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LOST In The Temporal Lobe

April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs from the dead earth, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.

Desire among the castaways on ABC's weird-science-hit LOST seems to be strictly short-term and emotionally driven -- desire for power, respect, sex, control, etc. We see shockingly few expressions of desire to escape or leave the Island.

One important element of memory in LOST is the relation between memory and emotion/desire. Although I've focused on more metaphysical issues, there are also some potential biological explanations for what's going on.

The temporal lobe of the brain is home to some key elements of the LOST castaways experience -- hearing (whisperers), long-term memory (flashbacks), emotion (greed, fear, lust, pride, and all that), vision (smokey, strange lights, waking visions).

When things go wrong in the temporal lobe, there is a very specific pathology that has long been associated with mystical/paranormal experience -- temporal lobe epilepsy.

The following quotes are taken from:


... but there are many more resources out there.

What does temporal lobe epilepsy feel like?
I get the strangest feeling -- most of it can't be put into words. The whole world suddenly seems more real at first. It's as though everything becomes crystal clear.
Locke: I had a dream last night. I asked for a sign and then I saw a plane crash a a Beechcraft right out there. It was a dream, but it was the most real thing I've ever experienced.

Charlie: Oh yeah, and then there's the vivid dreams that make me feel like I'm completely awake until, of course, I wake up.
Then I feel as if I'm here but not here, kind of like being in a dream. It's as if I've lived through this exact moment many times before.
Deja vu and repetition of past events are defining features of the Island experience -- to the extreme that physical chunks of reality manifest in the present and situations repeat with amazing precision.
I hear what people say, but they don't make sense.
What about those whisperers?

What happens during a seizure?
There may be a mixture of different feelings, emotions, thoughts, and experiences, which may be familiar or completely foreign. In some cases, a series of old memories resurfaces. In others, the person may feel as if everything -- including home and family -- appears strange.
I don't think I need to explain the relevance of that too extensively.
Hallucinations of voices, music, people, smells, or tastes may occur. These features are called auras or warnings. They may last for just a few seconds, or may continue as long as a minute or two.
Voices, we know. Jack is constantly asking people about smells (tying it to brain tumors at one point). And people around Jack are constantly talking about smells. Hallucinations of people could include all sorts of things in this context.
Experiences during temporal lobe seizures vary in intensity and quality. Sometimes the seizures are so mild that the person barely notices. In other cases, the person may be consumed with fright, intellectual fascination, or even pleasure.
I think we have seen the Islanders experience several obsessive/perseverating moments in which they have been consumed with these very things (but with a predisposition to fright).

What could cause temporal lobe epilepsy in a large group of people at the same time?

Head injury can cause it (the crash), but it's a stretch to say that everyone suffered the same head injury. There is, fortunately, another explanation:

The seizures of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) can start at almost any age. Some follow a head injury or an infection that affects the brain, such as meningitis.
"Sickness" anyone?

So why aren't the castaways all rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth and generally otherwise non-functional?
Three-quarters of people with TLE also have simple partial seizures, in which they remain fully conscious. Some people have only simple partial seizures and never have a change in consciousness.
So our castaways will be all right? The "sickness" won't progress like it did with Danielle's crew? Well, some (like Danielle) may make it. But...
Unfortunately, in about 60% of people with TLE, the seizures spread from the temporal lobe to a wider portion of the brain. This process is called secondary generalization. The result is a convulsive (grand mal) seizure.
What are the early signs of TLE?
Temporal lobe seizures usually begin in the deeper portions of the brain's temporal lobe. This area is part of the limbic system, which controls emotions and memory. Some individuals with temporal lobe epilepsy may have problems with memory ... these memory problems are almost never severe.
How can they be helped in the absence of medication (was Desmond's syringe a treatment)?
If various seizure medicines have been tried adequately without success, then other treatments may be used. Some people with temporal lobe seizures are candidates for surgery. The operation (called a temporal lobectomy) usually removes only the abnormal part of the temporal lobe, not the entire lobe. Many also benefit from vagus nerve stimulation or the ketogenic diet.
Sadly, our castaways are (except for Hurley) getting the opposite of the ketogenic diet (which is high-fat, low-carb). Vagus nerve stimulation requires surgery and advanced devices and is not a prima facie option.
Here are a few more descriptions of the temporal lobe epilepsy experience. This site is a bit New Agey-flaky, but the descriptions quoted here are reasonably accurate.
Temporal lobe epilepsy has often been linked to a variety of transcendent experiences: ecstatic communion with the divine, epiphanies of artistic creation, fearful encounters with alien beings.
"I have visions and images that normal people don't have. Some of my seizures are like entering another dimension, the closest to religious or spiritual feelings I've ever had. Epilepsy has given me a rare vision and insight into myself, and sometimes beyond myself, and it has played to my creative side."
Symptoms to watch for and which we have already seen to some extent:
jamais vu (the feeling of never having been in what should be a familiar place -- the opposite of deja vu); formication (feeling bugs crawling under the skin); vivid smells, hallucinations, rapid heartbeats, the sensation of rising and falling, and partial amnesia.
Magnetism anyone?
Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, found that people with frequent bursts of electrical activity in their temporal lobes report sensations of flying, floating, or leaving the body, as well as other mystical experiences. By applying magnetic fields to the brain, he can also induce odd mental experiences -- possibly caused by bursts of neuron firing in the temporal lobes.
More on the magnet-related aspect:


Genetic treatments (for Hanso enthusiasts):


Seizures associated with being awakened from sleep:


TLE and impaired processing of Numbers:


Short-term memory (i.e., why Jack has a good memory and fewer hallucinations than Locke, who does not have as good of a memory)

NIH report abstract

Short term serial memory (the numbers) and right-brain, left-brain differences (again possibly explaining the Jack-Locke disconnect):


Artists and TLE (with images and anecdote):


I have known seizures to come in repetition and last for days. I'm sucked down into the explosion, fumble through the chaos, and land disembodied from the intensity. I blink. "What happened?" It is here, between the insane and the mundane, that I have discovered the utter duality of myself.
You can post comments below or head over to LOST-TV for a more detailed discussion.

