pp. 522-23.
97
derived that permit artistic creation. Just like the illustrious Athenian thinker, we maintain that this
psychic activity can lead to illumination, only that for us it is not necessarily a question of madness,
but of hyperia. And the philosopher has more to say about the excellence of Divine madness:

…the fourth kind of madness – that which someone shows when he sees the beauty we have
down here and is reminded of true beauty; then he takes wings and flutters in his eagerness
to rise up, but is unable to do so; and he gazes aloft, like a bird, paying no attention to what
is down below – and that is what brings on him the charge that he has gone mad. [...] and
when someone who loves beautiful boys is touched by this madness he is called a lover.
155

There you have some of the fine achievements – and I could tell you even more – that are
due to god-sent madness. [...] this sort of madness is given by the gods to ensure our greatest
good fortune .
156


5. Hyperia and Literature

The third great group in whom we observe a special aptitude for hyperic functioning is that made up
of artists. We have seen at different moments in our study that a good many of the most outstanding
artistic creations that these creators have left us have their starting point in paroxysmal and
extraordinary experiences which we attribute to the hyperic functioning of the brain.
Without a doubt, the branch of art that best reflects this extreme, and therefore the
most suitable for the analysis of these facts, is literature. Indeed, we have already mentioned
different writers whose works are marked with such hyperic experiences. Let us remember again
the Marcel Proust´s hypermnesia, after have smelled and savoured a little cake similar to those
which he uses to eat in his childhood in Combray
157
:

[...] one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered
me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular
reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites
madeleines”, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop
shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing
morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake.
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran

155
Ibid., p. 527.
156
Ibid., p. 523.
157
M. Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, Swann’s Way, 1, Chatto and Windus, London, 1982, p. 48.
98
through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An
exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion
of its origin [...]. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it
have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the
tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the
same nature.

In the same vein, we have to quote here the extraordinary experience of depersonalization
related by Jack Kerouac in his novel On the road
158
:

I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the
strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was- I was far away from home, haunted
and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside
and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and
I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen
strange seconds.


But there are some writers in whom these experiences are just as profuse and acquire such
importance that they eventually become a major part of their composition. Such is the case, for
example of the German Hermann Hesse, in some of whose novels this extraordinary
phenomenology is so persistent that it constitutes part of the plot.
Thus, in Demian, Hesse tells the story of two friends who, because of the permanent and
intense suffering brought on by their hyperic experiences, are condemned to search. Sinclair and
Demian bear on their foreheads the mark of Cain, that badge of the race of Cainites which is
nothing other than hyperia, a tremendous hypersensitivity causing them experiences of
extraordinary intensity, often so painful that they are forced to search ceaselessly for a meaning to
their intense suffering. A suffering that forces one to search – if it did not sound pretentious, we
would make so bold as to coin the term search-sufferers to denote sufferers condemned to
searching. Sinclair himself expressly states it at one point in the work:

And at that point it scalded me suddenly like a sharp flame – the definitive revelation: for
the waking man, there was only one duty, to search for himself...the real job of each one was

158
Kerouac, J. On the Road. Electronically Enhanced Text: World Library, Inc., 1991-93: p. 17.
99
just to reach himself...any other thing was to stop halfway, to go back to refuge in the ideal
of the community, fear of the very inner individuality.
159


The novel is riddled with hypersynchronic discharges, sometimes brought on by the music
of Pistorius, sometimes by the colours flashing in Sinclair’s paintings, but always with the
suddenness, passivity and vividness characterizing all hyperic experiences:

When I heard the passion according to St Matthew, I shuddered with mystic shivering...
160

Once I was overcome. My companion had thrown a lump of resin into the fire, from
which a slender flame rose in which I thought I could see the bird in my drawing, with its
yellow head...burning threads forming capricious nets...letters and figures...memories...
161

The sensation of having already lived through that moment went through me like
lightning. [...]. The violent precision of the memory left me shaking. Like that, just like that,
I had already seen it before...
162


And what about Steppenwolf? More of the same! The story of a new searcher, another
Cainite just as much condemned to find the sense of those psychic contents, surely hyperic, that
make him a kind of hermit surrounded by a world whose values he does not understand:

How was I to avoid being a Steppenwolf and a poor anchorite in a world none of whose
aims I share in, none of whose pleasures attracts me? [...] I cannot understand or share in all
those pleasures, which are certainly accessible to me and which thousands of people hanker
and struggle after. And what happens to me, on the other hand, in my rare moments of
pleasure, what for me is delight, success, elevation and ecstasy is something that the world
does not know, love or seek out, except perhaps in novels; in life it considers it madness.
163


And what are those extraordinary experiences that Harry Haller’s life is dedicated to
following, and that only artists and the mad seem to seek? Nothing other than the hyperic
experiences already mentioned thousands of times, either in the shape of musicogenic seizures or
brought on by meditation or reading:


159
H. Hesse, Demian, Editores Mexicanos Unidos, México, 1985, pp. 160-61.
160
Ibid., p. 81.
161
Ibid., p. 131.
162
Ibid., p. 188-89.
163
H. Hesse, Steppenwolf, Alianza, Madrid, 1984, p. 35.
100
Sometimes, though rarely, there were moments of great trembling and Divine gifts,
devastating moments, when I, who was lost, was taken back to the beating heart of the
world. Sad and yet stimulated to the core, I tried to remember the last time this had
happened. It had been at a concert. A magnificent old piece was being played. Then,
between two bars of a passage played pianissimo by oboes, the door to the hereafter was
again suddenly opened to me, I had crossed to Heaven and I saw God at work. I suffered
blessed pains, and could no longer resist anything in the world, nor fear anything in it, I had
to affirm everything and give up my heart. It did not last long [...]. On another occasion the
vision returned with the reading of a poet, with meditation on a thought of Descartes or
Pascal.
164


And a few pages later, he again mentions the same experience, which has come over him
once more, automatically and suddenly, as if by surprise:

Suddenly I recaptured the forgotten melody of those sweet bars of the oboes: like a
shiny little soap bubble I felt it come up inside me, shine, reflect the world as polychrome
and tiny before gently bursting again. If it had been possible for this heavenly little melody
to mysteriously set root in my soul an one day within me cause its charming flower to bloom
with all its beautiful shades, could I be irremediably lost?
165


We could go on considering the many other hyperic quotations in Hesse’s works, like that
sudden illumination experienced by Siddhartha while watching a river flow, which is so reminiscent
of what happened to St Ignatius of Loyola on the banks of the Cardoner:

With his face disjointed he fixed his gaze on the water [...]. At that moment he heard
a voice arrive from remote parts of his soul [...]. It was a word, a syllable that a babbling
voice repeated mechanistically: the sacred Om...Perfection [...]. His sleepy spirit awoke
suddenly and recognized the stupidity of his intention [...]. And again he was aware of
Brahma [...]. But that moment lasted but a second, like a lightning flash.
166


Here Herman Hesse is speaking to us of the extraordinary psychic content of hyperia which
he does not describe at all as having pathological connotations. Like so many other writers, he
describes experiences of unusual intensity which are often the starting points of lives of suffering

164
Ibid., pp. 34-35.
165
Ibid., p. 40.
166
H.Hesse, Siddhartha, Bruguera, Barcelona, 1976, pp. 105-06.
101
and search, but does not conceive them as an illness, but as the product of the normal workings of
the mind. Unusual, but normal.
But of all the hyperic experiences appearing in literature, surely the best known and the most
studied are those left to us by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Everybody knows that the famous Russian
novelist suffered from epilepsy,
167
and we find magnificent descriptions of his ecstatic seizures in
the Memoirs published by Sophia Kovaleskaya:

It was Easter Night: the two friends, forgetting how late it was, were talking, and like
real Russians (Russians as they used to be) they were talking, talking about God. Suddenly
Dostoyevsky shouted: “God exists, he exists!” just as the nearby church bells rang for
midnight mass and Dostoyevsky went on: “The air was filled with a great noise and began to
vibrate...It felt to me as though the sky had come down to earth and had swallowed me up; I
actually touched God. He entered me.. Yes, God exists”, I shouted, and I remember no
more.
168
[Translated from the French as quoted by Alajouanine]

