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Do “forced thinking” seizures show that abstract thought is a material thing?

Epilepsy suppresses abstract thought, it does not evoke it

At the blog Peaceful Science, Dr. Faizal Ali, who describes himself as an “Anti-Creationist Psychiatrist”, stated that I was wrong in saying that “intellectual seizures” do not occur because the intellect (abstract thought) is an immaterial power of the mind. I discussed the nature of abstract thought generally in an earlier post so I will now address Dr. Ali’s specific critique in this post.

Dr. Ali:

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 of a kind of seizure called “forced thinking”:

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

Before we look at this case, we should note that forced thinking seizures—whether they are actual seizures or are the patient’s mental response to having a seizure—are exceedingly rare. The vast majority of seizures have no “thinking content” that could be confused with abstract thought.

Nearly all seizures are generalized tonic-clonic, with complete loss of motor control and consciousness, focal seizures with involuntary twitching of a body part, or petit mal seizures that involve brief loss of mental awareness and inattention. This is despite the fact that the association areas of the cerebral cortex—to which materialists attribute abstract thought—are very large, and are generally considered (depending on the definition of “association area”) to constitute most of the cortical surface area.

If the association areas of the brain gave rise to abstract thought, and epileptic foci are distributed in proportion to area (which is a reasonable approximation), we would expect most seizures that arise in the cortex to be intellectual seizures. In fact, none are.

There are several rare types of seizures, such as forced thinking, that might be mistaken for intellectual seizures. They are not intellectual seizures, however. It’s worth noting that Wilder Penfield, (with Herbert Jasper, his neurologist colleague), was one of the first doctors to characterize forced thinking seizures and he asserted that there are no intellectual seizures. He understood that forced thinking seizures are not seizures of the intellect.

The woman described in the case report had a variety of symptoms associated with complex partial seizures, which are characterized by involuntary focal motor movements and by alterations of emotional state. From the report:

The [complex partial seizure] clustering was successfully terminated by the intravenous administration of lorazepam, and she resumed taking [anti-epileptic drugs] including lamotrigine 100 mg, valproate 300 mg, topiramate 150 mg, and pregabalin 75 mg bid. However, she started complaining of continuous [forced thinking]. The content of [forced thinking], quoted as her saying, was “I have something that I must do”, and the similar content of [forced thinking] had occurred as either habitual auras or prolonged aura episodes after [complex partial seizure] cluster. She well recognized that there was nothing that she actually should do, but she was not able to stop this line of thinking. These thoughts caused unnecessary anxiety. The EEG showed a continuous 1–1.5 Hz periodic pattern of polyspikes and slow wave complexes on the left [foramen ovale electrode] during the persistent [forced thinking].

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

As noted in my previous post, abstract thought is independent of particular objects. It has no concrete content, in the sense of being directed to a specific object or action in the environment. Abstract thought is also to be distinguished from emotional states, which are material (passions in philosophy lingo) and are not intellectual at all.

This woman had anxiety, expressed as the sense of having something to do that she could not remember. That is an emotional state, not an abstract intellectual state. An intellectual seizure might mean doing forced mathematics or forced logic—that is, an intellectual seizure would lack emotional content and have no reference to a physical object or a physical act. Her forced thinking seizure showed strong emotional content and obsession about things she had to do, all of which are particular concrete thoughts and emotions and none of which are intellectual abstractions.

Here is a website that gives a nice synopsis of these rare forced-thinking seizures. Note that the only epileptic impact on genuine abstract thought (i.e., mathematical thinking) is to suppress abstract thought, not to evoke it.

The strong emotional content of a seizure, which is a straightforward evocation of material powers of the mind and is not intellectual, may motivate an intellectual reaction on the part of the patient. That is not part of the seizure activity but is rather the patient’s intellectual effort to cope with it. For example, a patient may have anxiety as an aura of a partial complex seizure, and she may, in response to her anxiety, contemplate in an abstract way the problems she faces in life. Here, the abstract thought is not the seizure but the patient’s response to it—her contemplation of the emotional state evoked by the seizure.

In ordinary thinking, concrete and abstract thought work together—for example, as I type this, I am simultaneously thinking of the abstract (concepts) I want to convey and I’m thinking about the (concrete) arrangement of letters and words on my keyboard and screen. It is vitally important that, before we label a seizure an “intellectual” seizure, we confirm that the abstract thought is itself generated by the electrical discharge from the brain, and is not merely a non-epileptic thought by the patient in response to the seizure.

If we use a strict standard, a credible genuine intellectual seizure has never been reported. Penfield never encountered one, nor have I. If we include the epilepsy medical literature, we reference millions of recorded seizures without a single credible intellectual seizure, despite the fact that most of the cerebral cortex is association area, where (according to materialists) abstract thought arises.

Now, of course, materialists will squirm, evade, and engage in special pleading, for example, “Perhaps abstract thought is such a subtle material property of brain tissue that crude electrical discharges can’t evoke it, etc.” But this is not evaluation of the evidence, it is evasion of the evidence.

The most parsimonious explanation for the complete absence of credible reports of intellectual seizures (mathematics seizures, logic seizures, philosophy seizures, etc.) is that abstract thought does not originate in brain tissue. This view is consistent with classical philosophy, with logic, and with the general understanding that most people have of their own minds.

To be a materialist, you have to try really hard to ignore a ton of evidence.

Also by Michael Egnor on the immateriality of the mind:

Do epileptic seizures cause abstract thoughts? A psychiatrist argues that “intellectual seizures” can occur. He is mistaken. Seizures never evoke abstract thought.


Atheist psychiatrist misunderstands the evidence for an immaterial mind. Patients with massive brain damage were shown to have a mental life.

Also: How can consciousness be a material thing? Maybe it can’t. But materialist philosophers face starkly limited choices in how to view consciousness. In analytical philosopher Galen Strawson’s opinion, our childhood memories of pancakes on Saturday, for example, are—and must be—”wholly physical.”

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 “forced thinking” seizures show that abstract thought is a material thing?