The Ecstatic or Mystical Experience through Epilepsy

Author: Fabienne Picard1
1 Hopitaux Universitaires de Geneve.
Conference/Journal: J Cogn Neurosci
Date published: 2023 Jul 6
Other: Special Notes: doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_02031. , Word Count: 244

Ecstatic epilepsy is a rare form of focal epilepsy, so named because seizures' first symptoms consist of an ecstatic/mystical experience, including feelings of increased self-awareness, mental clarity, and "unity with everything that exists," accompanied by a sense of bliss and physical well-being. In this perspective article, we first describe the phenomenology of ecstatic seizures, address their historical context, and describe the primary brain structure involved in the genesis of these peculiar epileptic seizures, the anterior insula. In the second part of the article, we move onto the possible neurocognitive underpinnings of ecstatic seizures. We first remind the reader of the insula's role in interoceptive processing and consciously experienced feelings, contextualized by the theory of predictive coding. This leads us to hypothesize that temporary disruptions to activity in the anterior insula could interrupt the generation of interoceptive prediction errors, and cause one to experience the absence of uncertainty, and thereby, a sense of bliss. The absence of interoceptive prediction errors would in fact mimic perfect prediction of the body's physiological state. This sudden clarity of bodily perception could explain the ecstatic quality of the experience, as the interoceptive system forms the basis for unified conscious experience. Our alternative hypothesis is that the anterior insula plays an overarching role in the processing of surprise and that the dysfunction caused by the epileptic discharge could interrupt any surprise exceeding expectations, resulting in a sense of complete control and oneness with the environment.

PMID: 37432752 DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_02031