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The University of Southampton

Earliest recorded account of Exploding Head Syndrome discovered in University of Southampton report

Published: 17 April 2018
Portrait of René Descartes
René Descartes was described as the 'father of modern philosophy'

A study carried out by a University of Southampton student has identified the earliest description of Exploding Head Syndrome (EHS), predating the earliest account of the condition by more than 100 years.

The paper, titled ‘Did René Descartes have Exploding Head Syndrome?’ was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, and focuses on the French philosopher’s three successive dreams on November 10 1619. Descartes, described as the ‘father of modern philosophy’, had formerly suggested these dreams were inspired by God and many have suggested that the dreams were of great significance for the development of his subsequent philosophical ideas.

Descartes' influential dreams have been of interest to a number of commentators, including the famous neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Descartes' second dream in particular, in which he heard a loud noise in his head before seeing a bright flash of light upon awakening, has been discussed extensively.

Commentators have employed various medical explanations to account for Descartes' unusual nocturnal experience, specifically migraine aura or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Research by the University of Southampton concludes that Descartes' second dream was not a dream at all; rather, it was an episode of EHS; a benign and relatively common parasomnia.

Based on analysis of a 17th-century biography of Descartes, published by Adrien Baillet in 1691, it appears that the French philosopher not only suffered from EHS, but a description of an episode of EHS he had during his famous 'night of dreams' may be the earliest description of the condition ever recorded.

Abidemi Idowu Otaiku, medical student at the University of Southampton and author of the study, said: “Most people have never heard of EHS, even though research has shown that it may affect one in 10 of us. Despite being harmless, those affected are understandably concerned that it may be a sign of a serious brain condition, and they usually feel too embarrassed to talk about their experience in case they are judged or disbelieved.

“For this reason, I hope the knowledge that Descartes likely suffered from EHS will increase awareness of this unusual, though benign sleep disorder.”

Descartes’ experience following his first dream meets the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Third Edition (ICSD-3) diagnostic criteria for EHS: a sudden loud noise in the head at the wake-sleep transition; causing abrupt awakening and sense of fright; and not associated with significant complaints of pain.

Moreover, Descartes’ perception of the noise as ‘thunder’ mirrors similar cases. Up to 27% of individuals with EHS report the noise being accompanied by a flash of light and around 90% report having intermittent episodes throughout their lives.

Diagnosing Descartes with EHS would have been impossible until fairly recently, given that EHS only entered medical classification systems in 2005.

However, a small number of case reports had been recounted in medical literature prior to 2005. The earliest description of EHS has been previously credited to the American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, who in 1876 described a patient with the complaint of a nocturnal sensation of a ‘pistol shot’.

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