Diagnosing a Migraine: How Popular Science Helped A Writer Cope

Diagnosing a Migraine: How Popular Science Helped A Writer Cope

--Guest post by Declan Fahy, AoE’s Science and Culture correspondent.

Can popular science writing help diagnose a medical condition? It did for me.

Since I was a teenager I had been suffering occasionally from crippling headaches that made me nauseous and bed-bound, sometimes for days. Before these headaches, my vision would change. It was as if I was watching the world through a pane of glass, half of which was smudged. The dividing line between the smudged part of my vision and the clear part consisted of a jagged, black and white zigzag line. If I happened to be reading, certain words or figures would vanish from the page. If I happened to be outside, half a street sign would disappear as I looked at it.

I explained these headaches to friends, even going so far as drawing out my impression of the visual distortions. Of course, I should have mentioned this to my doctor, who would have diagnosed it quickly. Instead, my epiphany came when, browsing in a bookstore, I opened a copy of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks's Migraine, first published in 1970. There on the book’s pages were sketches and artists' impressions of the visual disturbances and sensory hallucinations that came before the onset of migraines. There were the same jagged lines, the same smudged patches of vision. It was revelatory.

It was clear from the book that I had a visual migraine, a migraine with aura, sometimes called classical migraine. This aura was characterized by an altered perception of color, space and movement – a strange minutes-long disruption of the visual world that was usually followed by nausea and a throbbing pain on the left side of my head. This migraine aura, as Sacks’s mother, a doctor and migraineur, once explained to him, were due to “a sort of disturbance like a wave passing across the visual parts of the brain”.

From reading the book, I learned that my set of unpleasant experiences, the visual strangeness, the headache, the nausea, the occasional inability to speak, the lethargy, the extreme irritability, were not separate, but are part of what Sacks noted to be "characteristic constellations" of symptoms that occurred interdependently around a migraine. I learned that those who had migraines, incidentally, have their own collective label, migraineurs. There was also a section on my particular type of partial blindness that preceded an attack: negative scotoma.

Some of the most interesting sections of Migraine discuss in detail the phenomena of migraine aura. Interestingly, these altered states have been reproduced in works of art, including the paintings depicting heaven by the 12the century religious mystic Hildegard von Bingen and some of the surreal scenes in Alice in Wonderland. Sacks discusses his own experiences in this blog post at the New York Times’s migraine blog, Patterns. At the same blog, writer Siri Hustvedt described seeing lights and little people as part of her migraine aura.

The book, reprinted several times, also features several case histories of patients describing the onset of a migraine attack and how they tried to avoid it: the phlegmatic middle-aged man who knew a migraine was in the mail when he felt the compelling urge to sing, whistle or dance; the psychotherapist whose would notice parts of his patients' faces would disappear during sessions; the man who found vigorous exercise stopped an attack so would arm-wrestle at work; the professor who rushed home to seek relief after a demanding Friday afternoon teaching session.

Migraine is, at times, a demanding read, containing parts that are filled with technical detail – but I couldn't have read it fast enough. I found its value to be not only in its careful and holistic approach to the vast range of physiological, psychological and emotional elements that combine uniquely in each case, but in the fact that the book's case histories put my, comparatively minor, migraines in a wider social, historical and medical context.

This is not to argue that popular science should replace formal medical diagnoses (of course not). There are various motivations for producing and reading popular science – detailing the richness of the natural world, explaining the process of discovery, communicating specialist knowledge to non-specialists, exposing readers to a range of intricate systems of knowledge. All valid reasons. But in this case, popular science was, for me, altogether more personally useful and Migraine remains one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

--Declan Fahy is Assistant Professor at the School of Communication, American University, Washington, DC. Read other posts by Fahy and find out more about the MA program in Journalism and Public Affairs and the doctoral program in Communication at American.

Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

What is the rarest blood type?

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
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China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession

The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.

  • How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
  • One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
  • Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.

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There never was a male fertility crisis

A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.