Why are there so many great writers with epilepsy?

Fyodor Dostoevsky's father had epilepsy, and the condition likely contributed to his numerous personal problems, such as a gambling obsession, as well as his compulsion to write. See more brain pictures.
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Alfred Lord Tennyson described the experience as "the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words" [source: Epilepsy.com]. Before they happened to Gustave Flaubert, the Frenchman became terrified, writing that he felt "a whirlpool of ideas and images in my poor brain, during which it seemed that my consciousness, that my me sank like a vessel in a storm." Lewis Carroll also shared this sense of growing unreality, writing that his made him feel strange, like another person [source: Epilepsy.com]. These descriptions aren't nightmares or passages from science-fiction novels. They're attempts to describe what it feels like to a have an epileptic seizure -- in the case of these men, likely caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.

Flaubert, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Lord Byron, Dante Alighieri, Sir Walter Scott, Edward Lear, Jonathan Swift -- all legendary writers and all epileptics. The hallucinations, seizures and flood of memories associated with temporal lobe epilepsy influenced some of these writers profoundly. Dickens, Dostoevsky and Flaubert cast characters in their works as epileptics. Carroll's bizarre, dreamlike fictions, such as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," seem to share some characteristics with the above descriptions of seizures. Some critics have argued that the entirety of "Alice's Adventures" is a symbolic representation of epileptic seizures [source: Boyar].

Many of these writers with epilepsy recorded descriptions of their experiences, leading to posthumous diagnoses, although some were diagnosed within their lifetimes. Even so, the treatments available were fairly crude, especially when compared to modern therapies (suggestions included drinking significant quantities of water, castration and long walks in severe weather). In many communities, the disorder had great stigma attached to it, which is still a source of difficulty for some epileptics today. But now, epilepsy is much better understood and often treatable. We also know some of the risk factors associated with epileptic seizures. For example, alcohol probably increases the chance of seizures, a fact unknown to the aforementioned writers, some of whom, like Lord Byron, were known for their propensity for drink [source: Epilepsy Foundation].

In this article, we'll take a look at an interesting and often overlooked question surrounding this seizure disorder: Namely, why are there so many great writers with epilepsy? The answer shows that the same malady that endangered the health of these writers may also have helped their writing.

 

Epilepsy and Hypergraphia

Vincent Van Gogh, whose feverish pace of painting and writing resembles hypergraphia, cut off his ear because of hallucinations caused by epilepsy.
Vincent Van Gogh, whose feverish pace of painting and writing resembles hypergraphia, cut off his ear because of hallucinations caused by epilepsy.
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Besides its tendency to induce hallucinations and other disturbing stimuli, epilepsy has been linked to a condition called hypergraphia, an all-consuming desire to write. The overwhelming urge to write -- and to write constantly -- and a form of epilepsy appear to come from the same part of the brain: the temporal lobe. A troubled temporal lobe may then both spur someone to write obsessively and also cause temporal lobe epilepsy, which itself can provide some interesting material for writers. Other disorders that have been reported to cause hypergraphia are Asperger's syndrome, bipolar disorder, which shares some characteristics with epilepsy, and schizophrenia. It's worth noting that many of these writers, and epileptic artists like Vincent van Gogh, were quite prolific, in some cases over rather short life spans. (Van Gogh, who may have had both epilepsy and bipolar disorder, painted constantly and wrote his brother multiple letters a day.)

Epilepsy and hypergraphia can be accompanied by depression, which for some artists is a bane and for others a challenging source of inspiration. But depression, with its many possible causes, isn't likely a source of artistic talent. Instead, it often provides a reason for people to sort out their problems through art [source: BBC]. Similarly, the presence of hypergraphia isn't a guarantee of talent. But creative thought, and writing in particular, seems to rely on the left temporal lobe, though both sides of the brain play important roles [source: Flaherty].

­Numerous prominent writers have been diagnosed as depressed or bipolar, but is there a connection? Bipolar disorder is 10 times more prevalent in writers than in nonwriters (and even more common in poets) [source: Flaherty]. One possible reason for this is that manic periods can increase activity in the temporal lobe, which, again, is associated with the urge to write and be creative. Unipolar depression -- depression without manic periods -- is also much more common in writers than nonwriters, perhaps up to 10 times more so [source: Flaherty]. So it may be that a mental disorder spurs someone to write or to create art (or provides something to write about), but there are many reasons why people turn to art. Many of them have little to do with the brain, damaged or otherwise. A troubled mind need not be the only motivator.

For more articles you might like about mental health and the brain, from epileptic seizures during a full moon to the evolution of the human brain, try the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Baruchin, Aliyah. "Easing the Seizures, and Stigma, of Epilepsy." New York Times. http://health.nytimes.com/ref/health/healthguide/esn-epilepsy-ess.html
  • Flaherty, Alice W. "The Midnight Disease." New York: Mariner Books, 2004.
  • Ko, David Y. "Temporal Lobe Epilepsy." EMedicine. May 8, 2008. http://www.emedicine.com/neuro/TOPIC365.HTM
  • "Alcohol and Epilepsy." Epilepsy Foundation. http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/living/wellness/alcohol/
  • "Classical Writers With Epilepsy." Epilepsy.com. Nov. 8, 2007.
  • "Hypergraphia." BBC. April 22, 2005. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3851093
  • "Lord Byron." German Epilepsy Museum. http://www.epilepsiemuseum.de/english/prominen/byron.html
  • "Studies Literary Representations of Epilepsy through Independent Research." Lafayette College. Jan. 17, 2006.
  • "What is epilepsy?" Epilepsy Foundation. http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/about/