One January evening, not long after sunset, my daughter spots the first flutters of London snow, caught in the orange beam of a street lamp. Soon it’s dumping down. We watch an altered landscape emerge. Trees and shrubs transform into abstract statues, their edges softened by an icy shroud. At the open door, the cat puts one paw in the snow, holds it up and licks it. She marks out a trail of perfectly formed paw prints and rushes back inside.
Our house overlooks a small marina and in this confined space the surface water has frozen, the houseboats with their black hulls and strings of coloured lights are locked in ice, abandoned by owners seeking warmth. The scene is beautiful, but something is amiss. An almost indiscernible shimmer appears, disrupting my vision. Translucent lines appear before my eyes, a tiny mirror-ball materialises. It grows and changes shape. A delicate rainbow forms along its rim.
This visual performance is the aura stage of a migraine. Not invited, but tempted perhaps by a heavy-handed ladle of mulled wine or the decadent chocolate we dipped the churros in. My thoughts scatter. The edge of my aura intensifies with geometric patterns and jagged lines of colour. I shut the bedroom door and lie in the dark.
Behind the back wall of my skull, in the brain’s occipital lobe, my visual cortex is hard at work processing errant signals that cascade through—like a longboard surfer’s dream set—wave after wave of activity corrupting normal flow. Neurologists have studied this cerebral excitement, and images captured by MRI scans show a disturbance spreading across the surface of the brain. They remind me of expanding ink stains, or the ground shadow of rapidly moving clouds.
Migraines are mysterious and much remains unexplained. Not all start with an aura and not all auras end in a headache. In the early stages, an aura may resemble a shimmer or an explosion of tiny stars across the field of vision. For me, this phase brings a sense of foreboding—change is imminent. A common aura is a small dot that grows and develops coloured edges. The technical term is ‘expanding fortification spectra’, named for its likeness to the walls of a fortress.
Aura visions are often compared to kaleidoscopes, smashed mirrors or a distorted test pattern, for those old enough to remember the days of tube television sets. The spectrum typically becomes a negative scotoma—a blind spot—and objects look partially erased. Eventually it drifts away. For me and many other migraineurs, this is the cue for the headache, bringing pain and nausea, and the need for a quiet, dark space.
I am emotionally tuned-out. The sound of television laughter floats up the stairwell. Dinner plates clatter. My aura is now fully formed, equally present with my eyes open or closed. Through a gap in the blinds I see a glowing orange sky. The central heating creaks and shudders.
Certain auras are hallucinogenic—mind-altering and at times frightening, bringing a sensation of rapidly shrinking or expanding body parts, a ballooning head or tiny, faraway feet. Some experience a cinematic crash-zoom into a distant scene, Tarantino-style; others see apparitions of strange creatures.
My mother, at almost 80, continues to have auras, but the headaches no longer follow. One episode, for its peculiarity, has stayed with her. Walking alone one afternoon through the Corso in Manly—a pedestrian mall so familiar, a place from her childhood—she sensed something was not quite right. People approaching her looked distorted, their heads bent and misshapen, like characters from Munch’s The Scream. She was forced to sit and wait for her vision to clear, terrified she was suffering a stroke. When she tells me this story, I hear the distress in her voice.
The migraine club—of which I am a reluctant member—is far from exclusive, affecting more than one billion people worldwide, but only one in five of us experience auras. There is a strong yet random familial connection. Neither of my mother’s parents had migraines. My two siblings escaped, I did not. I worry for my daughter. Aged 17, she may yet become a migraine sufferer. Our silent genetic flaw.
It is hard to pin down a specific trigger—for me, a tough day at the office or a sudden change in the weather may be enough to nudge a migraine from the wings. Anxiety and stress are notorious contributors. Migraines often occur on weekends or at the start of a holiday, waiting to pounce just as you exhale.
Many years ago I took a road trip to Queensland with my new partner to meet his family. As we drove along the Bruce Highway, the green and brown patchwork of paddocks looked hazy. I blinked, tried to focus. Flashing lines appeared before my eyes as I rummaged through my bag for tablets, desperate to keep the migraine at bay. We travelled the next hundred or so kilometres in silence, speeding past the Ettamogah Hotel with its distorted walls, past disembodied cowhides slung over timber railings, past a giant pineapple—hallucinations or just odd Australiana—who could be sure?
During my father’s illness last year, a period of sustained worry and sadness for all of us, my mother cannot recall having any migraines. In the six months since he died, she has had nine.
In the mid nineteenth century, author Lewis Carroll wrote several entries in his diaries alluding to auras, describing ‘moving fortifications followed by a headache’. His visions and hallucinations are believed to have inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. A goblin-like figure he sketched years before he wrote the books, later published on the frontispiece of Mischmasch magazine, has body parts either missing or obscured by a circular shape—a negative scotoma perhaps.
The migraineur is, in a way, a strange breed of flâneur, but rather than strolling the boulevards of charming cities, enjoying Renaissance architecture or bohemian street art, we must traverse strange neuro-psychic landscapes strewn with visual distortions, unable to make sense of the colours and shapes.
French painter Georges Seurat is often associated with migraines due to his unusual technique of painting. The pointillist style is characterised by individual dots of colour that, when applied side by side, create images that seem to shimmer. This gave rise to the term ‘Seurat effect’ when describing migraine auras.
Paintings and illustrations in the genre known as migraine aura art have helped doctors diagnose or rule out migraines. In the Middle Ages, Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen documented spectacular visions considered at the time to be religious epiphanies: ‘I saw a great star most splendid and beautiful, and with it an exceeding multitude of falling stars … and suddenly they were all annihilated … and cast into the abyss so that I could see them no more.’
Interpreting Hildegard’s notes and drawings nearly a millennium later, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks diagnosed at least some of her visions as auras, almost certainly caused by migraines.
Images of auras often depict ordinary scenes overlaid with psychedelic colours and zigzags, which I find unsettling in their accuracy. If I stare too long, I imagine a migraine is looming and I am compelled to look away. Perhaps that’s why kaleidoscopes are so commonly cited to describe auras—they are vibrant and alluring, but harmless. Kaleidoscopes connect us to memories of childhood and play—even the etymology of the word has a touch of magic—from the Greek words kalos, eidos and skopeō, translated to mean ‘the observation of beautiful forms’.
Peering into the kaleidoscope’s mirrored cylinder at the changing reflections has a slightly mind-shifting effect, but the experience is benign. There is no sense of the dread I associate with auras. Intricate stained glass windows or mosaic-tiled mosques come to mind with their dreamlike displays of colour and light—splendid and otherworldly, but not migrainous.
I begin to wonder if it is possible, after hundreds of episodes, that I may one day welcome the onset of an aura. Can I learn to trust the visions are not a sign of catastrophic brain failure, only a temporary malfunction? Perhaps it is possible to appreciate the scintillating special effects for what they are—passing visions.
By the time I resurface, my normal vision is restored. The house is quiet, even the cat is sleeping. I’ve missed dinner with my family and it’s no longer snowing. Outside is a wonderland, white and perfect. At the edge of the garden a solitary patch of daffodils has shrugged off the snow, its yellow flowers and spiky leaves the only splashes of colour. Solid, real-world forms, beautiful and undisturbed.