Thursday, March 18, 2010

Explaining Ghost Sightings (Part 2 – Temporal Lobe Epilepsy)

When I said that pareidolia can explain a lot of ghost sightings, I didn’t mean all of them. Sometimes the environment is bright and clear, you’re fully awake, and yet you still get that “ghostly” feeling. Scary, eh? Well, that may just be a hallucination, and here I shall tackle a common cause for hallucinations – temporal lobe epilepsy.

Defining Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

Temporal Lobe Animation

The temporal lobe would be the part in red. Only the left temporal lobe is shown.

The temporal lobe is separated into 2 parts: right and left. It’s responsible for auditory processing, processing of semantic & lexical information in speech, and long-term memory. On the other hand, epilepsy aka seizure disorder is a common neurological disorder that causes recurrent & unprovoked seizures in patients. These seizures happen when clusters of neurons fire excessively/abnormally/synchronously. Combine these two, and you’ve got temporal lobe epilepsy.

Temporal lobe epilepsy causes simple and complex partial seizures. Simple partial seizures simply cause unusual behaviours and patterns of cognition, including hallucinations and paranormal experiences; complex partial seizures can render the patient disabled and lose awareness temporarily. If one is unlucky though, it may spread and become a tonic–clonic seizure, a type of seizure that affects the entire brain, and is much more lethal.


Temporal lobe epilepsy may be caused by a variety of factors, including:

1. Hippocampal sclerosis, which is present in 2/3 of patients, and causes mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE).
2. Infections
3. Febrile seizures
4. Malignancies
5. Vascular malformations
6. Idiopathic (genetic), but it’s rare.
7. Trauma producing contusion/haemorrhage that results in encephalomalacia or cortical scarring
8. Difficult traumatic delivery such as forceps deliveries
9. Hamartomas

Symptoms Related to Ghost Sightings/Paranormal Experiences

Since the temporal lobe is responsible for hearing, information processing, and long-term memory, abnormal functioning in the temporal lobes will also cause these brain processes to function wrongly. Complex partial seizures are unrelated to ghost sightings, so I’ve decided not to write about them.

Simple Partial Seizures/Auras

Just to make it clear, the word “aura” in this context is defined as a “warning” before “a complex partial seizure occurs, not the pseudoscientific human/soul aura or whatever it’s called. For patients with temporal lobe epilepsy, they may have a simple partial seizure, which creates an aura, and usually leads to a complex partial seizure.

Somatosensory and Special sensory phenomena

Auras may come in the form of olfactory, gustatory, auditory, and visual hallucinations and illusions. Auditory hallucinations consist of a buzzing sound, a voice/voices, or muffling of ambient sounds. On the other hand, visual hallucinations may take the form of distortions of shape, size, and distance of objects, shrinking (micropsia) or enlarging of things (macropsia), and also tilting of structures.

Psychic Phenomena

Patients may also feel déjà vu, the feeling that’s you’ve seen something before, although you’ve not, and jamais vu, in which one suddenly feels eerie and unfamiliar to the environment, although he/she has been in the same situation before, and he/she knows it.

Patients may also experience depersonalization (feeling of detachment from oneself) or derealisation (surroundings appear unreal). “Out of body” experiences can also happen to the patient, a phenomenon known as dissociation/autoscopy. Plus, if the seizure arises from the amygdala, the patient will become fearful and anxious, sometimes to the point of having “an impending sense of doom”.

Deja vu


Here, I’ve shown that so-called ghost sightings may be caused by temporal lobe epilepsy instead of a real ghost appearing, which goes against Occam’s razor and science too much (violation of the laws of physics, anyone?)

However, I am aware that not everyone has temporal lobe epilepsy, yet many still experience its symptoms. There’s another similar cause for such experiences – electromagnetic disruption of the temporal lobe, and it’s one that I shall address next.


CRL said...

Have there been any studies showing a correlation between temporal lobe epilepsy and ghost sightings?

p.s. And, as an excellent example of the ability of random occurrences to appear patterned, the word verification to comment was an actual word this time, singe.

Darren Wong said...

CRL: There's not only a correlation between temporal lobe epilepsy and paranormal experiences, but a direct causation. That's already proved to the point that we don't need any statistical evidence anymore.

However, I think you may be referring to electromagnetic influences on the temporal lobe instead of true temporal lobe epilepsy. For now we do have quite some statistical evidence that it's correlated with increased paranormal experiences, but it's not as strong (still enough to worry spiritualists greatly).

And by the word verification thing, do you mean the fact that if enough random events occur, there will be some that look patterned?

CRL said...

"And by the word verification thing, do you mean the fact that if enough random events occur, there will be some that look patterned?"


"However, I think you may be referring to electromagnetic influences..."

External electromagnetic influences?

Darren Wong said...

Temporal lobe epilepsy is a physical disorder, and doesn't happen to everyone. However, similar symptoms can also occur in people without temporal lobe epilepsy if his/her temporal lobe is disrupted electromagnetically.

Sabio Lantz said...

Temporal brain does help us to understand what part of the brain aids in vision and hallucinations. But I'd bet my car that few if any ghost sightings are due to brain disorders. I think you went overboard here -- maybe you are having a frontal lobe seizure. Or maybe that is just who you are.

Darren Wong said...

Sabio, I was referring to temporal lobe epilepsy, which is a brain disorder, and I understand well that not everyone has brain disorders. Do note however, that I didn't list electromagnetic influences as a cause of temporal lobe epilepsy, cause it isn't. However, hallucinations that arise from electromagnetic influences to the temporal lobe do have similar effects to temporal lobe epilepsy, and that's why I decided to write about it before moving on to electromagnetic disruptions.

Sabio Lantz said...

But all this is under the title "Explaining Ghost Sightings".

Temporal Lobe seizures do not explain Ghost Sightings. The vast, vast majority of the time the happen without seizure, illness, electromagnetic influences or any such thing.

Maybe a better title would be, "Recreating Ghost Sightings".

Just as neurotransmitters can be injected and recreate emotions. Or brains can be electrically stimulated and create smells. Neither of these show that smells or emotions are wrong headed experiences.

You haven't "explained" anything yet, nor even hinted at an explanations. Don't let the cloak of science become your religion to blind you to logic.

Darren Wong said...

Sabio: Yes, it may be true that temporal lobe epilepsies are not a common cause of ghost sightings, I and admit that. But of course, it's still one of its causes, so to say that temporal lobe epilepsy cannot explain hallucinations at all is incorrect.

As for electromagnetic influences, do I need to point you to the papers that point to the link between geomagnetic activity and hallucinations? You do know about the researches on geomagnetism, electromagnetism, infrasound, and their relations with ghost sightings, eh?m ;-)