When I was 12 years old, I developed superpowers. I went to bed a normal middle-schooler and awoke to find my senses heightened. My alarm clock sounded like a siren, the sun burned my eyes, and my cereal milk tasted like a cereal milkshake. I could smell the furnace in the basement. Like many ’tween boys, I was a comic book junkie, and thus understood what was happening: I’d transcended humanity and was about to join a loveable gang of mutant heroes who risked their lives fighting evil. Since my other option was the seventh grade, this sounded great.
Sadly, an hour later I found myself crying in an armchair as my first migraine moved out of its aura phase and into what is succinctly (and accurately) known as the pain phase.
It felt like someone took a finger and was pressing it onto my skull. Behind my left eye, my migraine throbbed like a second heart. This one-sided pain is the most common of migraine symptoms, and it gives them their name, which comes from the Greek hemi, meaning “half,” and kranion, meaning “skull.” Hemikranion. (If I’d really been a superhero, Hemikranion would have been the name of my home planet.) But my superpowers were simply side effects: photophobia (sensitivity to light), and phonophobia (sensitivity to sound).
In a way migraineurs are like mutants—or snowflakes: No two are alike. Some of us don’t have the aura phase. Others see bursts of light when we have an episode. A few experience facial numbness. Once, my friend went blind for a day—a particularly terrifying experience because it was a migraine without pain, and it took doctors hours to figure out what was happening. Synesthesia, nausea, vertigo, phantom smells, tingling in the extremities; migraines can produce a stunning variety of symptoms, and last anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
This is part of the reason it’s been so hard to find their cause. Some studies have pointed to constricted blood vessels as the prime mover. Arteries in the brain spasm, cutting off blood flow in the occipital lobe, which houses the visual cortex, creating the hallucinations I experience. When blood flow rebounds, vessels in the scalp dilate and leak. As each heartbeat forces more blood out, nerve cells interpret this leakage as throbbing waves of pain—which is why I felt like I had a second heart inside my head.
Other studies point to a phenomenon known as cortical spreading depression (CSD) as the main cause of migraines. During a CSD attack, neurons hyperactivate in a slowly spreading wave, like the domino theory of Communism. In its wake, this wave leaves exhausted cells depleted of potassium ions, and neural functioning slows or halts. This in turn triggers swelling, inflammation, and a lack of oxygen in the brain—similar to what happens during a stroke.
But the evidence is conflicting, and suggests multiple causes—chemical, physical, situational—interacting to create this mother of all headaches. Recent studies have even pointed to genetic factors, so my dreams of mutanthood were not that far-fetched.
Regardless of the cause, however, about one in 10 people worldwide will have a migraine at some point in their lives. These days, I get one or two a year. In college, when I was permanently stressed, dehydrated and exhausted (all conditions thought to trigger migraines), it was more on the order of one every two months. Most times, I shuttered the windows and dragged myself to bed, to emerge a day later feeling raw, as though my first two layers of skin had been burned away.
Worse were the days I wasn’t home. During one particularly bad episode, I couldn’t walk the last quarter mile to my apartment. Each step sent a blistering wave of pain through my skull, and I was forced to lie beneath a tree on the college quad until the attack subsided—about eight hours.
Yet despite it all, I’m thankful for my migraines. No, I’m not a masochist, but that extraordinary first hour of supersenses kindled in me a visceral understanding of the potential of the human brain. Now I know firsthand that our brains and bodies are capable of things beyond our current understanding or control.
It is a beautiful thing to know that somewhere deep inside you have a reserve of untapped potential. It took a young lover of science fiction and made him a lover of science, which I think of as the study of daily miracles. Who needs to be a mutant? I’ll take humanity, and all that comes with it—seventh grade, splitting headaches, and the vast and exciting treasures locked inside my skull.