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good stuff...a friend of my dug this up from god knows where but i am hoping you could put together some more info on ambrose bierce and skinner. i'm curious to see what you think.

1. THE ISLAND: It's Alive!
Our theory of Lost begins with the question posed in the pilot by smack-addled rocker Charlie: ''Guys...where are we?'' Some have argued that the island could be a hallucination - ''A Psychological Shipwreck,'' to use the title of an 1879 short story by Lost-linked author Ambrose Bierce. Or an alien twilight zone. It's tempting to go with ''limbo'' - an elastic enough idea to corral the show's incredible coincidences and odd details, like a smoke monster and a band of child-swiping Others. But we believe the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 aren't stuck in a mass delusion or a satanic mousetrap. They're alive on the island. A haunted island. And it was made that way by the Dharma Initiative.

What we know about Dharma is incomplete at best, utterly bogus at worst. According to a choppy ''orientation film'' found in the hatch, Dharma founders Gerald and Karen DeGroot established a research facility on the island in the 1970s to conduct experiments in meteorology, zoology, electromagnetism, psychology, and parapsychology - a dubious science that believes the brain houses mind-over-matter powers. (Think X-Men, Jedi Knights, and sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, whose 1941 short story Lost Legacy is about kids realizing their psychic potential under the tutelage of - COINCIDENCE ALERT! - Ambrose Bierce.) Our theory is that intentionally or not, the Dharma team pulled loose psychic powers from one of its test subjects - skip to No. 5 for the answer about who that might be - with disastrous results. How? With fear. Where? Where else, down in...

3. THE HATCH: Human Testing
The orientation film claims the hatch was originally used to study the island's ''unique'' electromagnetic energy. And indeed, there is a curious wall that seems to be humming with the stuff. But the filmstrip also states that the DeGroots were following B.F. Skinner, a psychologist famous for his Skinner boxes: controlled environments used to study animal behavior. Folks, the hatch is a human Skinner box.

Why wasn't this mentioned in the orientation film? Because the orientation film is part of the experiment! The film was fiction, designed to induce paranoia and fear and observe the test subject's reaction. What Dharma was studying was the behavior every Lost fanatic engages in: the human imperative to organize seemingly random details into some kind of order. The problem is that someone - someone we haven't seen or met yet - was put in the hatch and had a psychic break of world-altering proportions.

4. THE NUMBERS: Those Damn Yankees!
It has been Lost's most baffling conundrum: the seemingly inexplicable connection between Hurley's havoc-causing Lotto picks - 4 8 15 16 23 42 - and the hatch's computer code. This is a two-part riddle. First, the original purpose of the numbers: Skinner box experiments require test subjects to execute empty tasks, like pulling levers or, say, inputting digits into a computer. The Dharma-ites chose the sequence because...they were big Yankee fans, and each number correlates to a retired Yankee jersey. But the second question is far more important: What purpose do the numbers serve now? There are lots of out-there (and fun) ways to go with this, but the truth is that the numbers don't do anything. The ''cursed'' digits are just one more sinister detail in Dharma's elaborate sleight of hand intended to freak out test subjects. The problem was that extreme stress on the subject in the hatch combined with the electromagnetic energy down there to jar loose some suppressed psychic powers. And it jarred them loose in the wrong individual. In that explosive moment, the once meaningless digits were encoded with devilish life. Hence, Hurley's bad luck, and a virus that is rewriting reality on the island.

5. THE ANSWER TO 'LOST': The Island Is Haunted by a Powerful Psychic
The Dharma experiments resulted in the creation of a potent disembodied being. A being deeply steeped in pop culture - think about all the novels, comic books, and random flotsam that make up the DNA of Lost - and powerful enough to bring those bits of pop culture to life. Someone who imprinted his consciousness on the island. Someone whose radioactive corpse was walled up in the hatch. Someone named Aaron.

So how did the Oceanic crew end up on the island? Aaron summoned them, because he has as-yet-undetermined uses for each of them...and he needed a new body. The body of a then-unborn baby. Claire's baby. Which is why the Others (Aaron's followers) have tried to kidnap her child. And why they had to snatch poor, psychic Walt - remember that dead bird from season 1? - who was the only one with the ability to see through their plan.

Of course, the castaways could all be dead. It could be a mass hallucination. The Others could be trying to secure franchise rights to the Twilight Zone Dairy Queen. But this is our story, and we're sticking to it. At least until the start of the next episode.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/27/2006 1:34 PM  

The above is from Entertainment Weekly. I wasn't terribly impressed. Any explanation that depends on the Dharma Initiative is, to me, fatally flawed. I believe Dharma is more a symptom of the Island than its cause.

More on Beirce here:


Skinner doesn't fascinate me...

By Blogger J.M. Berger, at 2/27/2006 1:59 PM  

had i known it came from EW, i wouldn't of posted it. since EW is usually in bed with networks, this could easily be smoke and mirrors from the creators to send us on a wild goose chase...apologies

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/27/2006 4:38 PM  

pls give TS Eliot his due on the opng quote...& nice blog...thx!!!

By Blogger onewaysign, at 7/23/2006 1:48 PM  

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