Babylonian Neurology and Psychiatry

By Neuroskeptic | July 20, 2014 2:43 pm

A fascinating little paper in Brain examines Neurology and psychiatry in Babylon. It’s a collaboration by British neurologist Edward H. Reynolds and Assyriologist James V. Kinnier Wilson.

The sources they discuss are almost 4,000 years old, dating to the Old Babylonian Dynasty of 1894 – 1595 BC. Writing in cuneiform script impressed into clay tablets, the Babylonians left records that (unlike paper) were inherently durable, so many of them have survived. All understanding of cuneiform was lost, however, for thousands of years, only to be deciphered in the 19th century.

The texts reveal that

The Babylonians were remarkable observers and documentalists of human illness and behavior. However, their knowledge of anatomy was limited and superficial. Some diseases were thought to have a physical basis, such as worms, snake bites and trauma. Much else was the result of evil forces that required driving out… many, perhaps most diseases required the attention of a priest or exorcist, known as an asipu, to drive out evil demons or spirits.

For instance, one tablet provides an overview of epilepsy and seizures.


The text shows a detailed understanding of the symptoms and prognosis of this disorder, which the Babylonians called miqtu. However, they didn’t think it had anything to do with the brain. Rather,

Throughout the text, the Babylonian conception of epilepsy as a supernatural disorder due to invasion of the body by evil demons or spirits is evident, sometimes with individual names for the spirits associated with particular seizure types. The first line states:

‘If epilepsy falls once upon a person [or falls many times] it is the result of possession by a demon or departed spirit.’

Nonetheless some of the clinical observations are spot on:

The following account of a unilateral focal motor seizure, which today we call ‘Jacksonian’, illustrates the accurate attention to clinical detail by Babylonian scholars:

‘If at the time of his possession, while he is sitting down, his (left) eye moves to the side, a lip puckers, saliva flows from his mouth, and his hand, leg and trunk on the left side jerk (or twitch) like a newly-slaughtered sheep – it is miqtu. If at the time of the possession he is consciously aware, the demon can be driven out; if at the time of the possession he is not so aware, the demon cannot be driven out’

Babylonian physicians were obviously aware that the early motor components of the episode can proceed to loss of consciousness, when it became harder to drive out the demon.

The Babylonians were also aware that epilepsy could kill, writing that

‘If an epilepsy demon falls many times upon him and on a given day he seven times pursues and possesses him, his life will be spared. If he should fall upon him eight times his life may not be spared’

Although there is in fact nothing special about the number seven, this might be an allusion to the fact that prolonged unremitting seizures (what we call status epilepticus) can be fatal. Seven was presumably chosen as the ‘cut-off’ because it was a well-known magical or sacred number.

Another tablet describes what is now known as schizophrenia-like psychosis of epilepsy – when someone who suffers seizures develops paranoia and hallucinations…

‘…a demon then begins to inflict him with (ideas of) persecution so that he says – although no one will agree with him that it is so – that the finger of condemnation is being pointed at him behind his back and that god or goddess are angry with him; if he sees horrible, alarming, or immoral “visions” and is (consequently) in a constant state of fear; if he engages in periodic outbursts of anger against god or goddess, is obsessed with delusions of his own mind, evolves his own religion, and says – although (again) they will not allow it – that his family are hostile towards him and that god, king, his superiors and (city) elders treat him unjustly… and he has no desire for female relationships…’

Reynolds and Kinnier Wilson say that, as well as epilepsy and stroke, Babylonian sources describe irrational behavioral states that seem to correspond to our ‘psychiatric’ diseases, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. Yet, interestingly, the texts contain no account of the ‘inner’, subjective symptoms of these disorders, even though today, these are considered the essence of ‘mental’ illness. The Babylonians simply didn’t write about

subjective thoughts or feelings, such as obsessional thoughts or ruminations in obsessive compulsive disorder, or suicidal thoughts or sadness in depression. These latter subjective phenomena only became a relatively modern field of description and enquiry in the 17th and 18th centuries, possibly under the influence of the Romantic movement. This raises interesting questions about the evolution of human self-awareness.

ResearchBlogging.orgReynolds EH, & Kinnier Wilson JV (2014). Neurology and psychiatry in Babylon. Brain PMID: 25037816

  • templeruins

    The last part I’m not clear on. I can’t believe the authors really think that, 3000 years ago, we were not able to recognise our own subjective thoughts.