But the author also relates his own experiences on several occasions in his works, using
different characters as vehicles. Thus, in The Devils (also known as The Possessed), Kirilov
describes an ecstatic episode like this:

There are seconds, only five or six seconds, when suddenly you feel the presence of
eternal harmony, perfectly represented. It is not of this earth, I do not wish to say that it is
Heavenly, but that man in his earthly form cannot support it. He needs to become physically
transformed or die. It is a clear and unmistakable feeling. It seems as though you felt that the
whole of nature [...]. You forgive nobody for there is nothing to forgive. It is not that you
love: Oh, it is way above love! The most terrible part of it is that it is such an intensely clear
thing and that you feel such joy. If it lasted more than five seconds, the soul would not be
able to bear it and would have to disappear. In those five seconds I have lived a life, and for
them I would give my whole life, for they are worth it.
169


Kirilov assures us that he has not suffered from generalized seizures but just from these very
intense psychic paroxysms. However, Dostoyevsky, who knows from his own experience that these

167
Regarding Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy, see, among others, the following studies: T. Alajouanine, “Dostiewski’s
epilepsy”, in Brain, 86 (1963), pp. 210-18; H.F. Gastaut, “Dostoevsky’s involuntary contribution to the
symptomatology and prognosis of epilepsy”, in Epilepsia, 19 (1978), pp. 186-201; F. Cirignotta, C.V. Todesco and E.
Lugaresi, “Temporal Lobe Epilepsy with Ecstatic Seizures (So-Called Dostoevsky Epilepsy)”, in Epilepsia 21 (1980),
pp. 705-10; P.H. Voskuil, “The Epilepsy of Fyodor Mikhailovitch Dostoevsky (1821-1881)”, in Epilepsia, 24 (1983),
pp. 658-67.
168
Quoted by T. Alajouanine, “Littérature et épilepsie”, in Cahiers de l’herne, 1973, 24, p. 312.
169
F. Dostoyevsky, Complete Works, Aguilar, Madrid, 1990, vol. II, p. 1459.
102
ecstatic episodes often precede generalized seizures, says the following through the mouth of
Schatov:

“Kirilov, does this happen to you often?”
“Once every three days; once a week.”
“You don’t get seizures?”
“No.”
“Well that means that you’re going to get them. Look after yourself, Kirilov, I’ve
heard that that’s how seizures begin. An epileptic described me the last details of that
sensation before the attack, exactly as you have just done – five seconds, and he said it
would be impossible to bear any more. Remember Mohammed’s little jug, which didn’t
have time to empty out, while he, on horseback, was wandering around Paradise. The
jug...it’s the same five seconds; it reminds one too much of you, but Mohammed was an
epileptic. Be careful of attacks, Kirilov.
170


Indeed, the psychic productions that hyperic hypersynchrony gives rise to may be so great
and so intense that it is absolutely impossible to bear them for more that a few instants, just before
the onset of a generalized gran mal seizure, which puts an end to such an awesome experience. It is
the famous “sublime minute” that Dostoyevsky mentions in The Idiot, through the mouth of Prince
Mishkin:

He remembered the symptoms that heralded the epileptic fits that he had so often
suffered. Right in the middle of a crisis of anguish, of oppression, of stultification, it
suddenly seemed to him that his brain was burning and that all the vital forces of his being
acquired an awesome impetus. In those moments, very fleeting ones, the meaning and
awareness of life were multiplied in him. His heart and spirit were lit up with a blinding
brightness. All his agitation, his doubts, his anguish culminated in a great serenity made of
joy, of harmony and hope that took him to total knowledge, to the understanding of the first
cause, the sublime minute. But those radiant moments, those flashes of intuition, foretold the
decisive instant that preceded the seizure.
171


And still on the subject of literature and hyperia, we cannot fail to mention the multitude of
poets whose lives, because of their continual and very frequent hyperic experiences, have become a
wandering search for Beauty and Truth, to the point where they have all eventually become real

170
Ibid., p. 1459.
171
F. Dostoyevsky, op. cit., 1964, pp. 256-7.
103
mystics – profane mystics, if you like, but mystics nevertheless, who end up forming through their
poetry a union with the Absolute similar to that found in religious mystics. We could mention
William Blake, Walt Whitman, Juan Ramón Jiménez and many more.
Let us concentrate for a while on Walt Whitman, a poet who exhibits frequent hyperic
experiences in his literary compositions:

“My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps, I skirt sierras, my palms cover
continents, I am afoot with my vision”
172
… “I heard what was said of the universe, Heard it and
heard it of several thousand years”
173
.

But the most relevant of Whitman’s extraordinary experiences appears in his poem entitled
One hour to madness and joy:

“One hour to madness and joy! O furious! O confine me not!
(What is this that frees me so in storms? What do my shouts amid lightnings and raging
winds mean?) O to drink the mystic deliria deeper than any other man!
O savage and tender aching! (I bequeath them to you my children, I tell them to you, for
reasons, O bridegroom and bride.)
O to be yielded to you whoever you are, and you to be yielded to me in defiance of the
world!
O to return to Paradise! O bashful and feminine!
O to draw you to me, to plant on you for the first time the lips of a determin’d man.
O the puzzle, the thrice-tied knot, the deep and dark pool, all untied and illumin’d!
O to speed where there is space enough and air enough at last!
To be absolv’d from previous ties and conventions, I from mine and you from yours!
To find a new unthought-of nonchalance with the best of Nature!
To have the gag remov’d from one’s mouth!
To have the feeling to-day or any day I am sufficient as I am.
O something unprov’d! something in a trance!
To escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!
To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!
To court destruction with taunts, with invitations!
To ascend, to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!
To rise thither with my inebriate soul!

172
Whitman W. Leaves of grass. Electronically Enhanced Text: World Library, Inc., 1991-93: p. 121.
173
Whitman W. Ibid., p. 144.
104
To be lost if it must be so!
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fullness and freedom!
With one brief hour of madness and joy”
174
.

Also the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez was prone to hyperic experiences, borne out by
the intense psychic symptomatology that he suffered throughout his life. Gilbert Azam says this of
them:

His temperament had always been delicate and nervous [...] he imagined that his heart could
fail at any moment and he had to spend long periods shut up in hospitals and sanatoria [...]
his morbid fear of sudden death became, then, a neurosis.
175


In that fear of sudden heart failure and in that “morbid fear of sudden death”, we discover
the characteristic elements of a panic attack, with the consequent appearance of phobic behaviour
tending to avoid the repetition of the dreaded seizures, which would eventually bring about years of
illness.
In perfect agreement with the poet’s psychic sufferings, in his work we find various
examples of extraordinary experiences where moods of daunting intensity put his soul in
communion with the ever-ineffable cosmic conscience:

How sad it is to love everything,
without knowing what one loves!
It seems as though the stars,
in compassion speak to me;
but as they are so far away,
I do not understand their words.
176


Guided by these vivid emotional experiences, the poetic search becomes for the Nobel Prize
winning poet Jiménez, little by little, a genuine mystical process:

For poetry and God, I insist, are the expression of the ineffable, the unspeakable, and
can only be expressed through circumlocution, hints and symbols. And poetry is like
religion, a beauty of symbols, not the truth.
177


174
Whitman W. Leaves of grass. Electronically Enhanced Text: World Library, Inc., 1991-93: pp. 194-5.
175
G. Azam, “Introducción”, in J.R. Jiménez, Selección de poemas, Castalia, Madrid, 1987, p. 9.
176
J.R. Jiménez, Segunda antolojía [sic] poética, Espasa Calpe, Madrid, 1998, p. 102, literal translation.
177
Ibid., p. 50.
105

It is not surprising then that we finds his poems littered with hyperic experiences in which
the poet expresses ecstatic feelings of fusion with nature, often triggered by the light or acoustic
stimuli that we have seen so often in our study. Thus, a verse in which the setting sun brings on in
him an ecstasy in the shape of a longing for eternity:

Coming through leaves,
the sun, now copper, comes
to wound my heart.
I want to be eternal!
Beauty that I have seen
Never rub yourself out!
For you to be eternal,
I want to be eternal!
178


In this way, his poetry eventually becomes pure eternity, in words that take on creative
power and allow him to re-create the creatures:

Intelligence, give me
the exact names of things!
May my word be
the thing itself,
created by my soul anew.
179

