Epilepsy is a neurological disease that causes seizures, leading to body clenching, contortion and abnormal shouts, cries and moans, and the occasional inexplicable vision. Prophets like Ezekiel, Muhammad and Joseph Smith are believed by some experts to have had epilepsy, which they say would account for their religious visions. The same is said of Joan of Arc.
In ancient Greece, epilepsy was called the "Sacred Disease" because of the belief it was from the gods, even though Hippocrates eventually figured out that this was bullshit. But like most of the greatest insights of the Greeks, this one was lost in the Middle Ages as the Catholic Church focused on the more interesting fire and brimstone interpretations of bodily functions and abnormalities. In the witch hunting guide Malleus Maleficarum, two Dominican friars claimed epilepsy to be a sign of witchcraft and fueled persecution of epileptics.
That's right: Witch Hunting Guide.
Likewise for Joan of Arc--despite the fact that these visions led her to liberate France, the Church found the idea of a woman getting word from God unbelievable and burned her at the stake as a witch, only to make her a saint later.
Medieval medicine. If you can't set it on fire, it isn't worth curing.
Of course, these diagnoses are being made by teasing out symptoms from the historical record--it wasn't until the second half of the 19th century that John Hughlings Jackson identified epilepsy as a disorder of the nerves that can affect consciousness, sensation and behavior. By his amazing insights he brought the western world up to 2,000-year-old Greek standards and opened the way for study of treatments for epilepsy and a severe drop in the number of prophets.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness characterized by a multitude of compulsions that range from the mundane (always stepping out of the house with your left foot first) to the bizarre (stabbing the hooker exactly 300 times, and only while wearing a red hat).
Professor James Leckman of Yale University did tests on the cerebrospinal fluid of OCD sufferers and found gobs and gobs of Oxytocin, the chemical responsible for love, jealousy and parental attachment. As it turns out, OCD-sufferers produce as much of this stuff as new parents and raver kids on ecstasy. This led Leckman to think there may be a very big connection between parenthood and OCD, believing that once upon a time in our evolution, obsessive attention to detailed cleaning and hygiene rituals marked the difference between infants that survived childhood diseases and ones who didn't. Compulsive rituals don't seem so weird when they involve constantly circling the camp site to make sure there are no wolves coming to eat the children.
OCD also had a big hand in the evolution of religion, particularly a specific kind of OCD that leads people to obsessively repeat and refine religious rituals, so terrified that they're not doing it right that it becomes debilitating. Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant faith, is now thought to have suffered from it. He nit-picked the Catholic church into the Protestant Reformation, and the rest is history.
St. Ignatius, who started the Jesuit Order (basically Jedi for Jesus) was haunted by a fear of accidentally stepping on pieces of straw that formed a cross. Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford, goes a step further and says OCD sufferers played a key role in the formation of many major world religions, which would explain why so many emphasize incredibly specific rules for things like body purification, diet, food preparation, hand washing and other traditional OCD ticks (which can be found in Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity).
"And on Tuesdays, all dinner napkins are to be folded THREE TIMES."
So the compulsive rituals first had an evolutionary benefit in keeping your food and children safe, then reached a point where the people who were the most obsessive were declared to be the most pure among us.
The lesson in all this? Apparently succeeding in the human species isn't a matter of being crazy or not crazy, but having just the right amount of craziness. It's a blurry line, to say the least.
You can read more from Philip at philiprodneymoon.com.
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