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Chopin's hallucinations may have been caused by epilepsy

Two researchers in Spain analyzed descriptions of Frederic Chopin's hallucinations from those close to him. They propose the 19th century French-Polish romantic composer suffered from a type of epilepsy that produces conscious hallucinations that last from seconds to minutes.
Two researchers in Spain analyzed descriptions of Frederic Chopin's hallucinations from those close to him. They propose the 19th century French-Polish romantic composer suffered from a type of epilepsy that produces conscious hallucinations that last from seconds to minutes. (AP)
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Sara Reardon
ScienceNOW
Monday, January 31, 2011; 5:44 PM

In 1848, Polish composer and piano virtuoso Frederic Chopin was performing in Paris when he suddenly stopped in the middle of a piece and left the stage. In a letter to a friend, Chopin later wrote: "I was about to play the [Funeral] March when, suddenly, I saw emerging from the half-open case of my piano those cursed creatures that had appeared to me on a lugubrious night at the Carthusian monastery."

Although Chopin's family and friends interpreted such episodes as the colorful workings of a sensitive and brilliant mind, a new scientific paper offers another hypothesis: Chopin suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, which caused him to have frequent hallucinations.

"Our aim was to split the romanticized cliche from reality in order to better understand his life," says the study's lead author, radiologist Manuel Vasquez Caruncho of Xeral-Calde Hospital in Lugo, Spain.

Perhaps because of the tortured-artist archetype and this particular artist's well-documented poor health, Chopin, who died in 1849 at the age of 39, has been a popular subject for posthumous diagnoses. Originally reported to have died of tuberculosis, the composer probably fell victim to cystic fibrosis or liver disease, according to extensive research by medical historians. However, researchers have paid little attention to his neurology; doctors during Chopin's time knew little of psychosis and nothing of epilepsy.

Caruncho's paper draws heavily on descriptions of Chopin's behavior by friends and pupils who reported finding the composer late at night, "pale in front of the piano, with wild eyes and his hair on end," unable to recognize them for short periods. He spoke often of a "cohort of phantoms" that haunted him, of seeing his friends as the walking dead, and feeling "like steam."

Only a handful of neurological disorders produces the phantasmagoria that tormented Chopin, who didn't abuse drugs or alcohol. The visions he described, such as demons crawling out of his piano, are now known as Lilliputian hallucinations: detailed visions of people or objects that are much smaller than they are in life. The authors rule out schizophrenia and other common psychoses because Chopin's hallucinations were visual, not auditory, and because he lacked other telltale symptoms. His short hallucinatory episodes are a hallmark of temporal lobe epilepsy, according to the paper published online in the journal Medical Humanities.

This article is from ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science. Read the original, Frédéric Chopin's 'Madness' Diagnosed.


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