University of Melbourne Magazine

Epilepsy: from demons to enlightenment

  • Artist Jim Chambliss was recently awarded what we believe is the world’s first PhD in Creative Arts and Medicine by the University of Melbourne. The complexity of Jim’s thesis involved traversing these two disciplines with the cooperation of the University’s School of Culture and Communication, the Department of Medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital and the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria.

    Jim’s insights are now informing an exhibition at the Medical History Museum and a program to develop an enlightened empathy in medical students for people with epilepsy being run as part of the Medical Humanities program of the Melbourne Medical School.

    In the eighteenth century, English neurologist John Hughlings Jackson described epilepsy as the ‘‘dreamy state’’, ‘‘psychic seizures’’ and ‘‘double consciousness’’. These unusual features of focal epilepsy perplexed and fascinated people for centuries, contributing to misconceptions of people with epilepsy as being blessed with mystical, religious or philosophical revelations or cursed by demons, witchcraft or insanity.

    Studying the visual expressions and in depth surveys of fifty artists with epilepsy Jim discovered that more than 90 per cent had actually experienced what he terms ‘‘intrinsic perceptions’’ and integrated these fascinating imagery and experiences into their art. An intrinsic perception can be spontaneously and independently derived from the brain/mind in simple or complex hallucinations or happen when what is seen, felt or experienced is so altered within the neurological processes impacted by the misfiring of electrical impulses that what would be commonly perceived or understood as ‘‘real’’ takes on surreal or dreamlike qualities.

    Epilepsy: From Demons to Enlightenment, is at the University’s Medical History Museum until September 20, and features works by more than 27 artists from around the world with epilepsy or seizures triggered by migraine, including Merric Boyd, who became one of the most influential artists in Australia in the first half of the 20th Century. The artworks provide a window into the thoughts and experiences of people with epilepsy and sit alongside explorations of some of the earliest attempts to distinguish between disease and the tragic misinterpretations of abnormal phenomena associated with epilepsy.

    According to neurologist Mark Cook, Eccles Chair of Medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital, exploring historical attitudes to epilepsy is an excellent way to gain a perspective on the collision between magic and science brought about through humanity’s attempts to understand epilepsy. Mark Cook leads a multi-site team of researchers based at the University of Melbourne and in Seattle in the development of a device that predicts epileptic seizures in humans. He also maintains an abiding interest in medical history and has worked closely with Museum Curator Jacky Healy on the development of this exhibition.

    For more information on Epilepsy: From Demons to Enlightenment go to: