Was Christianity founded as the result of an epileptic seizure?

Paul the Apostle is generally considered the father of the Christian religion establishing the first churches in Asia Minor and Europe. According to the New Testament, Paul - then known as Saul - was dedicated to the persecution of the early disciples of Jesus - but had a famed Damascene conversion. Recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was travelling on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him in a great light.

It told: "As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." The rest is theological history.

But science now suggests that this 'conversation with God' may in fact have been an epileptic seizure.

At Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem, Israeli scientists have had the rare opportunity to record the brain activity of an individual as he went through a delusional religious conversation. The man was being treated for temporal lobe epilepsy, and he reported seeing and conversing with God in the aftermath of an epileptic seizure.

Religious experiences and beliefs of "having met God" have long been documented in patients with epilepsy. Some researchers have even suggested that famous saints such as Joan of Arc or St Paul may have been victim of seizures. According to these theories, this is what would have triggered their visions of God.

However, the underlying neural mechanisms behind religious delusions in epileptic patients are not clear.

The latest study, published in the journal Epilepsy and Behavior, analyses the electric brain signals recorded in the patient's brain during his "messianic episode", in order find an explanation to this phenomenon.

"God was approaching"

Seven hours after suffering from a seizure of temporal origin, the 46-year-old patient underwent a messianic revelation experience. While the man had not been particularly religious before this incident, he suddenly told doctors he felt as if God was approaching him and started chanting prayers with great intensity, The Times newspaper reports.

The patient then tried to convince the hospital's medical staff to become his followers, stating he had had a "conversation with God and He had sent him to them".

The scientists had been monitoring his brain activity in real time thanks to continuous video-EEG – a method which uses an electroencephalogram to records brainwaves, while the patient is monitored over a video screen. This allows doctors to observe brainwave activity during the time a seizure is occurring.

Pre-frontal cortex

In this specific case, the medical team was able to record the entire religious delusion event following the seizure. They measured increased activity in the low-gamma range (30–40 Hz) during religious conversion, compared with activity during the patient's habitual state.

This increase was more marked in an area called the left pre-frontal cortex - which is linked to planning complex cognitive behaviours, social behaviours as well as in the expression of personality.

The scientists hope this work will help them understand how epileptic patients can receive better treatment by focusing on parts of the brain most affected by epilepsy.