There have always been people with epilepsy. Since the dawn of time, epilepsy has affected millions of people, from beggars to kings. It is one of the oldest conditions of the human race with a rich and distinguished history.
The earliest references to epilepsy date back to the fifth millennium B.C. in Mesopotamia, where epileptic auras, generalized convulsions and other aspects of what these ancient people called "the falling disease" were recorded with remarkably accurate descriptions.
Ancient people thought epileptic seizures were caused by evil spirits or demons that had invaded a person's body. Priests attempted to cure people with epilepsy by driving the demons out of them with magic and prayers. This superstition was challenged by ancient physicians like Atreya of India and later Hippocrates of Greece, both of whom recognized a seizure as a dysfunction of the brain and not a supernatural event.
Nevertheless, the superstitious interpretation of epilepsy persisted for centuries. Attitudes of past societies toward epilepsy have left a legacy of stigma and damaging misconceptions which still persist today, as people with epilepsy continue to face fear, prejudice and discrimination in their everyday lives.
Epilepsy and genius
On the other hand, epileptic seizures have a power and symbolism which, historically, have suggested a relationship with creativity or unusual leadership abilities. Scholars have long been fascinated by evidence that prominent prophets and other holy men, political leaders, philosophers, and many who achieved great-ness in the arts and sciences, suffered from epilepsy.
Aristotle was apparently the first to connect epilepsy and genius. His catalogue of "great epileptics" (which included Socrates) was added to during the Renaissance. Only people from Western culture were included, however. So strong was this tradition that even in the nineteenth century, when new names of "great epileptics" were added, they were rarely chosen from among people in other parts of the world. Working from this biased historical legacy, the famous people with epilepsy that we know about are primarily white males.
But what about this so-called "epilepsy and genius" connection? Certainly, most people with epilepsy would not consider their seizure disorder as something which enhances their natural abilities. According to Dr. Jerome Engel, Professor of Neurology at the University of California School of Medicine and author of the book Seizures and Epilepsy:
"There is no evidence... that either epileptic seizures or a predisposition to epilepsy is capable of engendering exceptional talents. Rather, the occasional concurrence of epilepsy and genius most likely reflects the probability that a common disorder will at times afflict people with uncommon potential."
Dr. Engel considers the co-existence of epilepsy and genius to be a coincidence. Others disagree, claiming to have found an association between epilepsy and giftedness in some people. Eve LaPlante in her book Seized writes that the abnormal brain activity found in temporal lobe (complex partial) epilepsy plays a role in creative thinking and the making of art. Neuropsychologist Dr. Paul Spiers says:
"Sometimes the same things that cause epilepsy result in giftedness. If you damage an area [of the brain] early enough in life, the corresponding area on the other side has a chance to overdevelop."
We know that epilepsy involves temporary bursts of excessive electrical activity in different locations in the brain, locations which house our bodily sensations and functions as well as our memories and emotions. Psychiatrist Dr. David Bear states that the abnormal brain activity found in temporal lobe epilepsy can play a role in creative thinking and the making of art by uniting sensitivity, insight and sustained, critical attention. According to Dr. Bear:
"A temporal lobe focus in the superior individual may spark an extraordinary search for that entity we alternately call truth or beauty."
What is also clear in the discussion of genius and epilepsy is that some of the most famous people in history had seizures. People with epilepsy have excelled in every area. What follows is a list of people who are responsible for changing civilization as we know it, all of whom are strongly suspected or known to have had epilepsy. It's an impressive group.
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