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“IT WAS one of the most profound experiences of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life. “A happiness unthinkable in the normal state and unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it… I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe,” he told his friend, Russian philosopher Nikolai Strakhov. What lay behind such feelings? The description might suggest a religious awakening – but Dostoevsky was instead describing the moments before a full-blown epileptic seizure.
Those sensations seem to have informed the character of Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot. “I would give my whole life for this one instant,” the prince says of the brief moment at the start of his epileptic fit – a moment “overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life”.
For a long time, the novelist was thought to be exercising his artistic licence and exaggerating this “ecstatic aura”, rather than accurately representing a real phenomenon. Most epileptic attacks are terrifying, after all, and many people with epilepsy would give a lot not to experience another. But as more and more people with the condition have come forward reporting the same feelings, there has been a renewed interest in this “Dostoevsky syndrome” – and neuroscientists are now on the hunt for the cause.
Besides explaining those feelings of bliss experienced by Dostoevsky and other people with “ecstatic epilepsy”, their investigations could also open a window on self-awareness more generally. The question is, are there safe ways we could all be transported to similar states of being?” Excerpt from A&O READING on Ecstatic Epilepsy by Anil Ananthaswamy (2014)[i]