Manuscript illumination by Hildegard of Bingen resembling a visual disturbance similar to that experienced during a migraine

It’s weird to think that I was about my son’s age (17) when I started getting migraines. It wasn’t a massive surprise: there were migraineurs on both sides of my family, including my mother and my paternal grandmother. I may have literally dodged a bullet: being susceptible to migraines disqualifies you from pretty much every role in the Royal Air Force, to which I was in the process of applying.

These days, partly through stress management, ensuring I get good sleep, avoiding dehyrdration, and taking some supplements I’ve found helpful, my migraines are both less frequent and less extreme. They’re still part of who am, though, and I know to get off screens immediately and take some of my meds if my vision starts getting distorted.

How to describe a scintillating scotoma? It’s one of the most common symptoms of a migraine, but unless you’ve had one, it sounds unreal. A scintillating scotoma is like a barbed ripple in the pool of sight. It’s a skeletal Magic Eye raised up from the flatness of the world. It’s a glare on the tarmac as you drive West at sunset on a rain-slick freeway—only when you turn your head, it’s still there, so you have to pull over, close your eyes, and wait out the slow-motion firework working its way across your brain.


In the absence of an organizing mind, everything comes unglued. Faces go missing and dark holes seem to eat half the universe. Migraine sufferers can experience the uncanny sense of consciousness doubling known as déja-vu, or its cousin, jamais-vu, in which the world feels newly-made. The world might feel suddenly very unreal, fracture into a mosaic, or slow to a stop-motion pace, dropping frames. The self might cleave in two in a fit of somatopsychic duality. Writing about these bizarre and horrifying perceptual phenomena, the late Oliver Sacks observed that migraines “show us how the brain-mind constructs ‘space’ and ‘time,’ by demonstrating what happens when space and time are broken, or unmade.”


According to Migraine Art: The Migraine Experience From Within, migraine auras are as old as humankind—so old, perhaps, that they may have inspired the geometric forms of Stone Age cave drawings. Which makes recent attempts to generate migraine auras using convolutional neural networks seem particularly poignant to me: what began in stone, animated by the hot flicker of firelight, continues 5,000 years later, deep in the heart of servers whose mineral components were mined from the same dark Earth.

Source: Wild Information

Image: Manuscript illumination by Hildegard of Bingen, 1511 (who was a migraineur)