I get infrequent migraines. No need for sympathy or treatment advice, they only hit a few times a year and are always manageable. Until I had my first migraine in my mid-thirties, I thought the term was synonymous with "very bad headache," but that's not it at all. A migraine is a neurological civil war.
I was introduced to migraines in a conference room during a staff meeting when I gradually realized I couldn't read the words on my paper. Looking up, my vision was speckled and sparkly, as if Scotty were beaming everyone up to the Enterprise. I freaked out a little (quietly, inside) not knowing if I was going blind or having a stroke. I rode it out for about 20 minutes, then the headache hit. I later learned that such visual fireworks are a common symptom called an "aura" or a "scintillating scotoma." My migraines are mild; the worst put me out of commission for just a couple of hours.
That's not the interesting part. Here's the interesting part.
A migraine hit me a few months ago and I could tell it was one that I was just going to have to ride out, sitting quietly with my eyes closed. What better way to pass the time than to experiment on myself?
By alternately blinking my eyes, I determined that the visual distortion was present and identical in both eyes. No surprise, but that meant it originated in my brain rather than one eye or optic nerve. I already knew that.
I then sketched the visual distortion. It's difficult to draw because it's one of those peripheral vision things that squirms away if you look directly at it (also keeping in mind that "it" isn't real). Now, it's important to the integrity of the scientific process that I stress I did no research in advance. To the best of my knowledge, my sketch was uncontaminated by other people's descriptions or depictions. Here's what I drew:
The little circle diagram at lower right notes that the jagged half-circle spiral effect started small and then grew to take up half my field of vision. Today I sat down and did my best to render it as an animated GIF, putting it against a landscape to try to capture its transparent shimmery essence--as I wrote in my sketch, like "magenta, cyan and white vibrating crystals."
OK, with that in mind, and remembering that I didn't look up other people's aura impressions until after I drew my sketch, here's a sampling I found on the Internet (I did my best to give credit where it's due but can't promise all the links go back to each image's origin):
|This one's subtle, but notice the animated distortion on the left. From here.|
|From here. I like this one especially.|
I find that absolutely FASCINATING!
First, that human brains malfunction in such a specific uniform way. These renderings seem startlingly similar to me, most sharing the same crescent spiral shape I typically see. Even down to the little hooky pointy ends of some of the curves. The idea that a thousand unrelated people will all see the same thing if you apply an X-millivolt short-circuit to one spot of their occipital cortex is almost spooky. It's also fantastic!
Second, that people find such varied and unique ways to document a totally subjective experience. Some of them are quite artistic. These drawings don't all resemble mine, but I can look at each of them and tell that its creator was seeing the same thing I did. Every one of them elicits a "Yep, that's it."
Third, it does make you reflect a bit on the difference between real and unreal, objective and subjective, and how reliable our minds and senses really are. I think that's always useful.
It also occurs to me that in other centuries this sort of thing might've gotten me venerated as a shaman. Or burned as a witch. You'd have to pick your time and place carefully. I figure I'm safe discussing it on a 21st Century blog, though if someone wants to accuse me of having a mutant superpower, I'm OK with that, too.
Brains. Go figure.
EDITED TO ADD a few more examples of "aura art" to the gallery above as well as the great piece below, titled "Illustration of Visual Migraine Aura" rendered by physician Hubert Airy in 1870. Nailed it.
|From the Migraine Aura Foundation, and who knew there was such a thing?|