I know full well that I am the trunk
of the tree of things eternal.
I know full well that the stars
I feed with my blood.
That the clear dreams
Are birds of mine.
I know full well that when the axe
of death fells me,
the firmament will collapse.
180



178
J.R. Jiménez, op. cit., 1987, p. 113.
179
Ibid., p. 130.
180
Ibid., p. 132.
106
It was precisely this sharing in God’s creational abililty – re-creating things now through the
word – that Bergson considered the fundamental characteristic of the mystic:

In our eyes, the ultimate end of mysticism is the establishment of a contact, consequently of
a partial coincidence, with the creative effort of which life is the manifestation. That effort is
of God, if not God himself. The great mystic is to be conceived as an individual being,
capable of transcending the limitations imposed on the species by its material nature, thus
continuing and extending the divine action.
181



6. Hyperia and Music

The hyperia thesis would allow us to explain another dilemma that we have repeatedly found
throughout our study: the real role to be attributed to music in cerebral activity. In the first chapter,
it appeared as a suitable stimulus for triggering seizures of reflex epilepsy and, in perfect reciprocity
with these musicogenic attacks, we later found it as an efficient means used by religious throughout
history to trigger extraordinary mystical experiences, in short, to bring on trances of ecstasy –
hyperic experiences.
The time has come, then, to resolve certain paradoxes that have been in the wings
throughout the book: How does music act on neuronal functioning? What link does it have with
extraordinary mystic experiences? Must the highly unusual experiences that it arouses always be
considered as something pathological belonging exclusively to the field of epilepsy, or should they
be understood as hyperic experiences, and therefore physiological and likely to occur in any healthy
person?
We now have available a wealth of information that leads us to think that the role it plays in
epileptics could be extrapolated to the population at large and thus the psychic phenomena that it
evokes in epileptics could be equated to those aroused in normal people. In this regard, we have
observed that the extraordinary experiences brought on by music, and which have the
phenomenological characteristics of the psychic experiences of epilepsy, appeared in the most
diverse writers of all periods. Thus, Æschylus speaks of “ominous chords that unleash frenzy”.
182

For his part, the Chinese poet Kung Tzu Chen, narrating his own experience, offers us a
magnificent description of a musicogenic attack: “I have always been absent minded while hearing
the sound of a street vendors [sic] flute.”
183


181
H. Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, MacMillan and Co., London, 1935, p. 188.
182
G. Colli, La sabiduría griega [The Wisdom of Greece], Trotta, Madrid, 1995, p. 59.
183
Quoted by H.G. Wieser et al., “Musicogenic Epilepsy: Review of the Literature and Case Report with Ictal Single
Photon Emission Computed Tomography”, in Epilepsia, 38 (1997), p. 200.
107
The same may be said of the different religious authors, who hint at this capacity of music to
evoke extraordinary experiences. Let us remember the case of the Jewish prophet who needed
music to be able to go into trance: “They fetched a minstrel, and while he was playing, the power of
the LORD came upon Elisha ...” (2 Kings 3, 15). In the same vein, Pseudo-Dionysius makes
reference to “the sacred canticles that have serenely prepared our spirit to share in the mysteries that
we are going to celebrate, when they have put us in tune with God”.
184
For his part, St Augustine
describes the highly intense feelings that music aroused in him: “How much I cried hearing the
hymns and canticles [...] whose gentle sound moved me with force and impelled me to devotion and
tenderness!”
185
And let us not forget the importance of music in the life of Hildegard of Bingen, for
whom it was the ideal medium for her to express her intense mystic experiences.
But we find music bringing on episodes of unheard-of intensity in many other authors who
describe them as though they were normal events – they were certainly striking, but in no way
pathological. Friar Luis of León, in the Ode to his contemporary and famous composer Salinas,
gives this description of the extraordinary effects of music on his soul:

The air becomes serene
and puts on beauty and uncommon light,
Salinas, when
the loud music sounds
governed by your wise hand [...]
It goes right through the air
till it reaches the highest sphere,
and hears there another kind
of imperishable music,
which is the source of the former [...].
Oh blissful faint!
Oh life-giving death! Oh sweet oblivion!
If only I could remain in your repose
without ever being sent back
to this low and vile sense!
186




184
Pseudo-Dionysius (Denys the Areopagite), Obras completas [Complete Works], BAC, Madrid, 1990, p. 212.
185
St Augustine, Confessions, electronic edition, New Advent Catholic Supersite, Barclona, 1961, book 9, chapter VI,
section 14.
186
Friar Luis of León, Poesía [Poetry], Alianza Madrid, 1986, p. 34.
108
Should the psychic contents of serenity, beauty, blissful fainting, and the intense joy
experienced here by the poet under the effects of music be considered normal, or do they rather
have the requisites of intensity, paroxysm, strangeness and passivity necessary for their
interpretation as epileptic episodes? Where can we draw the line between these extraordinarily
intense yet still normal experiences and those that have to be considered epileptical or pathological?
Of all the authors that we have examined, the one who with greatest strength and clarity
underlines the hyperizing function of music must surely be the Roumanian philosopher Cioran. This
thinker, like so many other mystics and artists, suffered throughout his life from such painful
experiences that he himself said: “I can say that since the age of seventeen I have not had a single
day without an attack of melancholy.”
187
In his case, this indescribable suffering for no reason,
which seems to come from another world and which has all the characteristics of an epileptic
discharge, is called tedium. The description that he gives of it has a clear correspondence with the
time disturbance he suffers during a seizure:

In tedium time cannot run by. Each instant swells and, in a manner of speaking, does not let
the next instant come [...]. In tedium, time is separated from existence and passes to the
outside. Now, what we call life and actions is an insertion in time. We are time. In tedium,
we are no longer in time [...]. Tedium has been and still is the plague of my life,
inconceivable without a physiological basis.
188


We cannot avoid comparing this quote from Cioran on the standstill to which he notices
time coming with one from a patient of Jaspers’, which we mentioned in the section on the
treatment of epilepsy:

Suddenly I was invaded by a state: my arms and legs seemed to swell up. A frightful pain
went through my head, and time stood still. Simultaneously my soul was presented in an
almost superhuman way with the vital importance of that moment. Then time flowed again
as before.
189


Well, for this great sufferer, music is of major importance and we find constant references to
it in his work as an efficient way of provoking experiences with clearly ecstatic characteristics:


187
E.M. Cioran, Conversaciones [Entretiens, in French], Tusquets, Barcelona, 1997, p. 104.
188
Ibid., pp. 55 and 93.
189
K. Jaspers, op. cit., 1973, p. 107.
92
E.M. Cioran, El libro de las quimeras [Le livre des leurres, in French], Tusquets, Barcelona, 1996, p. 11.
93
Ibid., p. 12.
109
To live in perpetual exaltation, spellbound and maddened in a drunken bout of melodies, an
intoxication of divine sonorities, for me to be the music of spheres myself, an explosion of
vibrations, a cosmic song and an upward spiralling of resonances. the songs and the sadness
stop being painful in this intoxication and my tears burn again as in the moment of supreme
mystic revelation.
190


The description of the ecstatic paroxysm could hardly be more explicit, and in it we find the
same “tears of joy” that had been experimented by St Augustine, St Ignatius, St Teresa and St John
of the Cross, tears that are accompanied by the intense conviction of receiving “supreme mystic
revelations”.
For Cioran, there is no doubt: music arouses genuine ecstasies in the brain, that is, sudden
experiences having all the characteristics of extraordinary mystic phenomena and accompanied by a
vivid impression of oneness with Truth. He even uses the term musical ecstasy over and over again
when speaking of them:

Musical ecstasy implies a return to identity, to origins, to the first roots of existence. In it all
that is left is the pure rhythm of existence, the immanent and organic current of life. I hear
life. From there all the revelations spring.
191


Cioran conceives rhythm and melody as the essence of life and such mentions are made time
and again:

I am captivated and driven mad with joy by the musical mystery lying within me, which
projects its flashes in melodious undulations, which undoes me and reduces my being to
pure rhythm. I have lost my substance, that unyieldingness that gave me prominence and
profile, which made me tremble before the world, and feel abandoned and homeless in a
deathly loneliness and I have arrived in a sweet and rhythmic immaterialness, when the
search for my self no longer has any meaning, for my melodization, my transformation into
melody, into pure rhythm, has taken me out of the usual relativity of life.
192

