Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Trip the Light Fantastic

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.
From here.

From here.
From here.
From here.
From here.
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?


Marion said...

I've read a couple of articles and a couple of novels about this idea that many of history's mystics were migraine sufferers. It sure does seem like it's a particular part (or parts) of the brain that is misfiring.

Lyndsey said...

It's so good to see this documented. I have had 2 visual disturbances in the past, but they weren't like this one. A few minutes ago one like this started. The others were not spiraled, but this one started out so small and just kept growing. I rushed home and had to see if anyone else had experienced this. Thanks for posting, I was sure I was stroking out.

Brian Fies said...

Lyndsey, happy to help!

Unknown said...

I had a visual migraine today and never feel like I can fully explain it. I always use the flag banners from a used car lot refracted and prismed to define them. This is IT! Mine are much brighter. Primary colors and still refracted light, but this is it. Thank you for putting it into a picture. BTW, my husband said I did a wonderful job of describing it when I showed this to him.

Brian Fies said...

Unknown, I'm very glad I could help visualize this for you. It's hard to describe! I like your flag banner analogy. Thanks for commenting.

8littlepaws said...

I got my second one of these today and found your site while researching it. Sounds mostly harmless. Mine was much like the subtle one in which I didn't see distinct lines or colors that weren't there, but there seemed to be a vibrating semi circle in my field of vision. I couldn't read or write during it, it affected my vision too much. However mine (both times this has happened) was more strongly on my left side.

I too find it fascinating that this happens to so many people.

Do you have any tips for how to help relieve the symptoms? All I could do was sit and close my eyes . I had no headache at all with it.

Brian Fies said...

8littlepaws, I'm not a doctor, so it's best to ask one. But I've had some success, when I first feel a migraine coming on, of taking a double dose of an NSAID like Advil. It seems to shorten the attacks and make them easier to get through. Otherwise, not really...sitting quietly with eyes closed (and accepting that I'm just not going to get anything done for the next while) is sometimes the best I can do, too. Best of luck!

Jane said...

I'm glad the visual part of mine has gone away, otherwise the captcha would have been Impossible, not just difficult per usual.

My description is like that expanding sphere toy, but made of crystals (and only half)...I found this neat video of "the original sphere."

Thank you for putting this page together!

Brian Fies said...

Jane, your description of an aura as an expanding sphere toy is perfect. I have one of those, and will use that metaphor in the future! I'm glad you found something useful here.

Anonymous said...

I too am fascinated by the phenomenon. Mine begins as a small light like the afterimage of a reflection of the sun off of a shiny surface. Then it grows to the familiar crescent shape. It continues to grow as the details become more defined as colored flashing zigzags. It eventually monopolizes my field of vision then slowly shrinks till it slides out of range and my vision returns to normal. The whole thing lasts almost exactly 20 minutes.

The images I have seen that represent others' experiences are eerily similar to mine. I wonder if there are historical descriptions recorded anywhere and if so, how the episodes were explained.

My final comment here (I read a lot of science fiction): what if we are all connected in some way that goes beyond just a sharing of symptoms, and that connection manifests itself as the crazy light show we all experience.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Anon. I like the way you think. I'm not a migraine scholar, but I think the visual aura were described in ancient Greece. No doubt spirits and demons were common and convenient scapegoats.