Faraze A. Niazi
Jack E. Riggs
Morgantown, West Virginia, United States
Harriet Tubman 1822 – 1913 Slave, abolitionist, activist. Suggested to have had visions and dreams as manifestations of temporal lobe epilepsy. Via the Library of Congress.
Listen to my words: “When there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. Numbers 12:6 (NIV)
“Harriet and Joan, what topic has your two fine souls so deeply engrossed?”
“Moses, we were discussing recent hurtful speculations that our visions and dreams are explained as temporal lobe seizures,” Harriet responded.1-2
“That claim threatens their significance,” Joan added.
“So what?” Moses responded. “My burning bush apparition has also been claimed to be an epileptic manifestation.”3
“So what? Some call me the Black Moses. Like you I led my people away from bondage, escaping my own enslavement to lead others to the Promised Land. I returned thirteen times and during the Civil War, I spied for Union troops in South Carolina, masquerading as a Black slave to learn Confederate troop locations, movements, and strengths. If captured, I would have been returned to bondage. I could not have accomplished those tasks without the guidance of my dreams and visions. Seizures are considered mere pathology, not revelations.”
“Harriet, of course you are right. But do not concern yourself with what others think. God knows what you did,” Moses exclaimed.
“But I am angered and hurt. Like the time when the train conductor would not accept my half-fare veteran train ticket, and three conductors broke my arm and several ribs while bystanders watched and did nothing.”4
Now smiling, Moses retorted, “Harriet, you were not the only Black woman who refused to move to the back of the bus. I understand that you suffered, but unlike those who suffered in silence, you are now an icon of defiance. Your achievements and accomplishments will never be attributed to epilepsy.”
“But Moses, my visions, my voices were the basis of my alleged heresy,” Joan interjected. “If my visions and being burned alive at the stake were caused by a physical malady, that negates their divine significance.”
“Joan, as I said to Harriet, your achievements and accomplishments will never be attributed to epilepsy. You were an illiterate seventeen-year-old girl with no military training, yet your faith and inspiration put an army under your control.
“Your visions and voices foretold liberating victories and regal coronations. Joan, you were put to death because you threatened the power of church and state. Your victories, your trial, and your execution have made you an inspirational icon. You accomplished more in nineteen years than anyone can dare to imagine.”
“But I was just a nineteen-year-old girl. I was scared. I did not want to die in that manner or for those reasons.”
“I understand, Joan. But remember, your conviction for heresy was overturned twenty-five years after your death. You were made a saint five hundred years later. Your life had meaning and purpose that can never be attributed to epilepsy. No fruit of knowledge will ever rob you of that.”
“We agree with you, Moses,” Harriet and Joan replied in unison.
“Remember, however, even after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, I only glimpsed, but could not enter, the Promised Land. It is one thing to liken your visions and dreams to temporal lobe epilepsy, but now there is an emerging far greater threat from neuroscience. Some now believe that even if God did not exist, that the human brain is programmed to create or produce Him. On that sobering thought, I bid you two fine souls a good day,” Moses concluded.5
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:5 (NIV)
- Foote-Smith E, Bayne L. Joan of Arc. Epilepsia 1991;32:810-5.
- Larson KC. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American hero. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
- Devinsky O, Lai G. Spirituality and religion in epilepsy. Epilepsy & Behavior 2008;12:636-43.
- Dunbar EA. She came to slay: The life and times of Harriet Tubman. New York: 37 Ink, 2019.
- Fingelkurts AA, Fingelkurts AA. Is our brain hardwired to produce God, or is our brain hardwired to perceive God? A systematic review on the role of the brain in mediating religious experience. Cogn Process 2009;10:293-326.
FARAZE A. NIAZI, M.D., is a neurology resident at West Virginia University. She is interested in neurocritical care, ethics, and the history of medicine.
JACK E. RIGGS, M.D., is a professor of neurology at West Virginia University.