Travel & the Brain

Lord of the Torres del Paine and other seizure-like experiences

Not unlike some seizures of the insula and medial temporal lobes, a visit to the Torres del Paine National Park will evoke in you a profound sense of spiritual mysticism …

I will begin with some very important information. Under no circumstances will you be able to stay over-night in the Torres del Paine (TDP) National Park if you do not have a reservation at one of the camps. This is new policy, as of October 2016. Without a booking, the rangers will not allow you to hike with your backpack and you will be forced to leave it at one of the base camps. If you don’t manage to get an overnight reservation in the park, your entrance fee does cover three consecutive days. I suggest you stay in a small town nearby called Carro Castillo from where you can catch a morning bus into the park. There are only a handful of accommodation options, try these.

Having read an out-dated travel guide, we arrived in Puerto Natales with not a single night in the Torres booked. Fortunately, we attended the information session at the Erratic Rock hostel, which happens every day at 3pm and one of their guides had a spare reservation for what would be our second night in the park. If you’re planning on doing a self-equipped trek in the TDP, make sure you reserve at least 6-8 months in advance, and if you’re unsure, just go ahead and reserve a place at one of the free camp sites. Because its free. Plan your arrival in Puerto Natales at least two full days before the trek to give you time to attend the Erratic Rock talk , and everything else can be organised in one day (camping gear is readily available and affordable, and there are plenty of grocery and supply stores from which to stock up).

We managed to book a second night in the park through one of the pricey, all-inclusive agencies but our hopes for doing the full W-Trek were dashed.

Emotions run high and wiry in anticipation of the TDP trail. People come from all parts of the globe to take part in the great Patagonian pilgrimage. What you lack in experience you can make up in gear. But the bars are evened at the start, where, among the hoard of flighty gringos you will be ushered in on steamy buses, through the park entrance, and funnelled in and out of registration queues before being released onto the paths.

My best advice is to liberate yourself from the fervour, take things slow, accept the certainly of at least one full day of walking in the rain and that the clouds may in fact never part to reveal the mighty Torres in their full heavenly glory. None of this matters because the sheer scale and magnificence of the park’s natural surroundings grinds you into insignificance.

Us at Chileno Camp, the trek up to the Torres behind us.

Having dropped our packs at Chileño camp, our home for the first night, we were free to make an afternoon mission up to the towers. We had been advised to go up prepared with sleeping bag, a thermos, some snacks and our choice of preferred liquor. If you scramble up too fast, you’ll arrive at the top sweaty and the icy winds will very soon have you chilled to a stupor.

Its an arduous trek up and the towers remain tantalizingly hidden until the very moment you reach the top. Their first glimpse is a stilling experience. You feel vertigo. We found a sheltering rock and snuggled together in our sleeping bag, rum in hand, to watch the cinematic scene unfold around us. The light changes almost ever 2 minutes. A moment of rain gives way to the sun, breaking through and casting brilliant light shafts across the snow and glacier-covered peaks. The dark towers stand like sentries, obscured momentarily by snow flakes and sheaths of wind-churned clouds. Suddenly, there you see Gandolf, his silhouette towering over the turquoise lagoon. The illusion breaks when a ferocious gust snatches away the poncho of a fellow hiker. It tears apart and is swallowed into the water.

We spent a long time watching. Mesmerised. It felt almost spiritual. These giants emerged slowly, over tens of thousands of years, as the glacial ice scoured through the layer of Cretacious sedimentary rock, exposing the impervious granite interior.

Keeping warm at the Towers, Torres del Paine.

Neuroscientists have taken an interest in trying to understand the brain basis of mystical, spiritual experiences. In 2006, two researchers ran a functional magnetic resonance imaging study (fMRI) on a group of nuns to investigate what areas of the brain light up when they reported a subjective sate of “union with God”. Among the activated regions, the middle temporal cortex and the insula cortex are notable because seizure activity in these brain areas are known to produce paranormal, spiritual-type experiences, accompanied often by subjective distortions in time, the sense of a “presence” and other religious ideations.

The temporal lobes form a part of the cerebral cortex and lie on each hemisphere around the place where the ears sit, your temples. They are the brain’s symbolic centres, the keepers of meaning, like the knowledge of what it means when you read the word “trek”. Think of them as dictionaries. The temporal lobes sit near to the hippocampus, a structure involved in recalling imagery-rich memory – memory for episodes – and the limbic system, the emotional hub of the brain. The temporal lobes are so positioned because our emotions provide us with the most fundamental kind of meaning, a kind of meaning that goes far beyond simple connotations between linguistic structures and their associated objects. “Trek” does not just mean a “journey made on foot”. It evokes a whole array of feelings. Fear, challenge, might, awe. All these things and in relation to you.

Tiny bursts of anomalous stimulation in these regions of the brain are thought to promote the conviction that something intensely personal and meaningful has transpired. An every-day observation of a startled bird taking sudden flight might feel to be a “sign”, an event connected in space and time to one’s very own existence and plight.

As far back as the 1970’s, religious conversions in epileptic patients with temporal lobe seizures have been described. It is even speculated that many renowned saints from the past were in fact suffering from this neurological condition. Speaking in tongues, for example, might occur when the seizure has a motor component, causing reverberation of the vagal glossopharyngeal nerve and nonsensical vocalisations. But it is not only temporal lobe seizures that have been known to produce intense, mystical experiences. More recently, hyperactivation of the insula has been linked to ecstatic epileptic seizures during which patients report powerful feelings of well-being, connectedness and heightened self-awareness.

In rare cases of epilepsy, seizures of the insula and medial temporal lobes cause profound changes in feeling states.

The insula cortex is a little alcove that hides behind the temporal lobe region. It is thought to receive information about the state of the body, so that, in one hub, the “sentient self” is represented. The insula allows you to be aware of your “self”. When activity in the area is heightened, it seems to have the effect of a magnifying glass. The perception of bodily feeling, of being present in the world and in tune with how the world makes you feel, converges to a lazer point.

Picard and Craig report a 64-year-old woman who described her insula seizure experience as “a feeling of total presence, an absolute integration of myself, a feeling of unbelievable harmony of my whole body and myself with life, with the world, with the ‘All’. I feel very, very, very present at that time; the consciousness of myself is very increased… I am one hundred percent concentrated on myself.”

Feelings of transcendence in the wilderness appear to follow closely from fascination and novelty. Unlike the built environment, there is not much “to be done” with imposing vistas of pristine natural beauty. They stand, shrine like, demanding our attention which we give willingly. The brain is genetically predisposed to understand natural imagery, while it has to work harder to perceive industrialised environments, the meaning of which needs to be learned. The heightened but tranquil focus that nature evokes in us is probably not unlike the effects of an insula seizure, albeit on a much diluted level.

To think about the Torres del Paine, from the moment of their genesis, across the scale of time to the point at which you find yourself gazing up at them, is a real exercise in perspective. And you see yourself as small, insignificant even, but somehow reassured about your place in the world.

Astounding geological formations in the Torres del Paine.
Bridge near the Italian Camp.

Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns (Beauregard & Paquettea).

Sudden Religious Conversions in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (Dewhurst & Beard).

Ecstatic epileptic seizures: A potential window on the neural basis for human self-awareness (Picard & Craig).