    • DJH

      I agree that it is intriguing, but the same has been said about the ancient Greeks. It makes one wonder if our (very real) experience of being a mental-self isn’t simply a modern concept…

    • J. Fischer

      They may not have felt that was important enough to call attention to.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I think the claim is not that the Babylonians actually had no awareness of subjective things, but that they didn’t consider it important to write about them.

    • Ibn al-Haytham

      They seem to allude to this rather strange idea:

      • EvoDevo

        Bicameralism, a theory originally put forward by the late Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, does seem strange at first glance. However, for those who are willing to take the time to really understand the ideas and the evidence, Jaynes was incredibly insightful and bicameralism provides more explanatory power about a variety of subjects ranging from, for example, schizophrenia to oracles in classical Greece, than any other theories I have encountered. Jaynes himself was clear that many of his ideas were hypotheses and needed much more research. However, ever since I first encountered his writings 25 years ago, I have not read any substantive refutations of his work, and subsequent research in neuroscience and other fields has only supported his arguments. The web site provides many resources for understanding Jaynes’ ideas and has a useful section that catalogs and answers many of the criticism about the bicameralism theory.

        As Neuroskeptic says below, Reynolds and Wilson do not claim Babylonians has no self awareness, but the absence of any mention of self awareness is consistent with Jaynes’ work.

      • Marmalade
  • Robert Sloan

    The Bible also claimed epilepsy was caused by demons. Matthew 17:14

    • Neuroskeptic

      Interestingly, the Old Testament doesn’t say much about demons. When illness is ascribed to supernatural causes, it comes direct from God e.g. the plagues of Egypt.

      But by the time of the New Testament, demons appeared… or rather reappeared, like in Babylon 1,500 years before.

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      • Flanders’ Porn Stache

        Fantastic observation. The signature of plagiarism can be found throughout the evolution of the religions of their time.

        The basic example – the flood:

        I thought this was an interesting writeup on the history of Jewish thoughts on demons and the evolution of those beliefs:

        And I thought this makes some great points that help shape the picture of evolution, and cross pollination, if you will, between Jewish mysticism, Greek “daemons” , and how these influences helped mold the beliefs of satan and demons in the official church of Rome – Christianity. Old habits die hard.

        Religious ideas and beliefs spread like viruses, from region to region, mutating and evolving, just like everything else. IT”S EVOLUTION BABY!!!!

    • Darren Woolsey

      Literalist interpretations are useless. . .

    • Flanders’ Porn Stache
    • Charles Brown

      These texts are far older than the Bible. Actually, about as far removed from Matthew, as the New Testament is from germ theory.

    • Marmalade

      I lived in North Carolina back in the mid-1990s. It was in a mountainous area near the Blue Ridge Parkway and Asheville.

      I got to know some of the locals. There was some poor working class people and it very much is part of the Bible Belt. Even living in South Carolina, I never met so many hardcore Fundamentalists. They were nice people, but they sure took their religion seriously.

      I was riding along with a friend on one of the many winding back roads. I was shocked to see a sign that was an official public health message informing the public that epileptic seizures are not caused by demonic possession. It never occurred to me that was something people needed to be told at this point in time.

  • Frank Blankenship

    I have a problem with your inventing a scientific discipline that didn’t exist in Babylonian times. Psychiatry, proper, didn’t come about before the word was coined in 1808. (Or, perhaps a better way to put it is that what we call psychiatrists today were called by something else before that date, Alienists or Mad Doctors.) Neurology, even though the word goes back to 1681, is still a long time after Babylon. Sure, there were doctors, priests, and soothsayers responsible for these things way back when, but let’s keep everything within its correct time context please. Thank you.

    • loop

      Thanks for that amazingly uninformative, useless comment. Nobody cares what you think he should call something in his article Frank… Go home.

      • Neuroskeptic

        No, he has a point. Babylonian “neurology” and “psychiatry” are anachronisms. However I think the post itself makes that clear – and as for the title, the original paper’s title does the same thing.

