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Did Chopin have epilepsy?
January 24th, 2011
04:30 PM ET

Did Chopin have epilepsy?

Frédéric François Chopin may have died in 1849, but he's still picking up credits for music in movies, such as the rebooted "Karate Kid" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." And, even more surprising, doctors are still trying to diagnose his condition.

Chopin, who had bad health throughout his life, had some kind of pulmonary illness that led to his death at age 39, and whatever that was is still up for debate. Was it cystic fibrosis? Tuberculosis? The world may never know, but doctors and music enthusiasts are still guessing.

Now, two Spanish researchers are tackling a different side of Chopin's health: The strange behavior and visions he reportedly saw on several occasions. They report in the journal Medical Humanities that Chopin may have had temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition that hadn't yet been described in medical literature during the composer's lifetime. Dr. John Hughlings Jackson is credited with advancing the understanding of epilepsy and epileptic seizures in the 1870s.

It's therefore practically impossible for Chopin's doctors to have suspected epilepsy, but the hallucinations seem to fit that diagnosis, said Dr. Manuel Vazquez Caruncho, radiologist at the Complexo Hospitalario Xeral-Calde in Lugo, Spain, and lead author of the study.

"What interested me was separating the romantic vision of Chopin from the reality," Vazquez Caruncho said. "Many people, in his era and afterward, interpreted his hallucinations as the manifestation of a very sensitive soul."

In 1848, Chopin wrote in a letter to the daughter of his girlfriend George Sand:

A strange adventure happened to me while I was playing my B flat Sonata for some English friends. I had played the Allegro and the Scherzo more or less correctly and I was about to play the 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 [Majorca]. I had to leave for a while in order to recover myself, and after that I continued playing without saying a word

On another occasion, Sand wrote, Chopin thought he saw his father and his friend Jan Matuszynski in a hallucination while he had a high fever after a dental infection.

The letters reveal that Chopin's hallucinations seem to have lasted from seconds to minutes, and that he mostly had these experiences in the evenings or when sick with a fever.

Study authors note that it is possible to have a migraine aura without a headache, but this usually occurs in people over 50. They also rule out toxicity, although Chopin did take many remedies for his maladies such as "opium drops on sugar." Visual hallucinations from toxicity are usually abstract, but Chopin recalled his more vividly, and started having them before taking frequent medication.

Other indications that Chopin had epilepsy include the symptoms of anxiety, fear, and insomnia that can precede epileptic episodes, which Chopin appears to have experienced as well. He also experienced a dreamy state of "jamais vu" - in which a familiar situation seems at the same time unfamiliar - that has been documented as part of epileptic seizures.

It is unknown whether epilepsy could have influenced Chopin's music, but we know that the sadness of exile in Paris, as well as poor health, could have contributed to the melancholy of his music, Vazquez Caruncho said.


soundoff (69 Responses)
  1. KantSpel

    Does anyone edit this stuff? Very obvious discrepancy in Chopin's timeline here: "Frédéric François Chopin may have died in 1849..." vs "In 1948, Chopin wrote in a letter...". Perhaps he was just hallucinating he was writing a letter in 1948? More coffee!!!

    January 24, 2011 at 23:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • vincent

      Maybe you should have your vision edited.

      January 25, 2011 at 06:54 | Report abuse |
    • InLove0607

      You may want to read a little closer before typing. The letter was wrote in 1848, he died in 1849. Nothing in the article at all about the 1900's. Sorry to correct you.

      January 25, 2011 at 07:34 | Report abuse |
    • Dude Man

      It was a typo that got fixed.

      January 25, 2011 at 09:47 | Report abuse |
    • dave

      @ InLove060- written instead of wrote, sorry to correct you.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:27 | Report abuse |
    • da'tripper

      Or perhaps you should learn to read??? It says he may have died in 1849, but he is still blah blah blah. Perhaps you would understand it if they had written "Although he died in 1849, blah blah blah. And I still haven't seen 1948 in this article.

