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Do Epileptic Seizures Cause Abstract Thoughts?

A psychiatrist argues that “intellectual seizures” can occur

At the Peaceful Science blog, Dr. Faizal Ali, who describes himself as an “Anti-Creationist Psychiatrist,” picks up on the fact that I said there are no “intellectual seizures. He disagrees:

Egnor is simply wrong. Intellectual seizures do occur. Here, for example, is a woman with frontal lobe epilepsy whose seizures consisted of the thought ““I have something that I must do”

He cites a case report from Pub Med:

Simple Partial Status of Forced Thinking Originated in the Mesial Temporal… Forced thinking (FT) is a rare epileptic phenomenon which is usually seen in patients with frontal lobe epilepsy. We report a rare case of mesial temporal lobe epilepsy presenting FT as simple partial status epilepticus. A 50-year-old woman with left…

Cho YJ, Song SK, Jang SH, Chang JW, Lee BI, Heo K. Simple Partial Status of Forced Thinking Originated in the Mesial Temporal Region: Intracranial Foramen Ovale Electrode Recording and Ictal PET. J Epilepsy Res. 2011;1(2):77–80. Published 2011 Dec 30. doi:10.14581/jer.11015

Dr. Ali continues:

There are other such examples. I think Egnor’s argument errs in failing to appreciate the neurological complexity involved in complex abstract thoughts. Similar to his other arguments, he seems to believe that there is a single point in the brain that, when stimulated, should cause someone to understand the Pythagorean theorem or make an argument in favour of a flat tax rate. By the same token, you don’t just stimulate a tiny point in the brain and cause someone to brush his teeth.

True. There is no “single point” or points in the brain that, when stimulated, evoke abstract thought. That was neurosurgery pioneer Wilder Penfield’s observation. It’s my own observation and the experience of all neurologists and neurosurgeons who treat epilepsy. There has never been a report of an abstract thought caused by a seizure. A bit of background might help.

Dr. Ali seems to misunderstand what is meant by “abstract thought.” Abstract thought is thought about universals (in philosophical lingo), not particulars. That means thought about concepts, without reference to a physical object. There are, of course, many non-abstract thoughts about particular objects that are quite complex but they are not abstract. Consider this example:

Think about a triangle. In your imagination, you form a mental picture of a triangle. It may be a right triangle, or an isosceles triangle, or an equilateral triangle, or whatever. It may have sides that are thick or thin, red or white, or blue or black. But it is a particular triangle, perhaps like one you remember seeing in a book yesterday.

Now, I ask you to think about what a triangle is. You come up with a correct definition: A triangle a three-sided closed plane figure with internal angles that sum to 180 degrees. Notice that this thought about the definition of a triangle is not about any specific triangle (not about a particular), but about triangles in general (a universal).

Your thought about a particular triangle and your thought about the definition of a triangle are fundamentally different. A particular triangle will always be a specific size, color, shape, etc. If drawn, it will never have perfectly straight sides and its angles will never add up to exactly 180 degrees.

However, the definition of a triangle is perfect in a way that a particular triangle never can be. The definition has no color and no individual shape. Its sides are perfectly straight and its interior angles add up to exactly 180 degrees.

This classical distinction between particular and abstract thought is demonstrated by considering a chiliagon, which is a polygon with 1000 sides. You cannot imagine a particular chiliagon—you can’t hold in your imagination a clear picture of a closed figure with 1000 sides. But you can easily comprehend it abstractly, by its definition. Your understanding of a chiliagon is entirely abstract. Abstract thought and concrete thought are very different types of thinking.

There are analogs in different kinds of thoughts. You can think about the American presidency (abstract), or about President Trump (particular). You can think about slavery (abstract) or about Harriet Tubman (particular). You can think about finance (abstract) or you can think about the dollar bill in your hand (particular). You can think about computation (abstract) or about the computer on your desk (particular). You can think about calculus (abstract) or you can think about the shape of the symbols in a differential equation on a paper in front of you (particular).

Abstract thought is qualitatively different from particular (concrete) thought. It is a difference in kind, not in degree.

Your thought about a particular triangle (e.g. isosceles with thick red lines) is a non-abstract thought and is entirely material, in the sense that it is generated in the neurons of your brain. We don’t understand yet exactly how it is generated in the brain, but from my perspective (Aristotelian hylemorphism), it is a material act generated by the brain. This is the general view in neuroscience, and I agree with it.

However, your thought about the definition of a triangle—three sides, closed plane figure, interior angles of 180 degrees—is an abstract thought and it is not generated by the brain. It cannot be generated by the brain because a particular physical thing (the brain) cannot generate an abstract immaterial thing. Any pattern of action potentials or electrochemical gradients in the neurons of your brain could only represent a physical thing.

An immaterial abstract concept might be coded or mapped in your brain, but mapping presupposes the thing that is mapped. In order to map ‘the abstract concept of a triangle’, you must first have the abstract concept of a triangle. The immaterial thought must precede the map in the brain, so it can’t be generated by the map in the brain.

This may seem a bit too philosophical, but the essentials of this argument have been made by philosophers since Aristotle. and they’re right. Abstract thought—the human intellect and will—is an immaterial power of the mind and does not originate in the brain.

That said, we must distinguish between necessary and sufficient. It is clear that brain activity is necessary for normal abstract thought. I can’t think abstractly about triangles if I’m asleep, drunk, or hit on the head with a hammer. Normal brain activity makes normal abstract thought possible. But brain activity is not sufficient for abstract thought. There is an immaterial aspect to abstract thought that is not and cannot be generated by brain matter.

In Science Uprising: The evidence against materialism, I provided a list of neuroscience experiments that confirms the view that abstract thought is an immaterial power of the mind and is not generated by brain tissue. Neuroscience is completely consistent with the logic of the classical philosophers.

One of the examples I gave is the observation that there are no intellectual seizures. By that, I mean that the manifestations of epileptic seizures are always of particular movements of muscles, particular sensations, and particular thoughts and emotions. Seizures never evoke abstract thought. That is, if a seizure causes you to think about a triangle, it always causes you to imagine a particular triangle, not to define triangles abstractly.

Because most of the cerebral cortex is “association areas” which, according to materialists, generate abstract thought, intellectual seizures should be quite common. But they never occur.

In my next post, I’ll discuss a rare kind of seizure called a “forced thinking” seizure, that Dr. Ali thinks disproves my thesis.


Also by Michael Egnor: Atheist psychiatrist misunderstands evidence for an immaterial mind. Patients with massive brain damage were shown to have a mental life

New evidence that some comatose people really do understand Researchers found mental activity in response to verbal commands even in some “completely unresponsive” patients

and

Can buzzwords about “neural networks” save materialist neuroscience? No. Experiments that support an immaterial consciousness often involve split or massively damaged neural networks


Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Do Epileptic Seizures Cause Abstract Thoughts?