Idea retraction: Did Picasso suffer migraines? Do ‘guitar nipple,’ ‘cello scrotum’ exist? Ask pigeons

Pablo Picasso, 1962, via Wikimedia

Cephalalgia published a lovely piece online this month. The abstract is a refreshing bit of honesty:

It is widely believed that Pablo Picasso suffered from migraine. The main cause for this is our suggestion made 10 years ago that some of Picasso’s paintings resemble migraine auras. Here we critically look back at our own hypothesis. We conclude that, although the idea is still fascinating, there is no proof of Picasso suffering from migraine with aura.

In other words, say authors Michel Ferrari and Joost Haan: Go ahead, blame us for this important clinical finding, which we first described in an editorial in Cephalalgia in 2000. We’re retracting the idea, but not before we have some fun with it.

So we figured we’d do the same.

The authors describe a number of famous cases of historical diagnoses such as Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess and mystic of the 12th century whose work has led some to suggest she was a migraneur. It’s difficult to confirm such diagnoses, of course, and the authors draw a parallel to other pronouncements by doctors:

Unfortunately, doctors can be misled, just as any other human being. When a medical ‘expert’ makes a statement, there are not many who doubt its truth and investigate the sources. [RW note: Ahem.] Remarkable examples of this are the ‘guitar nipple’ and the ‘cello scrotum’. These were presented as credible diseases (29,30), and quickly were established in the spectrum of health problems associated with making music (31). However, both appeared to be an invention by the authors (32).

Indeed, the BMJ, which published the groundbreaking letter on cello scrotum in 1974, published a correction in 2009 along with a 2008 letter from the authors that began:

Perhaps after 34 years it’s time for us to confess that we invented cello scrotum.

We’re not sure if that’s the sort of thing you can patent, but in any case those intellectual property rights would have expired by now. The letter from the inventors also claimed that a 1974 BMJ letter describing “guitar nipple” — and which prompted their own 1974 letter — was also a hoax, although the BMJ said they couldn’t verify that.

Now back to Picasso. The authors make a comparison we haven’t seen before: Scientists vs. pigeons.

As mentioned before, the audience of a scientific meeting could not distinguish paintings of Picasso from those by migraine patients (10). It has been shown, however, that even pigeons can learn to recognize Picasso’s paintings (33). When confronted with paintings of Monet (who suffered from eye disease) and Picasso (from migraine?), the pigeons had no problems distinguishing them. They even showed a generalization from Monet’s to Cezanne’s and Renoir’s paintings or from Picasso’s to Braque’s and Matisse’s paintings. Showing Monet’s paintings upside down disrupted the discrimination, whereas showing those of Picasso upside down did not.

What appears next is perhaps our favorite line in the piece:

So there was no need to write the present article for pigeons, as they are not to be fooled.

We presume that such an article would have been written in pidgin.

The authors conclude, referring to the the “illusory splitting” phenomenon that they suggested in 2000 could link the experience of migraines to Picasso’s art:

Does cello playing cause pain in the scrotum? Do pigeons like Picasso’s paintings? We do not know. Picasso’s migraine is a wonderful hypothesis, but without evidence. It is impossible to choose between an inspiration for illusory splitting or just an illusion.

Sometimes, it would seem, science is more art than…well, science.

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