Emilia Clarke and Ariana Grande: The Effects of Their Disrupted Brains on Stardom

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23: Emilia Clarke attends the 2019 Time 100 Gala at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

It is often said that through a celebrity, one can highlight a problem that is not widely known or is a concern of the public. This was true for H.I.V., which had a stigma late in the 20th century and was often associated with lifestyles that the public (in those times) disapproved of, like homosexuality. It wasn’t until high profile celebrities, like NBA star Magic Johnson, that H.I.V. became a concern of the public and a worldwide movement to tackle it. Johnson, a five times NBA champion and arguably a larger-than-life figure, announced in 1992 that he was infected with H.I.V. As Michael Specter explained in The New Yorker in 2014, “There was no better way to demonstrate that H.I.V. is a virus that can attack anyone than for one of America’s most electrifying athletes to acknowledge that he was infected.” A parallel can be built with two celebrities – Ariana Grande and Emilia Clarke – who’s disrupted brains have become the focus of attention these past months.

Emilia Clarke, Ariana Grande, and Their Disrupted Brains

Ariana Grande, Brain Scans, and PTSD

The first one is music’s red-hot star, Ariana Grande. Back in 2017, the singer witnessed the tragedy of the Manchester terrorist attacks, in which Islamist terrorists detonated bombs during her concert. Although Grande didn’t suffer major injuries or any physical damage, her peace of mind hasn’t been the same since that day.

Ariana Grande’s IG Story highlighting her PTSD brain. (Ariana Grande/Ariana Grande)

Last month, the “Thank You, Next” singer posted on Instagram Stories a photo of a brain scan. She noted on the photo that the scan was both “hilarious and scary” and that this was “no joke.” The brain scan showed a normal brain and her brain suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is widely known that PTSD is triggered by a horrific incident or episode that the person may have suffered or witnessed.

Through this photo, Grande highlighted to the public what a traumatic experience has done to her. This is positive because it takes away the stigma that many PTSD patients suffer and are afraid to talk about it. Many, especially veterans, don’t want to be called “crazy” or “violent,” so they hide or don’t acknowledge their problem. In fact, Grande may be doing a great service for the public in showing her reality and making those less familiar with the subject more compassionate towards PTSD sufferers.

Although Grande’s intentions are good, there’s is some skepticism about her brain scan.  Many have disputed the brain scan that Grande showed on her IG story because is very unlikely to find a specific neural (brain) pattern in a scan that can show or diagnose PTSD. Moreover, the blogger, Neuroskeptic (who specializes in debunking neuromyths and bad neuroscientific papers), wonders on the source and the use of the brain scan that “showed” Grande’s disorder. As he explains, “Most psychiatrists and neuroscientists would not use SPECT or any other type of brain scan to diagnose PTSD.”

Emilia Clarke Opens Up About Her Brain

While Grande’s brain may leave some room for speculation, Game of Thrones actress, Emilia Clarke, has a deeper and more complex history on her brain. Clarke, who has become one of the most recognizable faces of the HBO hit-series, delivered on March in The New Yorker a shocking and heartfelt essay on suffering from two aneurysms.

Clarke, who was basically in her mid-twenties and fresh out of her first season of GoT in 2011, suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH) in a gymnasium in North London. This type of aneurysm is caused by bleeding into the space that surrounds the brain – known as a type of brain stroke. After arriving at the hospital, receiving an MRI scan that showed the bleeding, and going through a non-invasive procedure (endovascular coiling) in which there wasn’t a need to open her skull, Clarke survived the horrific episode.

But, as she states, the worse was yet to come. When one of the nurses had asked Clarke her name, her speech was incoherent. The actress had one of the damages that strokes provoke, aphasia. As Clarke explains, this was a huge blow for her and her career:

“One night, after I’d passed that crucial mark, a nurse woke me and, as part of a series of cognitive exercises, she said, “What’s your name?” My full name is Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke. But now I couldn’t remember it. Instead, nonsense words tumbled out of my mouth and I went into a blind panic. I’d never experienced fear like that—a sense of doom closing in. I could see my life ahead, and it wasn’t worth living. I am an actor; I need to remember my lines. Now I couldn’t recall my name.”

Luckily, after therapy and some weeks, her Aphasia stopped. For Clarke, this seemed to be a bad episode that wouldn’t come back. However, another aneurysm was found. But, the doctors told her that “it was small, and it was possible it would remain dormant and harmless indefinitely.” Clarke continued her life as an anchor of the GoT series and had landed a Broadway play as a side project.

A Second Aneurysm

In 2013, Clarke decided that while her SAG had only five days remaining, she would get another brain scan.  The brain tumor that she was told “not to worry about” had doubled in size and required a procedure to remove. Although she was assured this was going to be a simple procedure, the doctors explained that things went wrong – she woke up with a huge pain – doctors had to open her skull to save her life. Part of the skull removed from the surgery was replaced with titanium and as she has explained previously, her mind has blocked that moment out of her memory.  Clarke’s recovery was even more painful than the first aneurysm she had removed:

“I spent a month in the hospital again and, at certain points, I lost all hope. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was terrible anxiety, panic attacks. I was raised never to say, ‘It’s not fair;’ I was taught to remember that there is always someone who is worse off than you.”

Clarke’s account is one that has vividness, sadness, triumph, and hope. Clarke was a lucky lady in both accounts. In her first aneurysm, only one-third survive without any long-lasting disability. Moreover, one-third of stroke sufferers from SAH die. Her brain had enough plasticity to fight for her life and speech.

Such an account can change how culture might view strokes, aneurysms and the brain itself. Although this complex organ is a popular topic right now, many tend to forget how fragile it is. Moreover, Clarke accounts takes away the view that these types of injuries are reserved for “old people.” In fact, strokes in young adults, like the case of Clarke, are on the rise in America.

Last Word on Celebrities and their Disrupted Brains

Both Grande and Clarke give us a picture that we might not have perceived otherwise. They’re both young and successful artists that seem to have the world in the palm of their hands. We tend to overlook that they suffer too. These two brains are not on the magnitude of Magic Johnson raising awareness on H.I.V., but they do bring awareness to the fragility of life, the brain and the sudden turns of life. In Grande’s case, her brain tells us that PTSD is not on the mind – it is not an imaginary disorder created by the person – and that is okay to talk about it. Clarke’s brain tells us tales about brain plasticity – in which the brain can rewire itself, even after a horrific injury. Moreover, it tells us about the importance of always double checking on the chance of suffering damage to the brain, even at a young age.

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