Anyone who has not had the sensation of the disappearance of the world as a limiting,
objective and separated reality, anyone who has not had the sensation of absorbing the world
during their musical ecstasies, their shaking and their vibrations, will never understand the
meaning of this experience where everything is reduced to a continuous and ascensional

94 Ibid., 1996, p. 11.
95 Ibid., p. 10.
96 S. Weil, A la espera de Dios [Waiting for God], Trotta, Madrid, 1993, pp. 75-6
110
universe of sound evolving upwardly into pleasurable chaos. And what is that musical state
other than a pleasurable chaos whose vertigo is like placidness and its undulations like
fits?
193


And to round off this list of authors in whose work music appears in the role of a hyperizing
stimulus, some words have to be said about the French mystic Simone Weil, a figure in many ways
comparable to Cioran yet so different from him. Like him, she was a tremendous sufferer who felt
in her own flesh the indescribable grief of the extraordinary experiences of hyperia, although she
labels such pain as unhappiness:

Unhappiness is something very different from simple suffering [...]. It is inseparable from
physical suffering yet completely different [...]. It is an uprooting of life, a more or less
attenuated equivalent of death [...]. If physical pain is completely absent, there is no
unhappiness for the soul, for thoughts may be directed to any object [...]. When a physical
pain forces thought to recognize the presence of unhappiness, such a frightening state ensues
that it is as if a condemned person were obliged to look for hours at the guillotine that was to
cut his head off. There are human beings who can live for twenty, even fifty, years in this
state of fright. One can pass them by without noticing it. One only notices that they
sometimes behave strangely and one disapproves of their conduct.
194


Unlike Cioran, who was always sceptical and unbelieving, having once stated: “I could not
have a religious destiny, I wasn’t cut out for it, because I couldn’t believe”
195
, the so-called Red
Virgin confers a religious meaning on suffering and considers the profound experience of pain as
one of the essential elements of her inner mystic process:

Unhappiness is a marvel of Divine technique. It is a simple and ingenious device that
enables the immensity of blind, brutal and cold force to penetrate the soul of a finite
creature. The infinite distance between God and creature becomes wholly concentrated in a
point to pierce the centre of the soul. The man to whom this happens takes no part in the
process. He is like a butterfly pinned alive in an album. But amid the horror he can keep up
his will to love [...]. He whose soul remains directed towards God while run through by a
nail is nailed to the very centre of the universe. That is the real centre, and is outside space
and time, it is God. Through a dimension that does not belong to space and which is not
time, through a totally different dimension, that nail has drilled out a hole through creation,

97 E.M. Cioran, op. cit., 1997, p. 169.
98 S. Weil, op. cit., 1993, p. 85.

111
in the thickness of the barrier separating the soul from God. Through this wonderful
dimension, the soul can, without leaving the place and moment in which the body to which it
is bound is at, cross all space and time to arrive at the very presence of God.
196


Well, just like Cioran, Simone Weil mentions music as the stimulus bringing on
extraordinary experiences in which we are unable to decide whether the feelings and ideas aroused
under the effects of musical chords should be considered normal or epileptical:

In this state of mind and in miserable physical condition, I came to that little Portuguese
village, which was equally miserable, alone, at night, with a full moon, on the feast day of
the local saint. The village was on the coast. The fishermen’s wives were walking in
procession by the boats, carrying candles and intoning canticles, doubtlessly very old ones,
with heartrending sadness. Nothing could give any idea of what it was like. I have never
heard anything so moving, except the song of the Volga boatmen. There I was suddenly very
sure that Christianity was the religion of slaves, that slaves could not fail to adhere to it, and
that I was one of them.
197


Under the influence of that heartrending music, Weil confesses that she “was suddenly very
sure that Christianity was the religion of slaves”. How can this sudden paroxysm of certainty be
interpreted? How must the emotions described here by the French mystic (the highly intense feeling
of sadness occurring completely passively, the rending suffered by Simone Weil’s soul, the
instantaneous intuition concerning the meaning of Christianity) be considered: as physiological
hyperic phenomena similar to those aroused in any of us, or as the experiences typical of a
musicogenic epileptic seizure?
We could go on for ever pulling apart quotes where music appears as a clearly hyperizing
stimulus. Plato speaks of “melodies that have the capacity to dazzle and that show who has need of
the gods and of initiations”
198
. Euripides speaks the following about music through the mouths of
the chorus of Alcestis: “Through music I went up to the firmament over the world”
199
. For
Beethoven, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy”
200
, and Johann Paul
Friedrich Richter, in allusion once again to the very vivid emotions that music passively arouses in
man’s mind, says: “Under the musical sound, the sea of our hearts swells, like the waves under the
effects of the moon.”
201



197
Ibid., p. 40.
198
G. Colli, op. cit., 1995, p. 75.
199
Ibid., p. 137.
200
F. Palazzi and S. Spaventa, op. cit., 1984, p. 750.
201
Ibid., p. 752
112
So the time has come to ask ourselves bluntly: Are the extraordinary psychic contents
triggered by music, and which we find in epilepsy, but also in mystics and in the descriptions of
philosophers and artists throughout history, not the same as any of us undergoes on hearing certain
tunes or phrases from a given piece of music, or certain rhythms, to feel intense psychic effusions?
The phenomena thus provoked usually consist in intense feelings of bliss, frequently with
passive attacks of tears of joy, and sometimes diffuse experiences of ineffable well-being. Whatever
the content of the experiences, be it affective or cognitive, they are always characterized by their
passively received and automatic onset in our conscience, without our having made any conscious
effort to bring them on.
Is this not exactly the same process that occurs in musicogenic epilepsy? Should we then
conclude that we are all epileptic and that we all suffer from reflex epilepsy? Would it not be the
case, rather, that what is set off by music is a physiological function – hyperia – thanks to which
psychic experiences of extraordinary intensity appear in the brain?
We shall end this section on music and hyperia with a curious anecdote that we were able to
see on television during the funeral of François Mitterand at Notre Dame Cathedral, and which
caught our attention. During the offering, while the Cardinal of Paris was officiating in silence, the
choirs began to sing and the organ began to play. The air gradually filled with the magic of incense
and the sweet and serene melody. And while the chords were reaching their climax and the whole
church was filled with this atmosphere, the cameraman took close-ups of different world leaders
who, because of the intense emotion aroused in them by the music, could not contain their tears.
The German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Prince Rainier of Monaco, and the President of France were
all weeping, some of them wiping their eyes.
So, were the three of them epileptic or mystic? Were they high on mescaline? Would it not
be more reasonable to conclude that they were all hyperic? Were they not allowing their brains to
work, so that the music and probably also the incense would set off a completely physiological
function consisting in unusually intense psychic experiences coming to the surface?
“Without music I could not live.” I do not know who said this, it was pinned on one of those
boards, full of photos, notes and timetables that usually preside over the desks of our young
students. This being the case and music being so important and bringing us such beautiful
experiences, the moment has come to pay a tribute to those composers and songwriters who have
done so much for us and helped us to live. Everyone will have their favourite, their own Beethoven,
Elvis or Bob Dylan. Each one will know which Eleanor Rigby makes them cry, which Tubular
Bells, piercing their ear-drums with their rending ringing, burst into a wave of sweet tears in the
brain. Vivaldi, Neil Diamond and The Beatles are all well acquainted with hyperia, and with the
rhythms and chords necessary to trigger those extraordinary experiences, as is borne out by each
new composition that they offer.
113
Music, then, is an arouser of hyperic experiences with all the characteristics of a trance – is
this not what the psalm says: “How good it is to sing psalms to our God!” (Psalms 147, 1)?


