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Seeing Things: The Confounding, Terrifying Nature of Scintillating Scotoma

I see dead people.

And for a moment I think they’re alive. Until I realize they’re just a paperclip.

I see things. Things that aren’t there. I misinterpret things. Things that are there. There’s the time I saw a flash of light outside the cab I was riding in, and I screamed at the top of my lungs, bracing myself for the impact of the plane that was about to hit.

Then there was the time I saw a snake on the subway steps, causing me to jump and squeal, only to realize that snake was just someone’s missing hair extension.

Before I got sick, I thought hallucinations led to stays at an insane asylum. And now that I get them, I wonder how quickly I’ll be judged when others find out. Would you look at me differently knowing the walls often move around me, creating a mirage in the desert? Would you laugh at me for jumping at the wind?

If you would, I want to tell you this: There are other moments that are just as unpredictable and just as frightening, and I’m sure these moments happen to you. When’s the last time you didn’t see the thing right in front of your eyes?

Cue the breathtaking scene in a movie where the girl with a dozen roses skips joyfully across the street, only to get clobbered by a garbage truck. Neither the girl or we as viewers saw that truck coming.

It’s something we’ve all experienced in our everyday lives. How many times have you said “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you” after cutting someone off?

Maybe you were lost in thought. Maybe you were looking the other direction. Whatever the reason, there is a reason you didn’t see the person standing right in front of you.

So why is it, then, that when I turn a ceiling fan off, I see it come to a halt in my peripheral vision — only to see it start rotating slowly in the other direction? Why isn’t the fan moving when I look up, only to look down and discover it rotating all over again? It’s a game of cat and mouse so deep inside my eyes, nerves and brain that I can’t win.

Have you ever stopped to think about the infinite intricate things our brain is doing in any given moment? Should we really feel shame over one small thing going awry?

My friend Alex has sleep paralysis. His mind occasionally wakes up before his body. Eyes open and unable to move, his chest feels heavy. His eyes won’t focus, but in his periphery he often sees a dark and furry object sitting on his chest.

Talk about frightening. Moments pass before his body wakes to the tension building inside his mind. The momentum often causes him to wake up swinging. Over time, he has come to understand what is happening to his body. But I can imagine multitudes of horrifying situations that can come of waking so abruptly.

I have a lot of questions that science can’t answer yet. But as my neurologist likes to tell me, science doesn’t even know why we sleep. I’ve learned that my eyes aren’t able to track in a variety of directions.

When a subway passes by you, your eye will make little movements that allow you to see specifics of the object breezing past. My eyes? They glaze over, creating an uncomfortable blur, forcing me to turn away since I can’t keep up. When I get migraines, I find myself discovering new, glittery horizons (literally) in the form of auras called scintillating scotomas.

I’m adjusting comfortably to this new life, but I still find myself overcome by shame. I will ruminate for days, weeks and months over ways I have been startled or overreacted unnecessarily. In the beginning I felt relieved to know that I wasn’t crazy (I suppose I should say crazier). I believed my diagnosis would absolve me of my shame. But my diagnosis is just that. A medical diagnosis.

So I want to say this to the person who needs to be convinced that what they’re seeing isn’t really there: You have a scientific and medical diagnosis, just like I do. None of our diagnoses make us crazy (our crazy makes us crazy).

Your brain is acting up, just like my brain is. The only difference is stigma. Society says you should be ashamed of your illness. I wish you and I could feel more compassion for ourselves. I also hope Alex will feel some compassion for himself when he inadvertently decks the one he loves while she is fast asleep.

Seeing Things: The Confounding, Terrifying Nature of Scintillating Scotoma

Liz Jackson

Liz Jackson blogs at

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APA Reference
Jackson, L. (2018). Seeing Things: The Confounding, Terrifying Nature of Scintillating Scotoma. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 2 May 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.