Back in prehistory, in hunter-gatherer days, imagine the dangers faced by a tribe of cave-dwellers. There were saber-tooth cats, cave bears, cave lions, cave-ins, earthquakes, floods, not to mention the dangers inherent in any group of humans living together in close quarters – the dangers of disagreement, of in-fighting and division, breaking the group apart. Such a tribe would need to work as a unit to survive, putting the good of the group above that of individuals, having a role for each group member to play.
Imagine, in such a society, the value of a highly sensitive individual. An individual whose nervous system was very finely tuned, perceptive of danger, aware of undercurrents. An individual who could function efficiently under high levels of stress, at least for a short time. Such an individual could serve as the tribe’s early warning system. Feeling the tremors first, perhaps, grabbing the children out of the way of the predator, warning tribal leaders of undercurrents of division among the group. Sometimes she saw visions, light and color, patterns and pictures only she could see. Imagine that such an individual would be highly valued, would have status, might even be a preferred mate and therefore be more likely to reproduce to hand down her sensitivity to later generations.
She was the one with the migraine brain. And when the crisis passed, her nervous system would let down not with a sigh, but with a crashing, pounding, nauseating headache. With blinding pain, light and sound sensitivity. What use was the migraine to the group, let alone the individual? None at all. Evolutionary traits often carry consequences – the useful sensitivity comes with a tendency to break down when tolerance limits are passed. Migraine is a side-effect of a highly sensitive nervous system. But while the migraine itself did not serve the group, the individual with the migraine brain did, and so we imagine she was cared for, not cast aside as disabled and weak, but nurtured through her crisis, as she had supported the tribe through its crisis.
We are her descendents, and our migraine brains are the same as hers was, all those millennia ago. We are highly sensitive, often artistic, intuitive, perceptive of others’ feelings. We generally function well under stress or in a crisis, to a point. We handle a high degree of stress and go into hyper-drive, accomplishing great things, to a point. But our world is very different from that of our ancestress. We rarely face a saber-toothed cat or a danger of that magnitude. But we face a world of unremitting stimulation, information, noise, flashing light, increasing demands on our time, our brains, our emotions. We face a constant high level of stress. Human brains are not suited to cope with life in the 21st century, especially not migraine brains.
- Megan Oltman
Making Rain out of Migraine
lightning image courtesy of Barrett Anspach
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