      January 25, 2011 at 11:49 | Report abuse |
    • oh the irony of ironing

      @da'tripper: Oh the irony. If you look at the comments here, you'll see that there WAS a typo, then it was fixed. In fact, an earlier comment in this "thread" mentioned it.

      January 25, 2011 at 16:11 | Report abuse |
    • kaplooie

      We're talking about epilepsy and a brilliant composer and KantSpel is dwelling on a typo in the date. Geez, some people are like freakin' computers. You leave out a semicolon and they get wound up.

      KantSpel, get a life.

      January 25, 2011 at 16:43 | Report abuse |
  2. KantSpel

    Oh! I get it! He MAY have died in 1849...but apparently didn't because he wrote a letter in 1948!

    January 24, 2011 at 23:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • wow...just wow

      Dude it clearly says "In 1848, Chopin wrote in a letter..." Don't attack the story until you've had a chance to double check your accusations.

      January 25, 2011 at 07:32 | Report abuse |
    • Dude Man

      There was a typo that got fixed, and now the commenters are looking like they're lamer than the iReport section.

      January 25, 2011 at 09:45 | Report abuse |
  3. darrell cooper

    Good info

    January 24, 2011 at 23:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. laurie

    This sounds much more like bipolar II disorder with psychosis. Anxiety, depression, insomnia and hallucinations, they are all very common with this condition. Bipolar disorder is also commonly found in creative personalities.

    January 25, 2011 at 01:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mr. Lemur

      Hallucinations? pfh. Clearly, the creatures in his piano were cats.

      January 25, 2011 at 03:52 | Report abuse |
    • StayAtHome

      No, it sounds like temporal lobe seizures. Like the ones my 6-year-old has on occassion-and he has auras and is musically talented.

      January 25, 2011 at 08:32 | Report abuse |
    • phinks3#

      No, everyone's wrong. Especially CNN. It's obviously whatever affliction I can relate to most immediately through friends/family. Duh! The fact that many afflictions have the same symptoms is moot.

      January 25, 2011 at 08:52 | Report abuse |
  5. Kevin H

    What is WRONG with CNN? I've noticed the grammar and spelling errors are getting perceptibly worse. It's embarrassing as a reader to know they care so little.

    January 25, 2011 at 02:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Pbn2Au

    Great fan of his music. If it takes epilepsy to guide a person down this strange path then I'm glad for it. I've also had epileptic friends that write obscure, yet eloquent & beautiful music. It's truly amazing. If we were all robots we'd be doing the same programmed, tedious work until one of us malfunctioned. That malfunction would give us this great variable that changed everything.

    January 25, 2011 at 02:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • InLove0607

      As someone with the disorder, I'm not. If you only knew the hell anyone with this goes through on a daily basis............ Don't be happy that anyone has it. PRAY for a cure, PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! There is no cure yet, only ways to temp. mask it, and haven't found any of those that work for me yet either. (5+ years and still waiting)

      January 25, 2011 at 07:40 | Report abuse |
    • phinks3#

      I doubt epilepsy had much to do with his composition. Undoubtedly, you can't live through something like this and not have it affect your life and thus your work, but some of his best compositions were written before epilepsy had taken any significant hold.

      January 25, 2011 at 08:56 | Report abuse |
  7. eric gieseke

    he looks good in the picture
    time traveler i gyess

    January 25, 2011 at 02:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. eric gieseke

    he looks good in the picture
    time traveler ?

    January 25, 2011 at 02:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Margherita

    Interesting, I never knew that!

    January 25, 2011 at 02:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. tonedeaf

    quick put a wallet in his mouth!

    January 25, 2011 at 03:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • InLove0607

      Whatever you do, NEVER PUT A WALLET IN SOMEONE'S MOUTH! YOU CAN MAKE THEM STOP BREATHING! I know your trying to be funny, but you weren't. That was a stupid idea thought up by someone watching someone else having a seizure and felt the need to do something to help. They killed their friend doing it. The only thing you can do is make sure they are laying down, get some pillows around them and time the seizure. When they come to, stay with them until they can tell you what month & year it is, they might not remember for a while. It usually takes me 20-30 minutes to come back from La-La land. Calling 911 is always a good idea too. Most people go into a child like state for some time. (According to my Doctor, it a self defense, your brain doesn't want you to remember the seizure.

