Targeted brain stimulation provokes feelings of bliss

Posted on September 23, 2013

It's hard to fathom how our subjective lives can be rooted in the spongy flesh of brain matter. Yet the reality of the brain-mind link was made stark half way through the last century by the Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. Before conducting neurosurgery on epilepsy patients he stimulated parts of their brains directly with an electrode, triggering in them subjective sensations that varied according to the source of stimulation.

In a new case study, a team of Swiss and French neurologists followed a similar strategy during brain surgery with a 23-year-old female patient. She has temporal lobe epilepsy and experiences "ecstatic auras" before seizure onset. During these periods she has "intense feelings of bliss and well-being", a floating sensation in her stomach, enhanced senses and time appears to contract.

Fabienne Picard and his colleagues stimulated different parts of the woman's temporal lobes with electrodes to try to find the precise source of her epileptic seizures. In fact none of their stimulations caused her to have a seizure. However they did observe some intriguing subjective experiences in the woman. When they stimulated her anterior-dorsal insula - a brain region implicated in many functions, including representing the internal state of the body - she experienced the same feelings of bliss and ecstasy that she reports prior to a seizure. "I feel really well with a very pleasant funny sensation of floating and a sweet shiver in my arms," she said. Such sensations were not triggered by stimulation in any other part of her temporal lobe.

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Source material from The British Psychological Society


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