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Did Joseph Smith Suffer From Temporal Lobe Epilepsy?

I cannot find anything in your website about the idea that Joseph Smith suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. The symptoms of such attacks include visions of strange beings, an apparent loss of time, a feeling of insight into profound matters, and an urge to spread the word. His revelations seem to me to be classic examples of such attacks, and thus it would be unscientific to resort to claims of the supernatural, violating the principle of Occam's razor. I would be interested to hear your thought on this theory.

W. John Walsh
Monica Williams-Murphy

by W. John Walsh

Joseph Smith had real spiritual experiences and the things he claimed happened really did occur.  It's obvious that you do not believe that God exists and communicates with man.  However, I know of absolute surety that he does.  The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:

"This principle ought (in its proper place) to be taught, for God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them, for the day must come when no man need say to his neighbor, Know ye that Lord; for all shall know Him (who remain) from the least to the greatest." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Three 1838–39, p.149)

I have had many spiritual experiences that are very similar to those of Joseph Smith and no doctor in the world would claim I suffered from "temporal lobe epilepsy."  It is possible for every man to know for himself that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God.

The Book of Mormon is a physical, tangible record which "...prov[es] to the world ...that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old." (D&C 20:11) The Book of Mormon teaches:

"Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down unto the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.  And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.  And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." (Moroni 10:3-5)

Finally, Occam's razor states "the simplest hypothesis is always the best in accounting for unexplained facts." (Webster's College Dictionary)  The simplest explanation is that the claims of Joseph Smith are true.  For example, no one has yet come up with a plausible alternative story of how the Book of Mormon came to be or how the Book of Mormon Witnesses were fooled.

by Monica Williams-Murphy

As an anthropologist, medical student I wish to shed further light and clarification on the question,"Did Joseph Smith have temporal lobe epilepsy?" First of all, the true and whole constellation of  traits that characterize temporal lobe epileptic persons are as follows:
excessively philosophical
altered states that include vivid religious imagery
schizophrenia-like psychosis with mood disorder

Let us analyze Joseph Smith in light of these symptoms:

Sexuality- it is unlikely that a hypoactive sex drive is responsible for the large number of children that Joseph and Emma had during their approximately 18 years of marriage cut short by his death. If the matter is researched they most assuredly had the average number of pregnancies for a normal couple of their age for their time period.

Humor- the last thing that Joseph and his contemporaries would attest to was a lack of humor on his part. He was known as jovial and highly optimistic, always ready for a good game or sport and playful with children. Indeed, Joseph often worried that he was too light in nature, not serious enough for one who claimed such authority from God.

Circumstantial or given to fine detail- Detailed communicators often owe this gift/curse (depending on your own preference) to their personality type. On the Briggs-Myers personality scale "sensors" as opposed to "perceivers" are the personalities who communicate and gather information in a very detailed circumstantial manner. Perceivers on the other hand, focus on the
possibilities and implications rather than the facts as they stand. Joseph Smith's personality was likely well balanced among these two variables, he perceived and delivered the detail necessary to establish valid testimony among the "sensors" and yet the profundity and spiritual nature of his experiences also spoke to the "perceivers".

Excessively philosophical--- It is important here to note that an excessively philosophical nature is not always indicative of temporal lobe epilepsy, otherwise we would have to also tag Plato, Nietchze, and George Bernard Shaw among others with this organic disorder. Only when an excessively philosophical nature is found among other positive symptoms of TLE is it considered supporting evidence. As such, thus far, the philosophical nature of Joseph Smith indicates nothing other than his
willingness to engage the deep questions of humanity.

Hyper-religious nature- One must also be careful here, for measures of religiosity are culturally and temporally relative. What qualifies as hyper-religious in the 1990's for the New England area of the United States (where Joseph Smith received his first vision) was the norm or even hypo-religious for the revivalist/spiritualist sentiments that characterized this same area in the early 1800's. With this in mind, Joseph Smith's concern for religion fits comfortably in with his contemporary social milieu.

Altered states/ religious imagery- Undeniably, Joseph Smith claimed to have experienced altered states of consciousness wherein he vividly perceived religiously oriented communication/exchanges with "other beings". Now because temporal lobe epilepsy is defined as an innate, organic brain condition and therefore NOT contagious, then how do we explain the many others who were "caught" up in visions of heavenly beings right along with Joseph? Was there a large enough random population of temporal lobe epileptics in the New England area at that time that Joseph Smith could have encountered lets say 3 of them (the 3 witnesses) and then somehow coordinated their seizures to simultaneously produce THE SAME RELIGIOUS VISION? In agreement with Occam's razor, this is extremely unlikely.

Finally, schizophrenia-like psychosis-Schizophrenia is characterized predominately by a flat affect (unresponsive, unemotional countenance), extreme social withdrawal or self imposed isolation, disorganized speech, delusions and hallucinations. With delusions and hallucinations already addressed, the remaining criteria for schizophrenia are clearly absent from the character of all we know about Joseph Smith- he was always social and empathetic, always congregating with friends and his communications were always clear-- ranging from everyday counsel with his family to rational philosophical treatises on the nature of God, man and the universe.

I  offer this analysis as a testament to the integrity of Joseph Smith's character and the truth of his story. The profundity of his spiritual experiences  were not isolated occurrences, they are available to all who truly seek with an open mind.

(See Prayer, Fasting, and Revelation home page; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)

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