A Beautiful 1870 Visualization of the Hallucinations That Come Before a Migraine

Headaches number among humanity’s most common ailments. The headache-related disorders known as migraines may be rarer, afflicting roughly fifteen percent of the population, but they’re also much more severe. Besides a headache that can last as long as three days, migraines can also come with various other symptoms including nausea as well as sensitivity to light, sound, and smells. They even cause some sufferers to hallucinate: the visual elements of these pre-migraine “auras” might take the shape of distortions, vibrations, zig-zag lines, bright lights, blobs, or blind spots. Sometimes they also come in color, and brilliant color at that.

Those colors jump right out of this 1870 drawing by English physician Hubert Airy, with which he sought to capture his own visual experience of a migraine. He “first became aware of his affliction in the fall of 1854,” writes National Geographic‘s Greg Miller, “when he noticed a small blind spot interfering with his ability to read. ‘At first it looked just like the spot which you see after having looked at the sun or some bright object,’ he later wrote. But the blind spot was growing, its edges taking on a zigzag shape that reminded Airy of the bastions of a fortified medieval town.” As Airy describes it, “All the interior of the fortification, so to speak, was boiling and rolling about in a most wonderful manner as if it was some thick liquid all alive.”

To a migraneur, that description may sound familiar, and the drawing that accompanied it in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1870 may look even more so. Called “arguably the most beautiful scientific records of migraine aura ever made” by G.D. Schott in Brain, Airy’s drawings “record the progress and expansion of his own visual disturbances” over their half-hour-long onset. Apart from their stark beauty, writes Miller, the set of drawings “anticipates discoveries in neuroscience that were still decades in the future,” such as the assumption that the hallucinations originate in the brain rather than the eyes and that certain parts of the field of vision correspond to certain parts of the visual cortex.

“There’s still much we don’t know about migraines and migraine auras,” Miller writes. “One hypothesis is that a sort of electrical wave sweeps across the visual cortex, causing hallucinations that spread across the corresponding parts of the visual field” — an idea with which Airy’s early renderings also accord. And what about the source of all those colors? Electrical waves passing through parts of the brain “that contain neurons that respond to specific colors” may be responsible, but nearly 150 years after the publication of Airy’s drawings, “no one really knows.” Migraine research of the kind pioneered by Airy himself may have dispelled some of the mystery surrounding the affliction, but a great deal nevertheless remains. Airy’s drawings, still among the most vivid representations of the visual aspect of migraines ever created, will no doubt inspire generations of future neuroscientists to find out more.

via Greg Miller at National Geographic and don’t miss his book: All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey.

Related Content:

Oliver Sacks Explains the Biology of Hallucinations: “We See with the Eyes, But with the Brain as Well”

When Jean-Paul Sartre Had a Bad Mescaline Trip and Then Hallucinated That He Was Being Followed by Crabs

Hunter S. Thompson’s Personal Hangover Cure (and the Real Science of Hangovers)

Free Guided Imagery Recordings Help Kids Cope with Pain, Stress & Anxiety

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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  • Chris Martin says:

    I experienced exactly this for the first time in my 70 years when I was driving and someone flashed their lights at me. It took about 20 seconds to start and increased in severity over the next 15 minutes, after which it started to fade. I thought I was having a stroke. I didn’t get a headache though and there were no after effects. Weird.

  • Tom Smith says:

    I have had this happen to me several times in the last twenty-five years. There seems to be no event which triggers an onset, they just occur randomly. The only thing I can say is that they have always occurred between mid morning and evening. I can “see” it with my eyes open or closed. At first I was afraid it was a symptom of a neurological disorder but this has occurred at random and there have been absolutely no other symptoms of any sort. I have never had a headache I would associate with this occurrence.

