A Review of an article by Wilder Penfield, M.D., published in
The Journal of Mental Science
in issue 424, July, 1955, entitled,

The Role of the Temporal Cortex in Certain Psychical Phenomena

Review by John A. Speyrer

It was the discoveries of Canadian neurologist, Wilder Penfield, which laid the theoretical basis for an explanation of the work of early regression therapists, Ron Hubbard, Arthur Janov, Stanislav Grof, Frank Lake, et. als. which contributed to our understanding of how blocked early traumas are accessed and how their access could be ameliorating.

Dr.Penfield, while conducting surgeries to remove specific types of temporal lobe loci which were causing epilepsy, made ground-breaking discoveries by taking notice that his unanethesized patients (with local pain blockers) could listen and respond to his questions while their temporal lobe was being operated upon. Indeed, the verbal feedback by the patient was an essential requirement so that Penfield could determine that he was excising that exact portion of the brain which was the cause of the neurological symptoms being treated . In this way he was able to "map" the brain. He found that the temporal lobe was the only portion of the brain's anatomy which elicited such re-livings with accompanying "witnessing" ego involvement.

The first instance occurred in 1934 when a patient informed Penfield that she was re-living a earlier experience in her life during temporal lobe surgery.* She reported that "she saw herself as she had been while giving birth to her baby."

Dr. Penfield immediately realized how important this discovery might be to psychiatrists but hesitated in making available this information available as he wanted to obtain more data about the physiology of the effect. Thus, it was not until 1954, at a Mandsley lecture1 that Penfield shared with his collegues accumulated data he had acquired during the two decades since his initial discovery.

Penfield remarked that Psychologist William James in 1910, (The Varieties of Religious Experiences) had likened the "stream of consciousness" of memories during altered states as a flowing river of past experiences which continuously changes. Dr. Penfield believed that there were two ways to access this "river" of memory:
  • by electrical stimulation of the cortex of the temporal lobe
  • by epileptic discharge from the same source
In the first instance the subject begins to relive "an earlier period of time in the greatest detail." Thus, the various sensory components of the event become present, such as visual, auditory, olfactory, etc. Even the somatic sensations of the old event were experienced. He mentioned to his audience that the neurological sequence is run off in real time sequence as the action goes forward but never backwards. He described it as similar to a "one-way street forward from any point at which stimulation makes an entrance into it." (p. 453) Penfield compared the action to a movie film. The experience continues until the stimulus is withdrawn. The record can only be activitated by an electrode on the temporal cortex. He believed that this pathway had "been somehow conditioned by years of electrical discharges from a neighbouring epileptogenic focus." (p. 453)

The actual recording mechanism may be in the cortical grey matter where the stimulating electrode seems to awaken it or it may well be elsewhere, in areas which give no response to direct stimulation, such as the hippocamus and hippocampal gyrus. But if it is in such a zone there must still be specialized connections between that zone and the areas of the temporal cortex, in which connections between that zone and the areas of temporal cortex in which stimulation does produce psychical responses. Either way, it is not going beyond the evidence to conclude that this area of cortex, marked "psychical responses" in Figure 2, must play an important role in the formation of preservation of the record of the stream of consciousness. (p. 454)
He believed,

Since the electrode may activate a random sample of this strip from the distant past, and since the most unimportant and completely forgotten periods of time may appear in this sampling, it seems reasonable to suppose that the ganglionic record is complete and that it really does include all periods of each individual's waking, conscious life. (p. 452)

As in a present day regression therapy experience, the conscious mind of the person undergoing surgery realized that he/she was in an operating room undergoing a surgical procedure. The understanding of the early memory is clear and the interpretation of what happened at that past point of time is understood and felt with its accompanying emotions and sensations.Thus, the response is truly experiential and at the same time, interpretive.

One of Penfield's patients heard a specifc music selection being performed by an orchestra "when a point on the superior surface of the right temporal lobe was stimulated after removal of the anterior half of the lobe." The sound was so clear that the patient believed that there was a phonograph in the operating room. As the same point was restimulated the music began at the same spot in time where it had previously begun.

Performing an experiment, Penfield withheld the electrode; the patient heard nothing. He found that the patient could not guess what was to happen after the electrode had been withdrawn. "L.G. saw a man fighting. When the point was re-stimulated he saw a man and a dog walking along a road." (p. 455) Often the memory is no longer able to be recalled, but its trace feels familiar. For example, when music is heard, the source may not be known but the sense of enjoyment which accompanied the music in the past is felt in the here and now.

