Student with epilepsy shares a unique bond with Vincent Van Gogh

June 22, 2023

By Deron Hamel

Emily Greer says Vincent Van Gogh “has a special place” in her heart.

Like Emily, the famous Dutch painter lived with epilepsy and even wrote about living with the condition. But there’s something else Emily sees in Van Gogh that others may not. And this comes from looking at one of his most famous paintings, Starry Night.

The painting is a nighttime scene depicting a bright crescent moon and plenty of stars encased in bright yellow halos hovering over a village. Some scholars see the halos as having a religious significance.

“However, based on personal experience, I see something different: the auras I experience just before having seizures,” Emily says.

Auras are commonly felt by many people living with epilepsy just before a seizure begins.

“It is possible that Van Gogh, who also lived with epilepsy, experienced colourful auras which then found their way into many of his stunning paintings,” Emily says.

And like Van Gogh, Emily is an artist. She’s also planning to become a teacher and will be entering teachers’ college in September. Her goal is to pass along her passion for art with her knowledge that there is, as Emily puts it, “an upside to epilepsy.”

Emily points to a research paper by Steve Schachter from Harvard Medical School called Sparks of Creativity: The Influences of Epilepsy in Visual Art. The study argues that people living with focal epilepsy often have increased creative potential.

“I certainly know that living with epilepsy has impacted my artwork, along with my confidence in my having artistic creativity,” she says.

“Having seizures and experiencing auras are an important part of who I am, and as an aspiring artist, these auras have had a positive impact on many aspects of my work. My artwork, and soon my teaching, will continue to reflect these positive lived experiences.”

As a teacher, Emily says she wants to influence “the attitudes of future generations” of children who are living with epilepsy and their peers.

“By advocating for inclusion in most extra-curricular activities, I can also ensure these students are not teased or ostracized, which does far more harm than epilepsy itself,” Emily says.

Emily is one of four recipients of Epilepsy Ontario’s 2022 annual scholarship. For more than 15 years, Epilepsy Ontario has been providing scholarships to exceptional students who have confronted and overcome remarkable barriers in their academic and personal lives due to their epilepsy.

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