7. Hyperia and Light

What we have said about the close relationship between hyperia and music can also be said about
hyperia and light. Like music, light is surely the correct stimulus to bring on a hyperic experience.
But at the same time it appears in the works of the artist, whether he is a writer or a painter, as an
expression of the experience.
It seems obvious that the brain is designed to respond with hypersynchronic volleys to
certain light stimuli, especially when they have a rhythmic nature. Again we have the brain and
rhythmicity!
Indeed, as in the case of musical vibrations, we have repeatedly found light throughout our
study, first as a cause of reflex epilepsy but also as a stimulus capable of triggering extraordinary
mystic experiences.
Let us consider the case described by Apuleius
202
of the slave set to turn a potter’s wheel and
who suffered epileptic fits because of the light flashing into his eyes from it. Or the event of the
traveller in the horse-drawn carriage, mentioned by Harding and Jeavons, in whom the sunlight
shining through the trees on the roadside brought on a partial attack: “The shining of the sun
through the trees lit up my face, and suddenly I realized that I was feeling violent emotions.”
203

St Ignatius tells us the following about an experience with light while looking into the water
of the River Cardoner:

[..]he sat down for a while facing the river flowing far below him. As he sat there the eyes of
his understanding were opened and though he saw no vision he understood and perceived
any things, numerous spiritual things as well as matters touching on faith and learning, and
this was with an elucidation so bright that all these things seemed new to him.
204


St John of the Cross would go into a trance while at prayer beholding a nearby spring or
stream, probably searching for the photosensitive stimulation of sunlight reflected by running water.
Jakob Böhme was taken to the ultimate vision of Nature while he was contemplating “the reflection
of light in the dark bottom of a tin pot”.
205


202
G.F Harding and P.M. Jeavons, op. cit., 1994, p. 2.
203
Ibid., pp. 3-4.
204
St Ignatius of Loyola, op. cit., 1992, pp. 38-39.
205
A. Andreu Rodrigo, op. cit., 1979, LXXIV.
114
Light appears in mystic writings not only as an efficient tool for triggering extraordinary
experiences but also as the ineffable content of those experiences. In this regard it takes on a great
relevance and we find it profusely described by different authors. Let us analyse the following piece
by St Teresa, a mystic writer for whom light appears cloaked in mystery:

It is not a radiance which dazzles, but a soft whiteness and an infused radiance
which, without wearying the eyes, causes them the greatest delight; nor are they wearied by
the brightness which they see in seeing this Divine beauty. So different from any earthly
light is the brightness and light now revealed to the eyes that, by comparison with it, the
brightness of our sun seems quite dim and we should never want to open our eyes again […]
It is light which never gives place to night, and, being always light, is disturbed by nothing.
It is of such a kind, indeed, that no one, however powerful his intellect, could, in the whole
course of his life, imagine it as it is.
206


It is worthwhile also to recall the very vivid description given by Hildegard of Bingen of the
characteristics of the light that she perceived during her trances:

Yet the light that I see is not physical, but infinitely brighter than sunlight [...]. What I see
and learn in this vision remains for a long time in my memory, in such a way that I
remember what I see and perceive. I see it and hear it, an I know that I am acquainted with it
for a moment, that I possess it for an instant.
207


But we can go yet further: Are these light-induced hyperic experiences that bring on
emotions and psychic content of an extraordinary vividness and intensity not the same as those
undergone by every one of us when, on looking at a certain landscape or seeing a sunset reflected in
water, or the sight of certain reflections, we feel suddenly overcome by an intense emotion that
takes us over while we remain passive to it? Is literature not full of such examples? Stendhal, in The
Charterhouse of Parma, speaks thus of such an experience:

It was only half past eight, and, at the other extremity of the horizon, to the west, a brilliant
orange-red sunset showed to perfection the outlines of Monviso and the other Alpine peaks
which run inland from Nice towards Mount Cenis and Turin. Without a thought of his
misfortunes, Fabrizio was moved and enraptured by this sublime spectacle.
208



206
The Complete Works of St Teresa of Jesus, op. cit., pp. 180.
207
Quoted by M. Buber, Confessions extatiques [Confessions of Ecstasy], Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, Paris, p. 64.
208
Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma, The Zodiac Press, London, 1961, p. 376.
115
Juan Ramón Jiménez offers us this short and meaningful verse where the hyperizing light of
dusk arouses in him feelings of fusion and eternity:

Inflame me, west: make me perfume and flame;
May my heart be just like you, west,
Discover what is eternal in me, what burns, what loves,
And may the wind of oblivion take away what suffers!
209


For his part, Gerardo Diego, in a poem entitled Revelación (“Revelation”), offers a sudden
ecstatic experience triggered by the evening light together with the sudden call of a bird:

It was in Numancia, when there declines
The August evening, august and slow,
Numancia of silence and ruin
Soul of freedom, throne of wind.
The light became by moments a mine
Of transparency and vanishing,
Diaphanousness of evening absence
Hope, hope for the portent.
Suddenly, where? a bird without a lyre,
Without a branch, without a lectern, sings, goes into delirium,
Floats in the summit of its acute fever.
The living beating of God dripped on us
Laughter and talk of God, free and naked.
And the bird, knowing it, sang.
210


Light appears, then, in literature as a stimulus capable of triggering emotional crises, which,
though having the characteristics of epileptic attacks, are nevertheless conceived by the authors
describing them as normal psychic phenomena. Would it not, then, be more reasonable to speak of
hyperia than epilepsy?
And not only in literature, for something similar occurs with light in painting, for quite
frequently artists seek to reflect in their paintings those extraordinary characteristics that they have
perceived during a vivid hyperic experience. For, are the ecstatic etchings of William Blake, the
burning and twisted nature of Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dalí’s molten clocks not clearly

209
J.R. Jiménez, op, cit., 1987, p. 95. Literal translation.
210
G. Diego, Primera Antología [First Anthology], Espasa-Calpe, Madrid, 1967, p. 156.
116
hyperic? And were the three painters in question not afflicted by noticeable mental imbalance, and
therefore strongly hyperic? From the age of ten, Blake had visions of angels and prophets, with
whom he carried on conversations.
211
Van Gogh was diagnosed during his lifetime as suffering
from “nervous breakdowns of epileptic origin with hallucinations and delirium”,
212
the diagnosis
being confirmed by such authorities with the scientific prestige of Gastaut, who concluded that the
great Dutch painter suffered from “an epilepsy of the temporal lobe”.
213
As for third, there are
abundant data to suggest obvious psychopathology.
And we must still add another argument in favour of light as a suitable stimulus for
triggering extraordinary experiences in the population at large. What, for example, can be said of
Gothic cathedrals? What is the function of such a sophisticated illumination and one so difficult to
achieve? With their light filtered through the beautiful pieces of coloured glass, could they not be
conceived as enormous boxes for producing hyperia?
In the Gothic cathedral, all the architectural elements are designed to achieve a special
illumination, a light capable of awakening the spirit, in short, a light that can facilitate hyperic
experiences. Let us see how the Medieval art specialist Jesús Fernández del Hoyo puts it:

Neither the pointed arch, nor the ribbed vault, nor the translucent walls, among other things,
would exert the seduction of their operative force on the beholder without the action of that
element that is so powerfully transmitted as if it breathed life on them: light, a certain and
specific type of light [...].
The light entering the cathedral through the windows does not have the function of
inundating the inside but of transforming it. It does not seek to illuminate reality for us to
perceive it in an objective way, but rather to relatively darken it, strengthening its symbolic
values [italics in the original].
214


And then, in what to us looks like an obvious and clear description of the hyperic properties
of the cathedral’s light, he continues in his reasoning thus:

The coloured windows are the basic makers of the inner space as they are the specific
element that transforms natural white light from the outside into a chromatized, darkened,
unnatural and diffuse light. What for?

