Abstract An analysis of multigrid electroencephalograms (EEG) derived from two different persons suffering from petit-mal epilepsy is performed. Using a previously devised method for analyzing spatio-temporal patterns (Uhl, et al., Z. Phys. B 92 (1993) 211–219), we find a suitable mode decomposition of the EEG. Additionally, we are able to extract a three-dimensional dynamical system which describes the dynamics of the patterns as a kind of mode interaction. We show that the spike-wave behavior characteristic for petit-mal epilepsy arising in the dynamical system is related with Sil'nikov-type behavior of the mode dynamics.