27 January 2014

Against the 'graine

Painting 150, 1961, by Manolo Millares. Stare at it long enough you can just about see your nightmare waving back at you
Tate Modern, London, 18th January, 2014
I suffer from migraines. I have for many years now, but recently they have taken on a very particular, oddly painless form. It will start in the periphery of my eye, normally the left one, and I will get what I call "cross-hatching", where just at the very edge of my vision I will start to see a series of intersecting and overlapping lines, slightly curved and spherical, like a grid that has been pulled over a ball until it is stretched out like a fishing net. It will the start to flash, alternating back and forth between black lines on a white background and white lines on black, all the while growing in size to encompass more and more of my vision as my eye itself seems to bulge under a terrible pressure, until all that I can see out of that eye is down through a narrow tunnel surround by strobing lines.

In the past, I would suffer from crippling pain when this happened, but as the frequency with which these attacks occur has increased, so to has the pain per attack decreased, yet normally it is still accompanied by dizziness and nausea, so I am incapable of doing much beyond collapsing in a darkened room and waiting for it to pass. When there was pain, I would dose myself up with painkillers, but as the pain has become more of a rarity I normally just try and ride it out now.

Oliver Sacks has suffered from migraines all his life, and they were the subject of his first publication, the descriptively named Migraine. In a piece in the New York Times he had this to say about these accompanying visuals, which are quite common to sufferers:
"...we still have only a very primitive understanding of what, to my mind, are among the most intriguing phenomena of migraine — the geometric hallucinations it so often evokes. What we can say, in general terms, is that these hallucinations reflect the minute anatomical organization, the cytoarchitecture, of the primary visual cortex, including its columnar structure — and the ways in which the activity of millions of nerve cells organizes itself to produce complex and ever-changing patterns. We can actually see, through such hallucinations, something of the dynamics of a large population of living nerve cells and, in particular, the role of what mathematicians term deterministic chaos in allowing complex patterns of activity to emerge throughout the visual cortex. This activity operates at a basic cellular level, far beneath the level of personal experience. They are archetypes, in a way, universals of human experience."
I've written about this before, and the circumstances that have triggered attacks in the past, but unless you have experienced migraines yourself it is very difficult to describe the experience. I was in the Tate Modern a week or so ago, and came across the above piece, Painting 150, by Manolo Millares, which the gallery describes in the following way:
"Millares began making collages in 1954 using materials such as wood, fabric and sand. From the beginning his work was characterised by the rough textures of his materials and by his way of tearing, bunching, tying and stitching his materials together. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s he employed a particularly austere colour range to create images from which, although abstract, a human figure seemed to emerge. Millares called this figure the homunculus, a term that he associated with ‘man in a primitive state’."
While I have encountered numerous pieces that have triggered migraines (particularly abstract geometric forms), few have come close to actually encapsulating how I feel during one.

In a migraine, I am stripped down to a primitive state, and through that I can see something beyond the normal levels of perception. What mystics have attributed to the external and numinous, Sacks ascribes to the inner mathematics that governs us all. It is funny how I cannot accept the concept of the divine, but am willing to believe that a malfunction in my head connects me directly to the hidden chaos at the core of my being.

This connection is one that I have come to no longer fear, I just wish it wouldn't happen so often.

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At 12:45 am, Blogger Alex Leonard said...

The New York Times quote is interesting. Makes me think of one possible reason for the 'breathing' and other common 'visuals' after consuming hallucinogens.

Have you had your sleeping patterns analysed? I remember reading how a lot of migraines are related to jaw clenching during sleep. Probably everyone says that when you say you get migraines.

At 11:38 am, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

I've been monitoring my sleep patterns for about 8 months now, and have changed a fair few of my habits. The problem for me is a lack of continuous sleep - I wake up 8-10 times a night - and thus a serious lack of deep sleep/REM sleep.

Hand't heard about the jaw-clenching, what interested me about Sack's piece was the throw-away line about low-blood sugar. Since my pancreas doesn't work, it affects the production of insulin and diabetes or sometimes hypoglycemia can result. I don't thin k I have either, but the migraines did increase noticeably after I got sick.


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