211
M. Praz, “William Blake”, in V. Bompiani (Ed.), Diccionario de autores [Dictionary of Authors], Hora, Barcelona,
1992, I, p. 316.
212
F.J. González Luque and A.L. Montero González, Vincent Van Gogh, poseído por el color y la luz [Vincent Van
Gogh, Possessed by Colour and Light], Laboratorios Juste, Salamanca, 1977, p. 54.
213
Ibid., p. 55.
214
J. Fernández del Hoyo, Aproximación a la catedral de León [An Approach to León Cathedral], Edilesa, León, 1993,
p. 55.
117
This light is the essential resource for creating an image of the inner space that is
distinct from the exterior, in order to shape it as a spiritual and transcendental universe in
which the Heavenly Jerusalem brought down from on high takes sensorial shape.
The same light is proposed as an element for visualizing God, his presence, in the
whole of the inner space of the cathedral. Its visible reality symbolized the Invisible [Italics
in the original].
215


So, the same role that was being played by music a few moments ago, that is “to prepare our
spirit serenely to share in the mysteries and put us in tune with God”
216
, exactly the same role, is
now played by light, “to shape a spiritual and transcendental universe and so lift the soul up to the
Heavenly Jerusalem, where it can see God Himself”.
What is odd, then, about our conceiving our cathedrals, with their magic and attenuated light
(to which we must add the hyperizing effect of religious canticles, aromatic incense and meditation
on the word) as spaces specially designed to produce hyperia, as great hyperic boxes?
An despite their obvious difference from Gothic cathedrals, could the same not be said about
modern dischothèques? Are they not also places designed to produce hyperia? Are they not
designed so that the individual experiences the hyperizing effect of the various rhythmic stimuli
produced in them, be they the acoustic ones of the music or the luminous ones of the flashing lights,
or the proprioceptive ones of dancing, to which we should have to add the hyperizing effect of the
drugs consumed there? From this hyperic point of view, today’s sophisticated discothèques are
simply a profane updating of the Medieval cathedrals.


8. Psycho-stimulant Drugs, Hyperizing Substances

Yes: “the hyperizing effect of the drugs consumed there”. So far we have said nothing about drugs,
despite their obvious relationship with the various processes that we have been dealing with. If we
have eluded this question systematically up to now, it has been through fear of overburdening and
confusing the reader with an excess of information, as he would be required to attend
simultaneously to such varied matters as epilepsy, mysticism, mental illness, music, light, literature,
etc.
But the link between the so-called “recreational drugs” – or simply drugs – and the search
for mystic experiences is so close and great, so surprising and striking, that we must reflect on the
matter, albeit briefly.

215
Ibid., p. 58.
216
Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite, op. cit., 1990, p. 212.
118
Here, as in the previous sections, we are going to come up against a set of facts that will
seem surprising and paradoxical. In the first place is the great similarity between the psychic
symptoms of epilepsy and the experiences aroused in our minds by the use of psychotropic
substances: in fact, the different chemical components constitute efficient stimuli to bring on
experiences with all the characteristics typical of the partial epileptic discharge, that is psychic
phenomena of a paroxysmal and automatic nature that impose themselves on the consciousness
with overwhelming intensity.
Anybody who has experimented with them will know that they can give rise to the different
symptoms that we have described as characteristic of partial epileptic attacks. This should in no way
surprise us, for there is strong evidence to show that these substances trigger partial epileptic
seizures: there is a wealth of scientific information concerning the epileptogenic role of alcohol
217
,
cocaine
218
, mescaline
219
, LSD
220
, and the opiates
221
.
On the other hand, however, these experiences are perfectly comparable to the extraordinary
phenomena related by religious during their mystic processes, both in content and in eidetic
characteristics: not only do they undergo feelings of strangeness, time distortion, panic attacks,
mood changes from tortuously intense sadness to bliss characteristic of the passive purification
experienced by a religious, but they also produce in the brain the experience of blessedness, sublime
thought, the impression of cosmic expansion of the consciousness and fusion with Truth, typical of
religious trance.
Countless authors, describing their own observations, have commented on these ecstatic
characteristics induced in the brain by the consumption of drugs. Humphry Davy speaks of sublime

217
Hauser et al., “Alcohol, seizures and epilepsy”, in Epilepsia, 29 Suppl. 2 (1988), S66; Bartolomei et al., “Partial
complex epileptic seizures provoked by ingestion of alcohol”, in J. Neurol., 240 (1993), pp. 232-34; J. Hekmatt et al.,
“Seizure induction by alcohol in patients with epilepsy experience in two hospital clinics”, in J. R. Soc. Med., 83
(1990), pp. 6-9.
218
Dhuna, et al., “Epileptogenic properties of cocaine in humans”, in Neurotoxicology, 123 (1991), pp. 621-26; Koppel
et al., “Relation of cocaine use to seizures and epilepsy”, in Epilepsia 37 (1996), pp. 875-78.
219
See L.M. Hadda, “Management of hallucinogen abuse”, in Am. Fam. Physician, 14 (1976), pp. 82-87; D.L. Simpson
and B.H. Rumack, “Methylenedioxyamphetamine. Clinical description of overdose, death and review of
pharmacology”, in Arch. Intern. Med., 141 (1981), pp. 1507-09; D.K. Beebe and E. Walley, “Substance abuse: the
designer drugs”, in Am. Fam. Physician, 43 (1991), pp. 1689-98.
220
For a study of the epileptogenic properties of LSD, see: D.D. Fisher and J.T. Ungerleider, “Grand mal seizures
following ingestion of LSD”, in Cal. Med., 106 (1967), pp. 210-11; G. Anlezark and B. Meldrum, “Blockage of
photically induced epilepsy by ‘dopamine agonist’ Ergot alkaloids”, in Psychopharmacology, 57 (1978), pp. 57-62; C.
Fohlmeister et. al., “Spontaneous excitations in the visual cortex: stripes, spirals, rings and collective bursts”, in Neural.
Comput., 7 (1995), pp. 905-14; G. Anlezark et al., “Ergot alkaloids as dopanine agonists: comparison in two rodent
models”, in Eur. J. Pharmacol., 37 (1976), pp. 295-302.
221
For a study of the epileptogenic role of the opiates, see the following articles: C.E. Reigel et al., “Responsiveness of
genetically epilepsy-prone rats to intracerebroventricular morphine-induced convulsions”, in Life Sci., 42 (1988), pp.
1743-49; R.J. Lee et al., “Opioid peptides and seizures in the spontaneously epileptic Mongolian gerbil”, in Life Sci., 33
Suppl 1 (1983), pp. 567-70; M. Narita et al., “An ATP-sensitive potassium channel blocker abolishes the potentiating
effect of morphine on the bicuculline-induced convulsion in mice”, in Psychopharmacology (Berl.), 110 (1993), pp.
500-02; C. Pinsky et al., “Mu- and delta-opioid modulation of electrically-induced epileptic seizures in mice”, in NIDA
Res. Monogr., 75 (1986), pp. 543-46; S.J. Henriksen et al., “Beta-Endorphin induces nonconvulsive limbic seizures”, in
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A., 1978, pp. 5221-25; O.C. Snead, “Opiate-induced seizures: a study of mu and delta
specific mechanisms”, in Exp. Neurol., 93 (1986), pp. 348-58; J.S. Hong, “Hippocampal Opioid Peptides and Seizures”,
in Epilepsy Res. Suppl., 7 (1992), pp. 187-95.
119
emotions, bound up with extremely vivid ideas
222
after inhaling nitrogen protoxide. Théophile
Gautier, under the effects of hashish, said:

I had never been invaded by such a blessedness, I felt simply as though dissolved in space,
so absent from myself, so free of my ego, that hateful witness that follows you around, and
understood for the first time what the existence of elementary spirits, angels and
disembodied souls might be like.
223


From the biography of J.A. Symonds, William James takes the following example of an
experience with mystic content under the effects of chloroform:

After the choking and stifling had passed away, I seemed at first in a state of utter blankness:
[...]. I thought that I was near death; when, suddenly, my soul became aware of God, who
was manifestly dealing with me, handling me, so to speak, in an intense personal present
reality. I felt Him streaming in like light upon me... I cannot describe the ecstasy I felt.
224


Another author who experimented over time with psychotropic drugs, especially mescaline,
is Aldous Huxley, who mentions explicitly the unmistakably mystic character of the experiences
produced by it:

Such words came into my mind as Grace and Transfiguration [...] the Beatific Vision, Sat
Chit Ananda, Being-Knowledge-Blessedness. For the first time, I understood, not at the
level of words or indications originating far away, but precisely and completely, what these
wonderful syllables meant.
225


Such a striking similarity between two areas of human life, in principle so distant from each
other, like drug use and mystical experience, has always caught the notice of researchers, who never
fail to express their surprise at such a surprising correlation.
Some, confronted by this dilemma, opt for concluding that it is simply a case of the same
phenomenology. Such is the case of William James, for whom “The drunken consciousness is one
bit of the mystic consciousness”.
226
On the same lines, Eugène-Bernard Leroy equates mystical
experiences, specifically the so-called intellectual visions, with those induced by psychotropic
drugs:

