Long time ago I read V.S. Ramachandran’s book titled ‘Tell-tale Brain’. It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read in my life. And today, I will write about some fascinating scientific experiments that the author performed himself and writes about in the book.
What are phantom limbs?
Scientists and medics discovered many many decades ago a strange phenomenon where people who had lost a limb would claim that they still felt its presence. I know it sounds unreal and impossible in the first instance. But it’s true. People also said that they felt pain in this lost limb as if it were still very much a part of their body. I read somewhere about victims of the Civil War with the phantom limb phenomenon thinking this was some supernatural intervention.
Mainstream medical knowledge couldn’t explain this phenomenon. Medics could neither identify nor study that source of this unreal pain. Ramachandran trained to be a general physician in Madras, India but eventually pursued a PhD in neurological sciences at the very prestigious Cambridge University. It was here that he realized that the phenomenon of phantom limbs was very much related to neuroscience. He decided to study phantom limbs to understand how the brain functions.
To begin with, you can appreciate that it is difficult to study something that doesn’t physically exist. Worse, when you are trying to treat a patient that complains of irritation, pain and anxiety due to this limb that doesn’t exist. Of the many patients that Ramachandran treated for this phantom pain, one case stood out to me as mind boggling.
Curious case of DS
A patient by the name of DS had suffered from a accident and one of his arms had been amputated 6 inches above his elbow. For a decade, this man had suffered from phantom pain in that he couldn’t move this phantom arm (the arm that he had actually lost) at all and experienced sporadic pains in the phantom elbow several times every day. He apparently felt that this phantom arm was frozen in place. In an attempt to treat this condition, Ramachandran used his mirror box, which had been previously used by him to treat various patients that suffered from phantom limb pains.
What is this mirror box?
It is a box with two holes that a patient is supposed to place each limb in. Of course one is a real limb and the other this limb that they had lost but felt the presence of and pain in. Between these two holes (through which the limbs had to be placed) was a mirror. The top and side of the box were open so the patient could see the limbs. For the purpose of treatment, the patient had to look at the mirror from the side of the real limb. Ramachandran then asked the patient to align the phantom limb exactly with the mirror reflection of the real limb that the patient could see. Miraculously, when the patient aligned his phantom limb with the mirror reflection of the real limb, the pain disappeared!
Ramachandran treated DS the same way. It was slightly difficult for DS as his phantom limb itself was frozen and so placing it within this mirror box through the other hole was rather difficult. But he managed somehow. Surprisingly when he aligned it with the reflection, he could see his paralyzed arm moving and it no more felt lifeless!
If this fascinates you, read more about Phantom Limbs on Becky’s Site that I bumped into while reading about phantom limbs. I gather that Becky recently graduated with a degree in Experimental Psychology from Oxford and writes about interesting psychological stuff. I am yet to explore her space but am looking forward to it. If you are interested in such things, you might find cool stuff at her site!
And for more reading, there’s always Google so don’t stop yourself 🙂
Do you know anyone with a Phantom limb? Have you read about this before or know of more interesting things? Share them in your comments.