Penfield called the results of the experience "a new order" of phenomena which Hughlings Jackson (an early British neurologist) had recognized as having been brought into existence in epileptic patients. Such phenomena Jackson had called "dreamy states," variously described as memory type hallucinations, sometimes accompanied by feelings of deep meaningfulnes, feelings of oneness2, etc.

When the electronic probe is placed on the temporal lobe, the effect is begun and does not stop until the probe is withdrawn. There is not a mixture of other "streams of consciousness." He observed that, at the same time, there was an inhibitory effect which prevented other "streams" from being presented to be experienced at the same time. He believed that all experiences of the subject were preserved in this "ganglionic record" of his past life when he was awake. He surmised that the "record" could conceivably be stored in other readily accessible areas, such as, in the hippocampal zone.

The areas which can be stimulated to produce the record of the past all lie in the temporal cortex. Stimulating others areas of the brain had no effect. The stimulation points of the temporal lobe triggered what he called psychical hallucinations or experiential responses, and perceptual illusions which Penfield named interpretative responses.

Psychical responses to stimulation are considered to be "experential' as had one patient who reported the hearing a certain song upon stimulation; another reported seeing signs of Seven-Up Bottling then Harrison Bakery. The patient is quoted, ; "I seem to be seeing a group of men and woman; "I am trying to find the name of the song. There was a piano there and someone was playing. I could hear the song you know." ; Upon re-stimulation of the same point, a different vision appears. The presence of an observing ego is also mentioned as when a woman remarked: "Oh, I had the same very, very familiar memory, - in an office somewhere. I could see the desks. I was there and someone was calling to me, a man learning on a desk with a pencil in his hand." One woman patient saw her small child playing in the yard outside and at the same time was aware of the sound of autos passing in a nearby street. (p. 455). Another patient, a man, overheard a conversation of relatives. They were laughing. At the same time he knew he was in a hospital being operated upon. Although he tried to determine what they were found humorous, he could not remember.(p. 455)

On occasion, the patient may recall the event from which comes, what Penfield calls, a "strip" of experience. It may have faded from being able to be recalled but always seems familiar and is understood to be part of the patient's past. For example, music is heard and is familiar but the patient may not be able to point out the occasion when it was heard even though the feeling (such as enjoyment) may be reexperienced. Penfield emphasized that the "things that have been recorded are the things which once came within the spot-light of attention."

Normally, the events which are imbued with feelings are emotions, and normally experiences which have become routine (no strong emotion is elicited) cannot be recalled easily. He writes: "Electrical recall is quite different from this, since it often produces random samples of true experience, which may have had no particular significance in the life of the patient."

When hearing an old song again or when one sees an old friend once again small changes are easily detectable. Penfield concluded, "It may well be therefore that each of the earlier experiential records of that person or song becomes available to the individual during the laying down of the new record. It is then that the new experience is interpreted and judgments of familiarity, estrangement, danger, distance, etc., are made."

Penfield noticed a similarity between localized epileptic discharge and electrical stimulation of the same area of the temporal lobe. These seizures are very common and originate from localized discharges. They are not sensory and motor seizures which come from other parts of the brain. However, discharges from the temporal lobe can spread to other brain structures.

Interpretive seizures (psychical illusion, deja vu, and jamais vu mind states, fear, out-of-body experiences, perceptual illusions of body movements and body positions and other perceptions are possible.)

One patient believed that he was having an out of body experience. He was terrified as he exclaimed, "Oh God! I am leaving my body." Stimulating a particular point of the temporal lobe produced feeling of changed body positions (vestibular sensations) and of spinning around and of standing upright. On occasion, unjustified feelings such as, terror, sadness, fear and loneliness, joy and sexual excitement may present themselves to onlookers as interpreted by facial expressions and by their own descriptive subjective feelings.

Dr. Penfield felt that during voluntary recollection, memory is a generalization of past experience, and the original record itself remains unaltered by subsequent experience. (p. 464) He believes that, "(o)ne may assume that judgments are made normally while the original record is being formed and that the new record is thus compared with the past." (p. 464)

*The prod was to elicit memories from only 5 of 520 patients.
-- John A. Speyrer

1The lecture in honor of Henry Mandsley, the father of British Psychiatry, was one in a series of addresses to the International Congress of Psychology on June 9, 1954, in Montreal and appeared in The Journal of Mental Science in issue 424, July, 1955. It was subsequently published in Acta Psychologica.
2Is the temporal lobe the origin of the unitive experience during mystical experiences?

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