222
E. Leroy, op. cit., 1907, LV, p. 20.
223
Quoted by H. Ey, op. cit., 1954, III, p 311.
224
W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 310.
225
A. Huxley, op. cit., 1992, p. 18.
226
W. James, op. cit., 1994, p. 307.
120

The emotions of intellectual enthusiasm, of great ease for mental operations, of euphoria in
general, seemed to constantly accompany the intellectual vision of abstract truths; however,
these emotions, appeared very clearly in certain dreams and under certain intoxications but
were not attributable to any logical mechanism.
227


Jean Houston and Robert Masters, after experimenting over time with LSD, were also able
to establish repeatedly the similarity between the experiences brought on in the brain by this
hallucinogen and those occurring spontaneously in mystics, concluding that drugs arouse
extraordinary experiences with a mystic/religious content:

Like many LSD researchers, we did not set out to investigate religious or mystical
experiences, but we very soon found ourselves obliged to carry out far-reaching and serious
studies of the psychology of religious experience. We had to do this if we expected to
understand what happened in individuals whose descriptions of profound mystic union with
God could not be suitably explained through notions like somatopsychic depersonalization
or the dissolution of the ego, labels which, within conventional psychiatry, exist to describe
serious psychopathologies. Some reports of meetings with God, with the Reason for being,
with absolute Reality, were accompanied by profound and beneficial personality changes.
228


What can be concluded, then, regarding this unmistakable link between the psychic
phenomena aroused by drugs and extraordinary mystic phenomena? What do the two processes
have in common? Why do the same psychic manifestations occur in both cases? How can this
surprising correlation be explained?
For us there is no place for dilemma and the answer is clear: in both cases the hyperic
function of our brain is engaged, in the mystic spontaneously and in the drug taker by the use of a
chemical stimulant that reinforces a function already existing in the brain.
That these chemicals set off a physiological function seems obvious, as is borne out by the
fact that our central nervous system has a specific receptor for each type of drug: one for
benzodiazepines, one for opioids, one for amphetamines, etc. What does this mean?
Naturally, if there is in our neurons a certain point for the reception of heroin or diazepam, a
sort of lock specifically designed for each of these keys, it cannot be because the cells in our brain
were waiting for such and such a laboratory to synthesize those drugs at a given moment in history.
If the brain has patiently become adapted over thousands of years, or tens of thousands, to be able to

227
E. Leroy, op. cit., 1907, p. 20.
228
J. Houston and R. Masters, “La provocación experimental de experiencias de tipo religioso”, in J. White (Ed.), La
experiencia mística [Mystic Experience], Kairós, Barcelona, 1980, p. 219.
121
respond to these substances, there is only one possible explanation: they are the substances the brain
itself uses physiologically, for example, in it hypersynchronic functioning. This would explain why
they are all closely linked with epileptogenesis.
Therefore, for us, the explanation for the apparent dilemma is clear: recreational drugs
artificially enhance a completely normal brain activity. What our brain does naturally and
spontaneously, by synthesizing certain substances physiologically, can be artificially enhanced by
means of these chemicals added from outside.
In short, with this concept of drugs as chemical stimulants artificially enhancing the normal
hyperic functioning of our brain, this brave and forthright statement of William James’s would find
its true meaning:

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the
mystical faculties of human nature [...] drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is in fact
the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of
things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere
perversity do men run after it. To the poor and unlettered it stands in the place of symphony
concerts and of literature.
229



9. Conclusion

So far we have seen the research promised at the beginning of the study. Over all this time we have
been exploring the mysterious universe ever present over the horizon. As the reader will have been
able to observe, we have often had to go against the grain of established thought. Occasionally we
have even felt tired, without strength, on the verge of exhaustion and of abandoning the study. It is
not surprising, then, that in order to advance, to keep up our self-confidence, we have had to
comfort ourselves time and again with the beautiful thoughts of that genial hyperic Augustine of
Hippo: “But woe unto thee, thou stream of human custom! Who shall stay thy course?”
230

Our hypothesis, at first a simple theoretical idea, has become reinforced with the appearance
of new arguments, and what started as an apparently useless trickle of water has become a major
channel of progress thanks to the inflow of these tributaries. Indeed, we have found throughout our
study so many data, not only clinical and laboratory data but information from reality at large, to
bear out our hypothesis, which we are firmly convinced holds an important kernel of truth. Even so,

229
W. James, op. cit., 1985, p. 307.
230
St Augustine, op cit. book 1, chapter XVI, section 25.
122
for the moment, ours is still an open and fragile hypothesis: we have only just begun on this path
and time will make it clear just where it leads.
We conclude in this way a journey began some years ago, actually when in our earlier study,
Mística y depresion: San Juan de la Cruz (“Mysticism and Depression: St John of the Cross”) we
alluded to a psychic faculty of the mystics, the mentally ill and artists and which would allow them
access to extraordinary experiences which we considered closed to the rest of the population:

We find our mystics, philosophers, artists and also depressives and maniacs exploring a
completely new world, a very strange world, by means of a very powerful instrument of
contemplation that the majority of mortals do not possess. The firing and functioning of that
instrument is beyond their control, but when it is engaged, it shows them a reality that goes
beyond the ordinary possibilities of observation and analysis. What they are capable of
seeing in that new world by means of that sort of advanced mental telescope, is a reality with
such a clarity that it is terrifying, a blinding light, a real “thunderbolt of darkness”.
231


Today we can answer the question that we asked then, for we know just what that “mental
telescope” consists in – it is none other than hyperia, a mode of cerebral functioning that, unlike
what we thought then, we all possess, although it is much more highly developed in the groups
mentioned.
It is now the turn of the readers: from now on it will be they who supply new examples,
taken from their daily lives, and which likewise can only be explained by the hypothesis of hyperia.
At least that is what has happened among the few people who had access to the draft of this book
before publication: all of them, after reading it, have communicated other hyperic experiences to us,
either their own or from their reading: “In La Regenta, Ana Ozores, her cheek brushing the soft
cloth of the pillow, experiences a sudden recollection, which is surely a hyperic experience”; “in
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, you will find a number of descriptions of light with clearly hyperic
characteristics”; “in The Outsider, Mersault, in what seems to be a sudden photosensitive attack,
fires all the bullets from his revolver impelled by the flashing reflection of the sunlight on the edge
of the Arab’s knife”.
Now readers may do the same with those experiences from their lives that so far have
resulted difficult to integrate in their normal psyche and which might now be explained by hyperia.
Too many facts fit into this hypothesis for it to be dismissed out of hand!
Some people might raise the objection that the position that we have just expounded on
hyperia as a higher cerebral functioning is excessively novel and bold for serious consideration.

231
J. Álvarez, Mística y depresión: San Juan de la Cruz [Mysticism and Depression: St John of the Cross], Trotta,
Madrid, 1997, p. 295.
123
What is true is that the idea of epilepsy as an activity of the brain above and beyond normality, and
therefore the origin of outstanding mental productions, is not so original as may have originally
been thought. Actually, it has been formulated on other occasions throughout history.
In fact, the notion has appeared, though not clearly explained, at least implicitly since the
earliest times, in the pre-Socratic period, no less. For, what, if not hyperia, is the Greek concept of
epilepsy as a sacred disease?
232
Was the illness not considered then, as we consider hyperia today,
as something of a higher order? Indeed, for the Greeks, before the advent of Hippocratic medicine,
epilepsy was much more than a simple disease: it was a phenomenon of supernatural origin and
seizures were conceived as the consequence of a divine force that suddenly took over a man, body
and mind, and took possession of him completely for a few moments. The word epilepsy literally
means to be taken or grabbed by that energy. To be epileptic was to be possessed by a god: a sacred
disease.
This, then, was a concept similar to ours: epilepsy as something sacred, hyperia as
something higher. Epilepsy as a divine force taking possession of a person, hyperia as a cerebral
activity by means of which man’s highest achievements are realized.
Well, since the pre-Socratics first formulated the hypothesis of epilepsy as a supernatural
power through which nothing less than divinity was manifested, the same interpretation (our idea of
hyperia as a superior manifestation, one of something higher) has sporadically reappeared
throughout history – as though a kind of truth were hidden here that occasionally made an effort for
its light to reach us but has not been quite able to reveal itself. Thus, we shall find authors who refer
to the close overlapping of epilepsy and superiority, of epilepsy and religiousness, of epilepsy and
genius, but with none of those hypotheses succeeding in getting accepted.
In this regard, let us remember the dilemma offered by Aristotle, who wondered about the
paradoxical relationship between melancholy and artistic genius. (In the days of the Stagirite,
melancholy and epilepsy were two sides, one mental and one physical, of the same illness.)