      January 25, 2011 at 07:51 | Report abuse |
    • joe08

      I agree with inlove, and it may sound like we're busting your chops (no pun intended) but we're afriad if someone reads that and goes yeah we should put something in his mouth, that could be very bad.

      January 25, 2011 at 08:41 | Report abuse |
    • Me too

      These may help people to understand. I personally have several seizure disorders along with other conditions which removes the option of surgery. When I had one where a person stifens then the body jerks about, it was mentioned in a video below, a cop went to put pillows around me and moved things out of the way. When he put the pillows around me, my reflex caused my arm to jerk and he got punched. (on occasion, my hands, feet and spine will contort)

      I tend to stop breathing for a bit unless someone tells me several times,to breathe. I also 'travel', walk about and not realize I'm doing it. Smelling something burning, hearing things that don't exist, losing cold/hot sensations and many other happenings, are also common. (forgive any typo's and some of the wording may not make sense. I'm doing the best I can seeing my seizures come throughout the day and during sleep)

      There are trained dogs called "Seizure dogs" or "Service dogs" that sound quite helpful however, the cost starts at $6000.00 and up.

      It wouldn't be uncommon for Chopin to have hallucinations. I believe it's safe to say the treatments back then were limited.

      @InLove0607, here is a bit of info that may (or may not) help. Food for thought. I hope you find something to help you.

      January 26, 2011 at 15:36 | Report abuse |
  11. ShamanNora

    Maybe he just saw interdimensional beings? One doesn't have to be crazy or ill in order to see spirits/interdimensionally. His music does show a sensitive soul. Not knowing how to interpret these visions could have caused him anxiety. And really, who cares now if he had this or that illness? Does it change how one feels about his music?

    January 25, 2011 at 03:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Taylor

      I agree, we will never really know what went on with his health. We do know he was very sad after George Sand left him and he was still in bad health. Sadness can make you see and feel many things. I think he put all his emotions into his music which makes it so beyond beautiful. And I highly suggest listening to Raindrop Prelude by Chopin- its my favorite song ever(Horowitzs' version).

      January 25, 2011 at 07:45 | Report abuse |
    • Me too

      May I ask shamanNora, are you truely a shaman or just a name you chose? just curious

      January 26, 2011 at 15:46 | Report abuse |
  12. ShamanNora

    If that portrait of him is true to how Chopin actually looked, he was a very sweet and sensitive soul. Just look at him!

    January 25, 2011 at 03:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Scott

    It never ceases to amaze me how many famous people there are and were who brought such joy to millions through music, acting, comedy, writing, and various forms of artistry. Yet so often, their personal lives were so unhappy and filled with various miseries. I have to wonder if a lot of highly gifted people receive some sort of curse along with their great talents.

    January 25, 2011 at 03:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. viva Chopin

    just hit play on Grande Polonaise Brillante

    January 25, 2011 at 04:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Pete

    Um, who cares?

    January 25, 2011 at 04:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Pete

    I don't mean that he was an amazing composer though. I just think that there are better ways for historians, scientists, etc. to be spending their time.

    January 25, 2011 at 04:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pete

      I don't mean that he WASN'T an amazing composer though. I just think that there are better ways for historians, scientists, etc. to be spending their time.

      January 25, 2011 at 04:28 | Report abuse |
    • Me too

      Hiya Pete,
      Maybe it's in the eye of the beholder. For those with seizures, it may be a great help to better understand history.

      But I do understand the point you're making

      January 26, 2011 at 15:44 | Report abuse |
  17. chan

    Can yall not read. It says the letter was at 1848 and he died 1849

    January 25, 2011 at 04:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Henry Miller

      CNN fixed their typo.

