Roots of neuroscience in the Bible and Talmud

The July issue of Neurosurgery had a fantastic article that discusses where the brain, nervous system and neurological illness are mentioned in the Bible and Talmud.

In some places the nervous system is specifically mentioned, such as where the Bible and Talmud specifically prohibit eating the sciatic nerve from slaughtered animals apparently in deference to the fact that Jacob is described as having a sciatic nerve injury in Genesis.

The article also discusses various forms of neurological illness that appear. Not all the cases are clear cut, and the article carefully examines where historians have suggested specific incidences may have been describing neurological disorders.

However, there are clear references to early forms of neurosurgery, and the piece makes this interesting aside on the Roman emperor Titus:

Interestingly, it is said that Titus (AD 39–81), who crushed Jewish rebellion with brutality and burned the Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70 (Fig. 6), underwent trephination of his cranium for chronic headache (possibly tinnitus) and, during this procedure, in which he lost his life, a tumor was found that resembled a sparrow or swallow and was two selas in weight. The sela coin was approximately one-third the width of a hand and was, interestingly, the size of the hole made with the aforementioned trephination tool. Some have posited that, based on the weight and size of such a mass, the differential diagnosis would include a hemangioma, meningioma, andacoustic neuroma. Multiple cranial trephinations aredescribed as a treatment for seizure disorders in the Talmud (Hullin 57a).

Another bit that caught my eye was the possible description of the effects of stroke in Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy”.

Along with Matthew Wilder’s 80s hit Break My Stride, Psalm 137 is the basis for the song Jerusalem by Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu.

Which, as far as I know, makes Matisyahu the only person to have written a track that makes a combined tribute to 80s synth-reggae, a Biblical verse about the holy city of Jerusalem and the cerebro vascular accident.

By the way, the image on the left is a medieval depiction of Cain smiting Abel through the grisly and fatal act of giving him a traumatic brain injury. And they say TV makes kids violent.

Link to Neurosurgery article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

One Comment

  1. Posted September 18, 2008 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    This is interesting and I had not heard of it previously. Other neuroscientists have speculated that Paul’s “vision” on the road to Damascus was actually a temporal lobe seizure. After reading more about temporal lobe seizures this seems highly plausible. They are often accompanied by experiences such as seeing “God” (whichever god the patient believes in), the typical “near death” experience where one sees a tunnel and a light and “out of body” experiences. These phenomenon are often interpreted by patients as religious experiences. And the changes in personality caused by these seizures include hyperreligiosity and hypergraphia. Sounds like Paul to me.
    Great article.


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