The Scintillating Scotoma


Me: Wait- what? Why can't I see? Brain: Surprise!

Surprise! Scintillating scotoma!

It was the middle of the afternoon. I had just taken a short walk with my husband and followed it up with a glass of lemonade and a chapter from my book so really there was no reason why I should have suddenly lost part of my vision. I was literally picking up my keys to go run some errands when I noticed it. You would have thought that I would have noticed it sooner- being a big blank spot in my field of vision after all. Up until that moment I had just dismissed it as a retinal shadow from sitting in a dim room and looking out a bright window.

“Welp, I guess I won’t be running errands just yet.” I told my husband as I went into the studio to retrieve my coffee cup.

“Why not?”

“I’m missing part of my vision right now.”

You would think that something like this would be alarming to someone like me who has panicked over a partially detached retina and who hopes to make a living in the motion picture industry, but I had experienced it before and I knew it would go away. I also knew that caffeine would make it go away faster.

The technical word for what I was experiencing was a Scintillating Scotoma, which sounds more like the stage name of a burlesque performer than a passing phase of partial blindness. It is similar to the auras experienced by some migrane sufferers, but luckily for me it has always been painless. The “scintillating” part comes from the illusion that the edges of the blind spot are shivering or, well, scintillating. Some people see them as zig-zags or geometric shapes but mine are always plain and watery. The blind spot isn’t black or white or empty- it is just meaningless. To me it looks like sand.

The problem wasn’t with my eyes, but with the part of my brain that interprets what my eyes see. I could tell because the scintillating sands appeared in the same place in my vision even if I closed one eye or the other. It has something to do with changes in blood flow to that part of the brain, but the internet didn’t have all the details and since the blind spot was right in the middle of my field of vision I couldn’t really read that well anyway. I had a cup of coffee and fifteen minutes later it went away.

I don’t really have a higher symbolic point to make with this incident except maybe that just because we lose part of our vision (literally in my case, figuratively in the general sense) doesn’t mean we’re blind or that we’ve lost our way. And maybe the problem isn’t with what we see, but how we are interpreting it. And maybe it happens because of a natural and painless change in our minds.

The solution is the same: be calm, enjoy a cup of coffee, and sit still for fifteen minutes. Everything will be fine.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on May 29, 2013.

One Response to “The Scintillating Scotoma”

  1. I have experienced “exactly” the same thing two times in the last year so I felt like i was reading my own experience.Thanks!

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