For what reason, have all exceptional men, περιττοι, whether in philosophy or in
statesmanship, poetry or the art been clearly melancholoic, µελανχολικοι, and some to the
point of falling prey to illnesses caused by black bile?
233


Our interpretation of hyperia as a physiological function of the brain would easily explain
this surprising link between melancholy and genius: at the root of both processes there would be a
sophisticated functioning of the brain thanks to which the artist would find a new way of
apprehending reality.

232
Hippocrates, Tratados Hipocráticos [Hippocratic Treatises], Gredos, Madrid, 1983, vol. I, 387-421.
233
Aristotle, El Hombre de Genio y la Melancolía [The Man of Genius and Melancholy], Quaderns Crema, Barcelona,
1996, p. 79.
124
This idea of epilepsy as a higher mode of cerebral functioning that brings man nearer to the
knowledge of ultimate truth than any other is also found in the writing of Dostoyevsky, with such
profusion and clarity that Cioran went as far as saying:

Dostoyevsky transformed his pathological states into visions. At first sight, he might seem
sickly, but in fact he elevated epilepsy to the rank of metaphysics [Our italics].
234


The Russian novelist did indeed conceive epilepsy as a mode of knowing affording one
access to a higher reality and which is veiled by logical reasoning, and he expresses the idea time
and time again:

You, who enjoy good health, cannot even suspect what the bliss that we epileptics
experience in an instant before the seizure consists of. Mohammed says in the Koran that he
has seen Paradise and has been there. All those imbeciles who consider themselves
intelligent are convinced that he is simply a liar and a charlatan. But it is not so, he does not
lie. He really did go to Paradise during an epileptic attack: he suffered from the disease as I
do. I do not know if this happiness lasts hours, seconds or months, but believe me, I would
not change it for all the joys that a whole lifetime could offer.
235



And what about Cesare Lombroso? At the end of the 19th century, this Italian psychiatrist
published a hypothesis in some ways similar to ours, stating:

We conclude, then, that genial creation may be conceived as a sort of degenerative psychosis
belonging to the family of the epilepsies [Italics in the original].
236



And along the same lines, we must also mention the curious conception of ecstasy
maintained by Cioran. In fact, in a parallelism almost perfect with our research, the Roumanian
thinker living in Paris conceives mystic ecstasy as the expression of an epileptic discharge. The
similarity between his idea and ours is so striking that we would almost make so bold as to say that,
had be been acquainted with it, Cioran would have agreed with our hyperia hypothesis:


234
E.M. Cioran, Conversaciones [in French, Entretiens], Tusquets, Barcelona, 1997, pp. 121-2.
235
Quoted by T. Alajouanine, “Littérature et épilepsie” [Literature and Epilepsy], Cahiers de l’herne, 1973, 24, p. 312.
236
C. Lombroso, L’homme de génie [The Man of Genius], Schleicher Frères, Paris, 1903, p. 484.
125
It was during those sleepless nights that I really understood mysticism, the final states,
beyond which there is nothing but madness. You are in the middle of the night, everything
has gone, but then that God arises who is not God, and you have the impression of a
mysterious presence and then you sometimes enter ecstasy as well, and that is why I like
Dostoyevsky so much. He has described ecstasy without faith. It is Kirilov, the epileptic –
all Dostoyevsky’s epileptics know ecstasy without faith. And I, though not an epileptic, have
also known those ecstasies, which let you understand properly religious ecstasies [...]. I have
had five or six in my time, but I have not had any recently. I lacked, therefore, a mystic
vocation and it is true that I am not an epileptic.
237


In short, there are many authors who, throughout history, have thought that in epilepsy they
have seen the expression of a higher cerebral function. We insist: this position, which is repeated
and reappears every so often, suggests a distant light that from time to time flashes, a sort of remote
Andromeda trying to get its light to us, a truth that is still shaky but which one day will become
manifest, for, as the saying goes: veritas se ipsam pate facit.
238

We also join that age-old current which, down the centuries, has defended the idea of genius
bound up with epilepsy, but with a major difference: for us the cerebral activity making these genial
creations possible is no longer epilepsy, it is no longer a pathological activity, but hyperia, another
form of physiological neuronal hypersynchrony, a mode of cerebral firing that translates as a higher
cerebral function.
And to finish, another possible objection: Why is it necessary to separate hyperic
hypersynchrony from other epilepsies? Why should we not continue to interpret these extraordinary
manifestations as what epilepsy specialists have so far called epileptic activity of an interictal type?
What is there to be gained from considering them hypria? Are so many bags necessary, is so long a
journey needed, just to change a name?
Let us not be misled: what we propose is much more than a simple change of name. What
we suggest is a major innovation: we postulate that certain varieties of neuronal hypersynchrony
thus far grouped together with epilepsy, through our hypothesis, must not only cease to be
considered pathological but must be interpreted as physiological and, perhaps, as the expression of
the most highly evolved mode of functioning of the brain.
The practical consequences to be derived from this theoretical fact are substantial. One
simple example will allow us to understand better what we are saying: let us take the case of a
patient who since childhood has given evidence of hyperic functioning. It will be very different for
us to say to him “What a great hyperia you’ve got, lad!”, as though praising his good memory, from

237
E.M. Cioran, Conversaciones, Tusquets, Barcelona, 1997, p. 70
238
G. Morel, Le sens de l’existence selon S. Jean de la Croix [The Meaning of Existence According to St John of the
Cross], Aubier, Paris, 1961, I, p. 25.
126
saying: “Look, son, you’ve got epilepsy, but don’t worry about it, because with a few precautions
and the right treatment, which you will have to follow for most of your life, the illness won’t affect
you too much.” Nobody will fail to realize that in the first instance the boy will feel satisfied and his
self-esteem will grow, while in the second case, we will have set a heavy burden on his shoulders
that will make him feel oppressed.
This is the new and important reality arising from our way of conceiving the facts: many of
the hypersynchronic manifestations today considered pathological and which have to be fought and
eliminated, from now on will be conceived as the expression of a cerebral function that should be
stimulated and favoured, for it is an advanced mode of knowing and apprehending reality.
Therefore, if our hypothesis acquired greater consistency, it would be necessary to take the
steps necessary to determine exactly the scope and nature of this cerebral function. One very basic
thing would be to educate children with a high hyperic capacity to learn to live properly with their
intense and extraordinary experiences. They would have to be taught in an organized and systematic
way to use the different techniques favouring hyperic firing. We should need to...
In short, if our hypothesis matures, there will be many major consequences derived from it
to explore patiently. But now it is the time to finish. Here ends the journey that we announced at the
beginning of the study and which, as we have seen, goes over a path overlapping science and
religion. Today, there is little such research, for the atonement of science and religion is often
difficult to accept. However, we are convinced that the distancing that still exists between the two
different aspects of one and the same Reality is obviously obsolete and cannot be kept up for much
longer. We believe firmly that the theology of the 21st century will have to proceed over paths
different from those of today and – together with sociological and moral reasonings like those in use
today – will have to be base on solid and abundant scientific arguments. This, in our opinion, and
among other possible meanings is what the agnostic André Malraux was trying to put across when
he said: “Either the 21st century will be mystic, or there will not be a 21st century”.
239
The sentence
prospered and, taken up by Karl Rahner, became altered to “The Christian of the future will be a
mystic or he will not be a Christian.”
240
Well, we make so bold as to go a step farther and say that
the theology of the third millennium will be scientific or it will not exist. The work which we now
conclude should be understood as a small contribution to this idea.

239
Quoted by A.M. Schlüter Rodés, “Mística en las religiones orientales comparada con las de nuestra cultura”
[Mysticism in Eastern Religions Compared with those of our Culture], in Cuadernos FyS, 44 (1998), p. 9
240
Ibid., p. 9.
127