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Brighter Than a Cloud – by Claire L. Evans

Brighter Than a Cloud – by Claire L. Evans

2024-03-12 16:47:51

Lady on couch obscured by c-shape scotoma with black, 1987.

How one can describe a scintillating scotoma? It’s probably the most widespread signs of a migraine, however except you’ve had one, it sounds unreal. A scintillating scotoma is sort of a barbed ripple within 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 sundown on a rain-slick freeway—solely once you flip your head, it’s nonetheless there, so you need to pull over, shut your eyes, and wait out the slow-motion firework working its means throughout your mind.

Medieval migraine victims in contrast the jagged form of their scintillating scotoma to fortresses, and medical literature describes their “fortification patterns.” I by no means fairly understood the analogy till I took a water tour of Copenhagen—as our boat slid down the Øresund alongside the island citadel of Kastellet, I noticed my very own scotoma in stone. A migraine aura, too, has ramparts and ravelins, bastions in opposition to a zig-zag world. At their edges, chaos reigns. The skinny interface between a scotoma and regular imaginative and prescient is a boiling tar, a volley of arrows, a violence of inputs and light-weight. Within the midst of an assault, it’s tempting to assume that notion is at all times at struggle with actuality.

Within the absence of an organizing thoughts, every part comes unglued. Faces go lacking and darkish holes appear to eat half the universe. Migraine victims can expertise the uncanny sense of consciousness doubling often called déja-vu, or its cousin, jamais-vu, by which the world feels newly-made. The world would possibly really feel immediately very unreal, fracture right into a mosaic, or gradual to a stop-motion tempo, dropping frames. The self would possibly cleave in two in a match of somatopsychic duality. Writing about these weird and horrifying perceptual phenomena, the late Oliver Sacks observed that migraines “present us how the brain-mind constructs ‘house’ and ‘time,’ by demonstrating what occurs when house and time are damaged, or unmade.”

Panorama with c-shape scotoma and lacking imaginative and prescient, Nineteen Eighties.

It’s true that migraines supply a uncommon vantage on the mind and its mysteries. Because the scotoma’s shining edges recede throughout your visual field, they hint a corresponding wave {of electrical} exercise, a “spreading despair” crossing the cortex at 3 millimeters per minute. You possibly can watch it occur in actual time, as you would possibly watch a cloud observe throughout the sky on a windy day. You would possibly even have time draw an image of the scotoma because it passes overhead—a panorama en pleine tête.

The Wellcome Assortment, in London, hosts a remarkable collection of such footage: some 545 submissions to a British migraine artwork competitors than ran all through the Nineteen Eighties. Every picture has its personal vernacular appeal. The scotomas explode into tidy residing rooms and block bucolic nation roads. They dazzle a lady’s smile. They arc like ball lightning throughout the faces of row homes. The gathering is value appreciating on an aesthetic stage alone, as elegant outsider artwork, nevertheless it’s useful, additionally, as a result of it reveals the scotoma’s common kind. Like goals, migraines map terrain all of us share.

Face obscured by c-shaped scotomas in black, purple and yellow, Nineteen Eighties.

Perceptual distortions are troublesome to measure, however they are often approximated in paint and pencil, which makes migraine artwork a strong diagnostic and scientific instrument. The earliest depictions of migraine phenomena have been illustrations made by physicians who occurred to be migraineurs themselves, just like the German ophthalmologist Christian Georg Theodor Ruete, who illustrated the three successive phases of his personal “flimmerskotom” in 1845, and the 19th century British physician Hubert Airy, whose ink renderings wouldn’t be misplaced within the Wellcome’s migraine artwork assortment.

Nor, for that matter, would the illuminated manuscripts of the Twelfth-century German Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard, who spent most of her childhood as an anchoress, enclosed in a one-room cell adjoining the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg, described lifelong gripping ache and a persistent umbra viventis lucis: a mirrored image of residing gentle. “The sunshine which I see…is just not spatial, however it’s far, far brighter than a cloud which carries the solar,” she wrote. Descriptions like these, supplemented by her visionary artwork depicting fortifications, mandalas of stars, flaming eyes, and openings within the sky lapped with white-crested waves, have led many neurologists to retroactively diagnose her as a continual migraine sufferer.

Manuscript illumination from Scivias (Know the Methods) by Hildegard of Bingen, 1511.

Does such a analysis negate Hildegard’s holy ecstasies? Is it reductive to pathologize the shimmering visions that led a Medieval abbess to compose a number of the most stunningly beautiful liturgical music of all time? Oliver Sacks, once more, answered these questions properly, in his 1970 e-book Migraine:

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“Invested with [a] sense of ecstasy, burning with profound theophorus and philosophical significance, Hildegard’s visions have been instrumental in directing her in direction of a lifetime of holiness and mysticism. They supply a singular instance of the style by which a physiological occasion, banal, hateful, or meaningless to the overwhelming majority of individuals, can turn out to be, in a privileged consciousness, the substrate of a supreme ecstatic inspiration.”

Hildegard’s ecstatic inspiration was spiritual in nature, however the migraine expertise is non-denominational. Lewis Carroll transmuted his acute migraine signs—the visible disturbances of Lilliputian and Brobdignian imaginative and prescient, which made him really feel as if his limbs have been shrinking and rising away from him—into Alice in Wonderland. Giorgio de Chirico, who suffered from scotoma, depersonalization, déja– and jamais-vu, amongst different migraine signs, repeatedly painted wobbly suns, jagged voids, zig-zags and disproportionate figures into his metaphysical canvases.

In response to Migraine Art: The Migraine Experience From Within, migraine auras are as outdated as humankind—so outdated, maybe, that they could have impressed the geometric types of Stone Age cave drawings. Which makes recent attempts to generate migraine auras using convolutional neural networks appear notably poignant to me: what started in stone, animated by the recent flicker of firelight, continues 5,000 years later, deep within the coronary heart of servers whose mineral elements have been mined from the identical darkish Earth.



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