GENEVA — No need to read Plato’s complete works or learn by heart the words of the Dalai Lama to understand the meaning of happiness. Science may have the answers. At the University Hospital of Geneva (UHG), neurologist Fabienne Picard has been studying for years a very rare phenomenon that scientific literature barely talks about and that she says “Dostoyevsky was the first to describe:” ecstatic seizures experienced by certain epileptic people.
Those affected describe an intense feeling of well-being. “It feels like an orgasm in the way that it arrives,” one of Picard’s patients tells New Scientist magazine. “An orgasm doesn’t arrive straight away,” the patient, Sandra, continues. “It’s something that builds up in intensity. During an ecstatic seizure, it’s the same thing. After a while, everything becomes clear and consistent to me. I feel in harmony with the world.”
Sandra also compares the effect of epileptic seizures to an experience she had using the drug LSD. “Later, I went to see an exhibition, and I had the impression that I understood everything.” They are also like dreams, she says. “When you describe your dreams to someone, you realize you can’t really manage to explain what you felt.”
Says another patient: “The orgasm is maybe the closest sensation that I know. But what I felt wasn’t sexual; it was more mystical. Thanks to these experiences, I’m no longer scared of death.”
“What I hear the most in my patients’ stories,” Picard says, “is a feeling of fullness, consistency, time dilation, mental clarity and the total absence of doubt. They tell me that they’ve never experienced anything better, so powerful. It sounds like a huge eureka!”
For a lucky few
Most epileptic fits are considered to be partial and, according to some estimates, only 0.5% of patients experience the feeling of ecstasy. “We don’t know the exact percentage, because these patients hesitate to talk about their symptoms,” Picard says. “They are scared they will seem strange.”
How can this phenomenon be explained? According to the researcher, it finds its origins in the insula, an area located deep inside the groove that separates the frontal area and the parietal area of the temporal lobe. During seizures, it seems that this area of the brain, which constantly makes predictions based on internal and external stimuli, momentarily abandons its fundamental mission to maintain control of everything that represents a threat to the body’s internal balance. Picard formulated this hypothesis in an article published earlier this year by the magazine Cortex.
“Today, we think that the brain is a ‘prediction machine’ looking to improve itself based on the principle of trial and error learning,” the neurologist explains. “We’ve known for a long time that this way of acquiring skills can be applied to any type of every-day life situation — for instance, predicting financial risks — but the idea that the brain constantly makes predictions even for internal stimuli, and at a speed-scale much shorter than seconds, is new, to my knowledge.”
Of course, the system inevitably generates a number of anticipation errors, which can lead to a feeling of doubt and discomfort. But, during an ecstatic seizure, it seems that the insula ceases predicting and “comparing results.” Picard explains that “the data keeps on circulating, but there is no longer any comparison process with the physical and sensory feedback — so no more error reports — hence, most likely, this feeling of confidence, well-being and inner-peace.”
Some researchers wonder if, because of this, these patients could lose all sense of fear and place themselves in dangerous situations. “It appears that they don’t,” Picard answers. “What they experience is a feeling of coherence and contemplation. So we can assume that the feeling of well-being — and therefore in some way happiness — depends more or less on the system that handles anticipation errors.” From this point of view, the tranquility produced by meditation could be explained by the minimization of anticipation errors. Basically, during those moments the body is subjected to almost no mental change whatsoever.
This theory is supported by cerebral imaging. But new studies are necessary to truly understand the role the insula and the system that produces anticipation errors play. The extremely small number of patients experiencing ecstatic seizures seriously holds up the research. For those in need of a surgical operation, it is possible to implant electrodes inside and around the insula to carry out medical observation. Picard’s new research on the first controlled, induced ecstatic seizure — via electric stimulation — is about to be published in Cortex.
Antoine Bechara, an expert in behavioral neurosciences at the University of Southern California, considers Picard’s theory “absolutely fantastic.”
And, says Kaspar Anton Schindler, head of epileptic diagnostics at the University Hospital of Bern: “I find this theory to be very plausible. It probably won’t be easy to validate, but it has the merit of shedding light on the positive aspects of epilepsy, because until now, we mostly studied its negative aspects.”