      January 25, 2011 at 06:50 | Report abuse |
  18. Mariya

    Medical historians believe Chopin had cystic fibrosis. His death is attributed to TB, however at the end of his life the stethoscope was developed and his lungs did not have the characteristic TB sounds. Additionally he was very careful about his diet, not eating fatty foods, to eliminate typical fat malabsorption issues found in CF. (Today CFers take supplemental pancreatic enzymes to compensate for this problem) Although he lead a lifetsyle that included many women, he never fathered a child. This also points to a probable diagnosis of CF since most men with CF are clinical sterile due to absence of the vas deferens. Additionally Chopin had a sister who died of a similar respiratory illness, who possibly was affected by CF as well.

    January 25, 2011 at 06:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Mariya

    It is possible to have CF in additon to bipolar disorder or epilepsy.

    January 25, 2011 at 06:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. rachbell

    We were left with wonderous music from this man. This exercise in trying to pinpoint exactly what condition he had would be better spent trying to find a cure for any of the various conditions he 'might' have had.

    January 25, 2011 at 07:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. gabrialsmommy09

    i agree! he had great music! either way no matter how he died! there are better ways to spend money rather than on how he died! at this point it doesnt matter, doesnt change who he is or his music what so ever! as interesting as this article was. i think there are better ways to spend money.

    January 25, 2011 at 08:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Steve Martin

    I think the disease he had was called "Happy Feet".

    January 25, 2011 at 08:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Tom

    Because of the headaches which prelude the visions, I'd have to say epilepsy is likely the cause. However, there are a number of us out there called synesthetes, some of whom (such as myself) who literally see sound. When music is played, I see lots of colors and images. Look it up.. it's pretty neat.

    January 25, 2011 at 08:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. mimsey

    Opium drops on sugar will do it, sure enough.

    January 25, 2011 at 08:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. RabiaDiluvio

    I get migraine aura without headache all the time. It still seems as likely as epilepsy (if not more likely) to have caused his "visions."

    January 25, 2011 at 08:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. OGJ

    Chopin even has his own vodka named after him! seriously!!! "Chopin: Potato Vodka" imported from Poland. look it up!

    January 25, 2011 at 09:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. larry

    having played Chopin for 18 years as a classical pianist was one of the most daunting things I have ever done. I was able to visit many of his places that he resided in including the monestary in Valldemosa Mallorca. Fantastic and absolutely majestic music. The stories of his torment could be anything-I doubt seizures. who knows, who cares–just embrace the product of this life and his genius–never a symphony, minor concertos–all music for the paino to sound like an orchestra–beautiful.

    January 25, 2011 at 09:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. ShockyShah

    I thought he had botchulism. Bad meat in his can.

    January 25, 2011 at 09:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. BGannon

    does it really matter?

    January 25, 2011 at 09:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Justamom

    Hugh Grant will always be Chopin to me....

    January 25, 2011 at 10:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Brian

    "What is WRONG with CNN? I've noticed the grammar and spelling errors are getting perceptibly worse. It's embarrassing as a reader to know they care so little."..........

    Contemporary American "journalists" write and speak in journalese. You have to translate journalese into standard English. These people go to college for four years to learn how to use non-standard English.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Britt

    That's interesting. I love Chopin's music, especially his pieces written in minor keys!

    January 25, 2011 at 10:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. anna

    He probably had syphilis.

    (That's not a joke- some forms can cause seizures. Schubert had the same thing...)

    January 25, 2011 at 10:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. PianoSoulos

    True art is about identifying with the trimpushs and tribulations of the artist. I donlt think it is important to identify what may have led to such experiences, but to indentify that they did exist and led to great art.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Betty

    I know someone else who suffers from hallucinations? "I Can see Russia from my house"

    January 25, 2011 at 10:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Doug

    Interesting, though I find it sad that they summed up Chopin's influence in a pop reference to some medicore films, you'd think they'd have put at least one sentence in there about him being the most influential pianist in the last 200 years, a composer who's work now forms the cornerstone of the modern concernt pianist's repetoire? No...something completely innane and irrelevant about the karate kid and benjamin button was far more important...did the author even know who Chopin was?

