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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Comments (13)
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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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