  • George Stewart

    The Babylonians were mostly correct in their neurological-supernatural-diagnoses. We have just lost this ‘correct view’ as our technology and understanding of material (biological/chemical) causes have expanded. In other words, we no longer see the forest for the trees. The prodromal symptoms of many idiopathic neurological disorders point directly to an unseen spiritual being.

    • loop

      LOOOOOL…. George. Man I needed that, thanks for letting me laugh. To think that anyone actually believes what you’re saying is just awesome. I mean, who can be that stupid? Wait, wait, I got a magic crystal in my house that can put you in touch with the vibrational frequencies of the universe, should I send you one? It is only $19.99

      • Christopher Roy


      • George Stewart

        Loop, do some research on a Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis…He was the ‘father’ of antiseptic procedures and, like many pioneers in science, was ridicueled for his belief, in the evidence, that clean hands saved lives. Few, even today embrace evidence, they just suffer from confirmation bias. Or perhaps they are concerned about embarasement from peers and others for even suggesting what appears to be impossible or even crazy.

        I merely suggest(ed) that one look (objectively) at the prodromal symptoms associated with idiopathic neurological disorders. Examples: #1 – tingling skin associated with the onset of many epileptic seizures and why the focus often moves across the body, #2 the same complaints of a moving tingling sensation are found in those with Tourette’s syndrome, etc. Also, why would the focus of pain, being suffered by a migraineur, shift in a moment from one side of the head to another? In addition, schizophrenics often display a hand-waving or head-wiping mannerism which is certainly indicative of an unseen stimulus.

        Remember, there is no science unless one considers all the possibilities!

        • Flanders’ Porn Stache

          Perhaps the unseen stimulus occurs beneath the skull – in the gray matter – and not by some unseen spiritual being?

          Let’s do consider all the possibilities before jumping straight to spirits, demons and goblins. Certainly we’re better than that. Certainly we’ve come further than that. (not really)

          Science takes you where the evidence leads you, not where your superstitious beliefs tell you to go.

          I’m hoping you’ll now tell us you’ve met and spoken with a demon. Please do.

          • George Stewart

            Flanders’, bias creeps into your argument by placing the supernatural at the end-of-the-line of possibilities. This is why the truth eludes science…

          • Flanders’ Porn Stache

            Feel free to provide evidence for the supernatural. That onus is on you if you claim it.

            We both know you can’t. Who’s biased here?

          • George Stewart

            Flanders’, my claims are based on empirical evidence, gathered through years of personal experience. I provide this empirical evidence on my website through white papers and a book. I also provide the needed information, through my book, for each individual to have the required proof.

            That said, I believe that technology is now sufficient for existence of the supernatural to be proven in a laboratory environment. What technology, I don’t know…Perhaps a portion of the spectrum beyond the visual, or something else..? Or, perhaps it is a subject verifiable only on an individual basis.

          • Flanders’ Porn Stache

            Your orb images are probably just reflections off particles of dust and water molecules floating in the air. It’s really just a good example of bad photography, no offense.

            You’re confusing empirical evidence for confirmation bias. Just because you feel something, doesn’t make it true.

            Now, if you’re selling a book, I expect you will stick to your guns. Your schtick is nothing new.

            People have been selling spiritual gobbly gook for as long as people have been dumb enough to believe it. Deepak Chopra, Jimmy Swaggart, the Pharasies… it’s all equally bs.

            Could there be a supernatural realm? I guess. But there is zero evidence for it. Only smoke and mirrors, and claims of a secret knowledge by those who seek to prey on the ignorant.

            How’s your book selling?

          • George Stewart

            Objectively speaking, it probably sells better than it should, subjectively it could do better.

            I am with you on most of what you write. I am not a believer in faith. I was just like you before having supernatural experiences. I’ll admit that a supernatural experience, from the material perspective, is certainly harder to believe than if one declared aliens often land in his/her backyard for a spot of tea…Faith? They’ve got to be kidding!

