“Oh no, not another!” Aura Migraines and Artistic Expression

The other day, I was driving toward the gym after work. I’d had a typical day of staring at a computer screen, drinking copious amounts of coffee, and chatting with patients. I started to feel as though I was “missing” something in my field of view, but couldn’t quite figure out what wasn’t there. By the time that I reached the gym’s parking lot, I was not only limited in what I could see, but a strange twinkling series of images now danced in front of me. I rubbed and closed my eyes, wondering if perhaps I’d gotten a hair or fiber lodged into one of them. The sensation lingered for about 10 minutes before gradually fading away as if it had never occurred. 

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because I was experiencing the visual disturbances commonly known as a migraine with aura. Roughly 25-30% of migraine sufferers can experience visual symptoms; sometimes, as was the case with mine, unaccompanied by any pain.[1] Occasionally, we have concerned patients who call or visit our offices due to the visual disturbances they are experiencing during a migraine with aura. Although these visual symptoms are temporary and often only last between 10 and 30 minutes, the experience can be debilitating if you’ve never experienced one.[2]

I’d hardly describe aura (especially when associated with the intense pain typical of migraines) as being beautiful, but after experiencing the unusual symptoms, I was curious about how other people describe, and depict, their experiences.

The British Migraine Association has collected hundreds of art pieces devoted to the topic of migraines. Many of these pieces offer a metaphorical, if not abstract representation of migraine symptoms, while others are so descriptive that they can even be searched for based on symptom, visual elements, and descriptive elements.[3] Other artists, including the “Father of Surrealism,” Giorgio de Chirico, are thought to have used his personal experiences with migraines to paint, “Spettacolo Misterioso,” among others.[4] Contemporary artist, Sarah Raphael, also found inspiration through her visual disturbances which she used to create, “Strips,” a comic-style collection of abstract shapes and vibrant colors.[5]

If you’re like me, describing “metallic flashing lines like broken glass on a window pane” often does not help non-migraine sufferers understand what could be going on in your field of view. Using oils, pencils, and watercolors as a means of expressing these sensations, artists dating as far back as the medieval period have depicted aura. Each image evokes emotions of “I know how that feels,” as reflectively as the artist must have been intimating, “this is how I feel.” The collective works of these artists serve as a valuable resource for the medical world, where hopefully the renderings of visual apparitions can offer hints at why and how they occur. Further, they contribute a wealth of support to migraine sufferers and non-sufferers alike that can now empathize with the often indescribable sensations they encounter.



[1] “Visual Disturbances: Related to Migraine or not?” American Migraine Foundation: https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/understanding-migraine/visual-disturbances-related-to-migraine-or-not/

[2] “Visual Disturbances: Related to Migraine or not?”

[3] The Migraine Art Collection: Migraine Action. http://www.migraineart.org.uk/

[4] Podoll K, Robinson D, Nicola U. “The migraine of Giorgio de Chirico—Part I: History of illness.” Neurol Psychiat Brain Res 2001;9: Pp. 139-56

[5] Podoll, Klaus and Ayles, Debbie. “Inspired by Migraine: Sarah Raphael’s ‘Strip!’ Painting, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 95:8; Pp. 417-419.


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