Journal

Migraine and Creativity – Migraine Part 6

by | Jun 27, 2014 | Editorial

June is Migraine Awareness Month. Throughout the month, I’m sharing parts of my journey and some things I’ve learned along the way.
For most of my life migraine was my nemesis, the enemy that had to be vanquished. And while my quest led me to many healthful habits and reduced severity of the attacks, I never did vanquish them and for a long time did not recognize the gifts they brought me

But then something began to change some years ago when I read Oliver Sack’s book, Migraine. The book greatly expanded my understanding of the migraine mechanism and what he calls the “migraine landscape” in all its complexity. The many case histories and references to famous migraineurs throughout history made me feel less alone in the morass of pain. There is a huge amount of information in this book and much food for thought.

However, the life-changing part of the book came for me in a brief recounting of a case history, introduced at the beginning and followed up late in the book. (Moral of the story: always read the whole book; you never know what nuggets await.) This case involved a creative mathematician who was able to do his work all week but then would suffer a terrible migraine every weekend, culminating in the need to stay in bed most of every Sunday. The attack would eventually pass and he would have a surge of creative energy to begin the work week again. Sacks recounts that he was able to find effective drugs for his patient, but as he says, “when I cured him of his migraines, I cured him of his mathematics, too – he seemed, however paradoxically, to need one for the other.” (p. 268) The patient opted to keep his migraines.

I was stunned when I read this. I had never heard of such a thing. I am certainly no mathematician, but this started me thinking about the intriguing “what-ifs.” What if there is, indeed, a link between migraine and creativity? Was such a thing possible?

Years later I read A Brain Wider Than the Sky – A Migraine Diary, by Andrew Levy (©2009.) He explores in great depth the possible migraine – creativity link and writes about famous people – artists, writers, creative thinkers – who had or seem likely to have had migraine. These include Virginia Woolf, Frederick Nietzsche, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, Gustav Mahler, Frederick Chopin, Sigmund Freud and Thomas Jefferson. Lewis Carroll was known to have migraines and Levy talks about the intriguing possibility that some of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland as she went down the rabbit hole may actually be representations of migraine aura. Likewise, there is speculation that elements of some of Picasso’s paintings may be the same.

The author also writes about neurological issues involved in migraines, including what researchers call the hyper-excitability of the migraine brain. This means that the neurons may fire more quickly than in a normal brain and “for much less inspiration.” (p. 154.) I found the use of the word “inspiration” very interesting since it is so often used in the context of creative work. For me it goes along with the fact that I have so many migraine triggers and it doesn’t take much exposure – an accidental taste of something or a whiff of the wrong fumes, etc.  – for the mechanism to click in.  So I have had to ask myself whether this heightened sensitivity might correlate with a heightened degree of creativity.

I still don’t know the answer for certain; maybe no one does at this point. And while I certainly don’t place myself anywhere near the constellation of luminaires that Levy discusses, I do know that words and drawings come from my pen and that my creative work is very important to me. And by this time I’ve learned enough to know that I am who I am, and I have to accept the whole package. And with that realization comes a great deal of peace.

For most of my life migraine was my nemesis, the enemy that had to be vanquished. And while my quest led me to many healthful habits and reduced severity of the attacks, I never did vanquish them and for a long time did not recognize the gifts they brought me

But then something began to change some years ago when I read Oliver Sack’s book, Migraine. The book greatly expanded my understanding of the migraine mechanism and what he calls the “migraine landscape” in all its complexity. The many case histories and references to famous migraineurs throughout history made me feel less alone in the morass of pain. There is a huge amount of information in this book and much food for thought.

However, the life-changing part of the book came for me in a brief recounting of a case history, introduced at the beginning and followed up late in the book. (Moral of the story: always read the whole book; you never know what nuggets await.) This case involved a creative mathematician who was able to do his work all week but then would suffer a terrible migraine every weekend, culminating in the need to stay in bed most of every Sunday. The attack would eventually pass and he would have a surge of creative energy to begin the work week again. Sacks recounts that he was able to find effective drugs for his patient, but as he says, “when I cured him of his migraines, I cured him of his mathematics, too – he seemed, however paradoxically, to need one for the other.” (p. 268) The patient opted to keep his migraines.

I was stunned when I read this. I had never heard of such a thing. I am certainly no mathematician, but this started me thinking about the intriguing “what-ifs.” What if there is, indeed, a link between migraine and creativity? Was such a thing possible?

Years later I read A Brain Wider Than the Sky – A Migraine Diary, by Andrew Levy (©2009.) He explores in great depth the possible migraine – creativity link and writes about famous people – artists, writers, creative thinkers – who had or seem likely to have had migraine. These include Virginia Woolf, Frederick Nietzsche, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, Gustav Mahler, Frederick Chopin, Sigmund Freud and Thomas Jefferson. Lewis Carroll was known to have migraines and Levy talks about the intriguing possibility that some of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland as she went down the rabbit hole may actually be representations of migraine aura. Likewise, there is speculation that elements of some of Picasso’s paintings may be the same.

The author also writes about neurological issues involved in migraines, including what researchers call the hyper-excitability of the migraine brain. This means that the neurons may fire more quickly than in a normal brain and “for much less inspiration.” (p. 154.) I found the use of the word “inspiration” very interesting since it is so often used in the context of creative work. For me it goes along with the fact that I have so many migraine triggers and it doesn’t take much exposure – an accidental taste of something or a whiff of the wrong fumes, etc.  – for the mechanism to click in.  So I have had to ask myself whether this heightened sensitivity might correlate with a heightened degree of creativity.

I still don’t know the answer for certain; maybe no one does at this point. And while I certainly don’t place myself anywhere near the constellation of luminaires that Levy discusses, I do know that words and drawings come from my pen and that my creative work is very important to me. And by this time I’ve learned enough to know that I am who I am, and I have to accept the whole package. And with that realization comes a great deal of peace.

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