            Before I close this argument, I’ll give you one example, from my book: Think back to a time when you had a verbal argument with another individual and were then physically separated. You may recall continuing the heated battle in your mind as you verbally sparred with a voice you thought your own. Effectively, this mental bantering is effortless and very fluid. What is actually happening is that the two individuals are continuing their verbal argument, but it is subsequently occurring by what is colloquially known as telepathy – communications via thought. Preliminary evidence for this has already been gathered in a laboratory environment where researchers show the correct portions of the brain light-up prior to the specific question being asked, verbally. Obviously precognition of some sort. I’ll just call it telepathy. This is how we pray to the Creator, who does not have physical ears with which to hear. It is how spirits, who do not have vocal cords and tongues, communicate with one another and it is the primary reason the religions of the world are behavior centric (you’ll have to read the book for an understanding of this point). Finally, I’ll add that telepathy is seldom in words and most often in the form of ideas and thoughts – love and hatred being two strong ones that are mutually shared. I could go on-and-on, on this subject.

          • Flanders’ Porn Stache

            Telepathy? It’s more likely racing thoughts due to stress than telepathy (or whatever you want to call it). I’d like to see some of this preliminary evidence you claim. Got a link to support your claim?


            It’s very common, as you can see in the Reddit thread. I think the best explanation is that we experience situations, and replay them for survival. How would we handle it differently next time? How can we practice handling it differently?- by replaying the conflict in our heads and changing the narrative.

            Changing the narrative to make ourselves feel better is extremely common. Humans live in a constant state of denial just to get through the day.

            Essentially, that’s what all religion is – a socially acceptable form of mass delusion that makes people feel good.

          • Longmire

            The physical scientifically provable mechanism for telepathy is the fact that “minds” synchronize with other “minds” when communicating.


            This article shows that information is transposed on the brains of the listeners (if they “understand”)when spoken to, which doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. What is “known” in one brain is “known” in the other which is by its definition is telepathy. Socially dominate people understand this intuitively and use it to there advantage on a daily basis.

          • Flanders’ Porn Stache

            That’s not an article, it’s a paper submitted for peer review. Happens every day. Apparently, it didn’t make a whole lot of noise. Venkman’s experiment at the beginning of Ghostbusters comes to mind.

            Want to challenge your beliefs in psychic powers? Read this with an open, logical, rational mind.


          • Longmire

            So am I the boy who got the answer right, but am wrong for answering it? Each persons “reality” is probably only suitable for experiencing by that individual. To be honest if I had the opportunity to show a blind man what I see (meaning literally let my perception be known) I wouldn’t, but I would try to describe it objectively. “Reality” is perceived not narrated, but as you pointed out most people only
            live their story without noticing what they perceive if it strays from the script.

    • Flanders’ Porn Stache

      George, don’t listen to loop. His crystals are crap. They were tuned by the Nephilim and are therefore off by fraction – enough to cause demons to ENTER not exit. These are very, very dangerous.

      This week I’m offering a buy one get one free deal on Mayan tuned crystals (they had direct contact with the forerunners) and are guaranteed to vibrate at or above spec. They’re OEM. Never go aftermarket.

      And screw you, loop, for trying to hock your spurious minerals on this site. Leading one down the dark path can come back on you 90 fold. Your ox will wither. Your house will stink. Your entrails will bulge and come forth like the snail. Learn from that.

  • Charles2424

    In America today using prayer to eliminate the demons is still going on, and perhaps works better than the health care system in the richest country in the world for its poor.

  • Moudhy

    Thank you for this wonderful post! I’m an Assyriologist as well. It’s actually not entirely true that terminology for subjective thoughts and feelings were absent from Akkadian medical literature (e.g., words for depressed states such as ashushtu, words that describe fear or terror, such as pirittu). In fact, some of these occur in descriptions of epilepsy. But for the most part, yes, they definitely did organise the experience of mental disorder and distress around somatic symptoms (at least in the written record). In terms of disease causation, epilepsy is not unique in being ascribed to ghosts, demons, etc. Supernatural causation underpins all aspects of life in ancient Mesopotamia, including politics, astronomical phenomena, and illness. Anyway, I look forward to reading Ritter and Kinnier Wilson’s article. Excellent post — thank you again!

    • Neuroskeptic


    • Marmalade

      I’m not an expert. But I’m deeply curious. I’ve read a fair amount about ancient civilizations, often in relation to the issue of languages. There have been a number of academic books that have questioned how we tend to interpret words from ancient languages, often projecting modern meanings onto them. I just wanted to note that this is an area of much disagreement, even among or especially among experts.

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  • Diana Wright

    I have an account of depression & suicidal thoughts by a young Italian woman in 1429.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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