  • Arturo Schmitter says:

    Yo he experimentado toda mi vida este tipo de reflejos lumínicos dentro de mi campo visual. Empece a padecerlos desde mis 15 años. Recuerdo muy bien la primera vez. Tuve un dolor de cabeza muy intenso
    que me duro como tres días, con nauseas, malestar general y sensación de boca seca. Mi hermano mayor comentaba que el fenómeno se desencadenaba debido a fuerzas generadas durante el desarrollo corporal
    en crecimiento. Como remedio para la cura de la migraña siempre aplique el procedimiento siguiente. Tomar
    de manera inmediata algún analgésico- recostarse sin almohada, con la cabeza por debajo del nivel del
    cuerpo – Colocar trapo húmedo en la frente, todo en lugar obscurecido y esperar de 25 a 35 minutos.
    La alteración visual es inequívoca, comienza con una pequeña señal oscilante, la cuál crece y se desplaza
    dentro de mi espacio visual. La trayectoria puede tomar cualquier ruta: Empezar a la izquierda a media
    altura y terminar saliendo por la derecha abajo, o iniciar su trayectoria por la parte de abajo y salir por la
    la parte de arriba. Esta visión que experimento presenta colores muy intensos con formas similares a la
    de la ilustración del autor del artículo. No podría verificar que es lo que me causa esta alteración.
    Quizas se debe a la ansiedad, cansancio, deslumbramiento, no lo se. Pero me ocurre unas ocho veces
    al año.

  • MR T FORWARD says:

    saw this once after twisting my neck a bit too far and a bit too suddenly … no headache … might it be to do with restricted circulation ? … the temporary inability of the mind to integrate right and left visual fields ? full twenty-twenty vision was recovered within half an hour

  • Amy says:

    Look up ocular migraine. I think that is what happened.

  • louis f ortega says:

    I have seen this visual phenomena when I have been stressed. No headache but I see this wiggle form as pictured ..it eventually fades. Now I know what It is thank you

  • William Brewer says:

    I have had this happen twice in my later life. The zig zags had the shape shown with bright prismatic colour. The shape expanded over a period of about twenty minutes and then disappeared. There was no associated headache (I don’t get them ). If anything there was an increased sense of awareness with almost a mental or audio hum or vibration.

  • Bruce Levy says:

    Yup. I’m almost 70. I’ve had three ocular migraines in the past 7 or 8 months, never before that. All occurred while in front of my computer monitor. As described they start small and over 20 minutes they expand until out of the field of vision. No headaches though. Ocular migraines can be differentiated from more critical retinal hallucinations by covering one eye at a time. The hallucination in an ocular migraine is the exact same regardless of which eye is closed or covered. If it appears in only one eye, it’s time for a doctor as it could be a sign of retinal damage.

  • jullen says:

    that’s also known as an ocular migraine or a silent migraine.

  • Marta says:

    I have been suffering from this phenomenon for 18 years. At first it looked like a waterfall, but in recent years this vision has been sharpened precisely to this. The aura lasts for +-30 min.Usually comes with a headache, limb weakness, lip tingling and the worst: letter confusion. I check if I can say the ABC when the seizure arrives.No clear trigger.No cure helped so far,no medical marijuana either. Acupuncture has eased slightly

  • KC Meaders says:

    I had been troubled by migraines 5-8 times a week until I had a double bypass operation. No migraines at all during the recovery year and then they took me off of Plavix (generic) then they came back at the same regularity. I talked to my PCP and she agreed to rewrite the Rx for Plavix; no more migraines!

  • Kate McLaughlin says:

    I started getting migraines when I was about 25 (I’m now 73); a friend of mine also had them, but just called them “lights in my eyes.” I never got a headache, but the lights as illustrated above, but without the gray, just the bright colors forming a jagged crescent.

    It’s interesting to me that none of the commenters above experience the pain, as I’ve read that only about 12% of migraineurs have the “silent” migraines. I’ve found chocolate and cheese to be triggers, and have read that red wine is also a trigger (I don’t drink, so I don’t know about that). I feel a need to lie down for 20 to 30 minutes as the experience flows through my brain, and feel better in darkness.

    As I approached menopause I started having them several times a week, including a couple of times when driving my car, which was worrisome. In early 1992 I finally saw a nurse practitioner, who questioned me extensively and then prescribed Zoloft (sertraline), which caused the migraines to stop almost completely, though I can still cause one if I consume too much chocolate or cheese.

    Thanks for the excellent article.

  • Steve Roberts says:

    I started getting these regularly nearly 20 years ago and my optometrist told me the condition is known as a “visual aura of migraine” which rises in the optical nerve but as this contains no actual nerves it causes no pain. The pictures – both multi-coloured and intense b&w – are at the edge of vision and die away after 10 minutes or so, but one can imagine that Art Deco forms may have arisen from this visual aura. Thankfully, I no longer get them.

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