Migraine Register by Lorie Novak
I recently became aware of the self portraiture work of Lorie Novak and her project, Migraine Register. Since 2009 Lorie has been taking pictures of herself when she has a migraine, which can be as many as 10-15 times a month. What has evolved from her diligent documentation is a nuanced look at this complex disorder. I cannot turn away. The power of this collection is the ability to reveal the ebbs and flows of daily living with migraines that a single portrait could not hope achieve. Spending some time looking through all of these pictures I could sense the pain, and the frustration from the constant derailing of the days events, in a deeper way than other narratives could convey. I can't stop thinking about the power of this collection.
It is very hard to describe the migraine experience, and the host of symptoms that it can bring. Our current medical model of the pain scale does no justice to the incredible range of pain processes that can be experienced. I can't help but imagine a medical model that would allow me to flip through all these pictures of Lorie and pull out the ones that most closely represented what I was feeling, and the discussion around symptoms could start there.
Art becomes the perfect conduit to express these neurological processes in a more integrated way. Lorie represents the migraine not in a bubble, as we are meant to describe it to doctors, but migraine within the context of her day, her life, her responsibilities and her work. The pictures become a look at migraine as interruption, and the ways in which she has to intervene to take care of it, to manage it, to cater to it. These 'Migraine Portraits' are a powerful insight into the complexity of the migraine experience. Many other artists have written about their migraines, but perhaps no other art project has captured it so well and so completely. As someone who has navigated migraines for twenty years I am mesmerized by the accuracy of these pictures. Lorie has written that she hopes to publish the collection into a book, which would be a wonderful addition to any medical syllabus...
You can see the migraine portraits of Lorie Novak here at
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“We may see very clearly how the wrong sound, or “anti-music,” is pathogenic and migrainogenic; while the right sound—proper music—is truly tranquillising, and immediately restores cerebral health. These effects are striking, and quite fundamental, and put one in mind of Novalis’s aphorism: “Every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution.”
― Oliver Sacks
“You keep pressing me,” he said, “to say that the attacks start with this symptom or that symptom, this phenomenon or that phenomenon, but this is not the way I experience them. It doesn’t start with one symptom, it starts as a whole. You feel the whole thing, quite tiny at first, right from the start.… It’s like glimpsing a point, a familiar point, on the horizon, and gradually getting nearer, seeing it get larger and larger; or glimpsing your destination from far off, in a plane, having it get clearer and clearer as you descend through the clouds.” “The migraine looms,” he added, “but it’s just a change of scale—everything is already there from the start.” This business of “looming,” of huge changes of”
― Oliver Sacks-Migraine
All images © Emma Jones 2012-2017
It is hard to explain with words the experience of a migraine. People associate the name with extreme pain, but the other symptoms can be disorientating and surreal. Here are the visual stages of migraine as I experience them.
I had my first migraine at 22. My parents both had debilitating migraines, so I was prepared for pain. However, I was not prepared for the collection of other strange symptoms that started well before the pain and lasted well after it was over. I was at work when the first one visited me, a busy theatre with crowds of loud people. As I struggled to talk to people over the noise I realized that I was losing my sight, slowly at first and then all at once I could only see glistening lights. I managed to struggle through my shift with mounting anxiety as to what was happening to me. What followed was two days of pain and sludge. For the next 22 years I have worked hard to understand them, make friends with them, prevent them and respect them. I hope to learn more about the history of this powerful disorder and the tools that other people are using to navigate these life changing episodes.
Here are the way I experience the visual beginnings of a migraine. The aura usually lasts for about an hour and then progresses into intense light sensitivity.
Migraine Stage 1
Migraine Stage 2
Migraine Stage 3
Send me a picture of your migraine experience to
All images © Emma Jones 2012-2017
"I always wanted to get people’s stories and access to their lives. I feel I’m at the interface of biography and biology, person and person-hood. I remember one man with Tourettes, who wrote and said that he had ‘a tourettised soul’, it affects one and one affects it—there’s a liaison of a sort. A condition is sometimes a collusion, and sometimes a compromise.
Although it’s up to me as a neurologist to diagnose the disease and to think in therapeutic terms, I always want to address the person as much as the disease, and I’m very glad my own doctor feels similarly. I’m not just a case to him, I’m a person responding to the situation. So I somehow sit between the biology and the humanist point of view."