Harry Potter, migraines and the neuroscience of self

A funny article in the medical journal Headache discusses Harry Potter’s difficulties with what seems to be a recurrent migraine. This isn’t the first time that Harry has turned up in the medical literature. In fact, he’s made almost 20 appearances so far.

However, this is the first to consider his neurological problems in detail:

Harry Potter and the curse of headache.

Sheftell F, Steiner TJ, Thomas H.

Headache. 2007, Volume 47, Issue 6, p911-6.

Headache disorders are common in children and adolescents. Even young male Wizards are disabled by them. In this article we review Harry Potter’s headaches as described in the biographical series by JK Rowling. Moreover, we attempt to classify them. Regrettably we are not privy to the Wizard system of classifying headache disorders and are therefore limited to the Muggle method, the International Classification of Headache Disorders, 2nd edition (ICHD-II; pdf). Harry’s headaches are recurrent. Although conforming to a basic stereotype, and constant in location, throughout the 6 years of his adolescence so far described they have shown a tendency to progression. Later descriptions include a range of accompanying symptoms. Despite some quite unusual features, they meet all but one of the ICHD-II criteria for migraine, so allowing the diagnosis of 1.6 Probable migraine.

The young wizard also appeared in a recent fMRI study [pdf] that investigated which brain areas would be most active when children and adults thought about themselves compared to others.

In the study, participants were brain scanned while being shown short descriptions and were asked to indicate whether they best described themselves or someone else.

One difficulty is that the ‘someone else’ needs to be well known to both children and adults, so Harry Potter was chosen.

In the final study, when participants judged that the phrase described themself, rather than Harry, the medial (midline) part of the frontal lobes were relatively more active.

Interestingly, this area was significantly more active in children than adults, possibly suggesting that this task requires more effort for children and becomes easier as we age.

Link to PubMed entry for Harry Potter headache article.
Link to abstract of self vs other study.
pdf of self vs other study.

One thought on “Harry Potter, migraines and the neuroscience of self”

  1. Dear Daniel…

    Please know that the cluster headache community is saddened to learn of your diagnosis. The pain severity is an unknown to the other 99% of the population and sadly with the term “headache” in it’s title misleads those 99% into believing they have common knowledge of the pain experience. “Oh, I’ve had one of those once. I went to bed for a day”. Which of course, you know is not plausible for cluster headache patients.

    My first attack came at age 15. Please look into a new start up bio-pharmaceutical whose sole purpose is to bring an effective, affordable and available treatment to market through clinical trials. They currently have one very promising treatment in the pipeline. Dr. John Halpren is dedicated to our advocacy and cause and is one of the founders of Entheogen Corporation.


    May this cycle end soon, and may this treatment be available for you, et al, should the cycle return.

    Be Well,
    Cindy Reynolds
    Cluster Headache Advocacy
    Washington DC “Headache on the Hill”
    March 27th, 2012
    Alliance for Headache Disorder Advocacy
    ClusterBuster Team

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