What it looks like inside a migraine

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It can be hard to explain how your world looks to someone whose reality is very different. That’s especially true for people with epilepsy and aura-filled migraines.

Increasingly, instead of struggling to explain with words, people with these illnesses are producing art that does a better job.

The artists begin to feel less isolated and alone. Their doctors get a better understanding of the symptoms they are trying to treat. And researchers gain new insights into how some neurological diseases affect the brain.


“If you have a migraine, you may have visual disturbances, you may have sensory disturbance and you may have pain,” says Klaus Podoll of the department for psychiatry, psychotherapy and psychosomatics at the University Hospital Aachen in Germany. “It is often very difficult for patients to describe something like that in five or 10 minutes. In a picture, you can show them all, at the same time.”

Photos: The artistic expressions born of brain disorders

Epilepsy, he adds, can bring similarly complicated sets of symptoms — and with a picture, “you can immediately be sympathetic and understand what a patient is suffering.”

The idea that migraines could inspire compelling art has been around since at least the 1970s, when Derek Robinson, a marketing representative for an international pharmaceutical company, came up with the idea of having a migraine art competition as a way to promote a new drug for the condition. The response was overwhelming.

Over the next 10 years, the British Migraine Assn. (now the Migraine Action Assn.) helped sponsor four British competitions that collected more than 900 paintings and illustrations from migraine sufferers around the world. Further publicity came from British neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, who included 15 of the images in a 1992 update of his book “Migraine.”

A series of American competitions followed the British ones, and the field of migraine art was born; since then, plenty of artworks have been sold, bought, acclaimed and displayed in galleries.

In late 1990s, Podoll began to study nearly 600 images from Robinson’s collection and asked more than 130 of the artists for descriptions of their illnesses. He documented his findings in a series of research papers and in the 2008 book “Migraine Art: The Migraine Experience From Within.”


In many of the images, Podoll found depictions of unusual, bizarre and overlooked symptoms. During some auras, for example, migraine sufferers may feel as if parts of their body are becoming extraordinarily large or small. Or they might see double, triple or quadruple.

Patients can be wary to tell their doctors of symptoms like these, fearing diagnoses of mental disorders. But seeing drawings by other sufferers that show the same symptoms can validate and reassure them, Podoll says. The art can also help doctors see symptoms they may not have known about before.

Migraine art (along with offshoots for other kinds of skull pain, including tension headaches and cluster headaches) has helped legitimize illnesses that have a long history of stigmatization. As a growing number of artists who have migraines have begun talking publicly about how their headaches and auras have influenced their art, scientists, in turn, are starting to reanalyze the work of famous artists whose hallucinatory styles may have arisen from neurologically driven visual disturbances.

Georgia O’Keeffe is one example, Podoll says. So is Lewis Carroll — whose auras, Podoll suggests, might explain the strange experiences of Alice in Wonderland. There is also convincing evidence that visual migraine auras inspired Giorgio de Chirico, who founded the pre-Surrealistic style of Metaphysical art in the early 20th century.

Some neurologists have wondered if Pablo Picasso suffered from migraines, although the evidence for that is poor.

Epilepsy art too has been featured in books and gallery shows. Like migraines, epilepsy is both a neurological and a silent disease, profoundly affecting those who suffer from it. Seizures can bring hallucinations, dreamlike states, chaos and fear, but the illness remains hidden to just about everyone else.


Through art, valuable dialogues about the disease open up, says Steven Schachter, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston and president of the American Epilepsy Society. And there’s evidence, he adds, that the disease might in some way be responsible for the artists’ inspiration.

Some will depict the experience of a seizure, which can involve distorted vision, music and other fleeting and difficult-to-describe experiences. Others show what it’s like to live with epilepsy between seizures, with themes of loneliness and ostracism and images of empty pillboxes and other constant daily reminders. A third set of artworks shows the anxiety and depression that often go along with the disease.

Schachter points to an epilepsy-inspired photograph he finds especially powerful: A man representing an epilepsy patient is dressed as a clown, standing in a busy public space. The clown stares directly at the viewer as the crowd buzzes by. Nobody looks at the clown.

“It can be an unburdening of a person when they draw a seizure or in some way try to express their experience,” Schachter says. “When they encounter other people who’ve done the same, they don’t feel so lonely anymore. They are part of a community.”

Photos: The artistic expressions born of brain disorders