    January 25, 2011 at 13:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Burbank

    I think it was opium that caused the hallucinations. They don't truly know when he started taking it, it's just a best guess based on letters and such. I remember as a California hippie kid smoking mildly opiated pot in the 60's and it can cause vivid hallucinations that ordinary pot is incapable of producing. Thank goodness they don't put that in pot anymore!

    January 25, 2011 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. doublescheckem

    his biggest problem was dating a frenchwoman

    January 25, 2011 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Lori

    I read somewhere once that there are not a lot of famous people willing to talk about their epilepsy because it carries a social stigma. I don't know why... you cannot help it if you have it. Famous people cheat on their spouses in public, drink and drive, act stupid and all sorts of other thing that they CAN control... why would they be ashamed of something they CANNOT control?

    January 25, 2011 at 15:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • OvernOut

      John Roberts, current Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court has had two known seizures, and meets the definition of a person with epilepsy. He did offer to resign, his offer was rejected. He could do so much for persons with epilepsy if he would just come out and say that he has it. My daughter has epilepsy, and she says "we need a Michael J. Fox in our corner". You would be surprised at how many persons have seizure disorders and go underground with them, so they will not lose their jobs or their friends. There is so much bad information out there. Anything you see on TV dramas regarding someone having a seizure is wrong, especially anything on "Law and Order" or "House".

      My local library has two shelves full to bursting on autism, only one 30-year-old book on epilepsy–and it's a crappy cookbook! There are three million Americans living with epilepsy, you'd think there would be some interest in setting people straight about the facts.

      January 25, 2011 at 16:04 | Report abuse |
    • Galina12

      You could control you epilepsy symptoms with the ketogenic diet. It works for me. It deserves to be tried .

      January 25, 2011 at 20:44 | Report abuse |
  40. NurseBetty

    Hello – If he took opium regularly – these visions could be from him tripping – especially with CF the opiates would have effected him more strongly, perhaps. . Or, epilepsy, which of course he could have had along with CF. His music is what we should focus on – the $ for this study could have been spent on CF research.

    January 25, 2011 at 17:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Galina12

    I have an epilepsy without seizures, it was diagnosed during electroencephalogram while I was having a migraine attack. I indeed had some mood problems, which cleared on the migraine medicine. And the sensation of a dreamy state of "jamais vu" is very well familiar to me. There is also something positive – when I have some technical problem to solve, most of the time I have a mental vision of the solution, like something in my head thinks for me.Nowadays I manage the migraines and mood-swings through the ketogenic diet. Works even better.

    January 25, 2011 at 20:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Me too

    No The LSD Cowboy

    January 26, 2011 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. grigori

    I'm one of the examples of bipolar overlapping temporal lobe epilepsy. Seems I have a scar on the left temporal lobe from a brief febrile coma when a baby. MAN it's difficult going undiagnosed when you're hallucinating, yet know you're rational and not delusional! (No one had yet told me not all hallucinations meant schizophrenia.)
    And yes, TLE seems to go hand in hand with artistic sorts–perhaps because some of the "fugues" or dreamlike jamais-vus and intense deja-vus can help one to focus creatively. But of course the true greats probably have real talent in addition to any such condition.
    Van Gogh and Dosteovsky are thought to be artists for whom a mere bipolar or clinical depression diagnosis didn't explain everything; temporal lobe epilepsy seems to fill in the cracks.
    And I'm convinced Joan of Arc and religious mystics and saints and village shaman probably had a dose of TLE spurring them on as well.

    January 26, 2011 at 17:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. razzlea

    http://razzlea.blogspot.com/

    January 27, 2011 at 09:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Asia Trossbach

    Epileptic seizures result from abnormal, excessive or hypersynchronous neuronal activity in the brain. About 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, and nearly 80% of epilepsy occurs in developing countries. ..-"'

    My own web page
    http://www.healthdigest101.comhs

    June 20, 2013 at 11:36 | Report abuse | Reply

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