The Mysterious Case of your Missing Appendage – Fun with Phantom Limbs!

Fun?  Well, not really.  And to be quite honest, I’m not sure why I started fixating on this head-scratching topic, but it turns out our brains have the tendency to fixate on much more than just an obnoxiously catchy song or that thing you forgot to buy at the store (Note to self: Remember to write down that I need to start writing things down…).  People have been finding ways to burn brain cells and exhaust the psychological threshold for centuries.  From the first sip of wine to Huxley’s unlocked doors of perception to late-night, college cram sessions to working a tiresome nine-to-five – it’s amazing our brains aren’t so fried that we forget who the 27th U.S. President was (Wikipedia says it was Taft, but you probably already knew that).  But at least trying to remember where you left your car keys isn’t putting you through any true, physical pain.  Because when you give up your left arm to get those Lady Gaga tickets you wanted so badly, your brain is the last to know.  And now your brain is pissed.

Sort of.

The idea of the phantom limb sounds like it would be ripe for analogies and metaphors.  Originally, I was going to chase a familiar concept in Consciousness versus Conscience, or the idea of what we innately know to be true without having to reason (“This is my right hand and this papercut really stings…”) versus what we’ve reasoned to be righteous and true, whether logical or not, no matter the circumstance (“I have no right hand, but I swear it hurts!”).  This kind of philosophical waxing is right in my wheelhouse, but it felt like a stretch and, frankly, seemed unfair to make the comparison between seemingly phantasmagorical pain and moral fortitude (Phantom Limb Pain: Bad; Conscience: Really not such a bad thing).  But after digging into the topic a bit more, I realized that it was strangely becoming an issue of ethics and morality, but in a more disturbing way.

Almost 90% of amputees report some kind of Phantom Limb Pain (PLP).  Although the percentage is so high it seems impossible to refute its existence and effects, it has been and continues to be perplexing because, well, an amputated limb does not exist – at least not anymore.  The first reported case of PLP was made back in 1500’s by a French Military surgeon named Ambroise Pare, but it was not until almost 400 years later, in 1872, that Military surgeon Silas Weir Mitchell coined the term “phantom limb” (Mitchell was working at Philadelphia’s “Stump Hospital” during the Civil War).  It’s not hard to see why so much time elapsed between when the first case was reported to when the condition was given a somewhat clinical term – explaining the unexplainable has always been difficult to quantify much less identify (When’s the last time you saw a ghost?).  But strangest of all is that this seemingly complicated problem could have such a simple solution, and one that wouldn’t come for another century.

The man with the ingenious idea was Dr. V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California in San Diego.  One of Ramachandran’s patients came in complaining of pain where his arm and hand used to be.  He likened the sensation to a hand being clenched so tightly that it was digging fingernails into the palm.  Though the patient was fully aware that he had no fist to clench, Ramachandran suspected that the patient’s brain was the one out of the loop.  The idea is that your brain and the rest of your body work closely together in figuring out the perception of your physical body, and in this case, the brain, after networking for so long with your limbs, isn’t getting the memo that it’s not there anymore (“Can you hear me now?”). 

Ramachandran came up with what is now known as the “mirror treatment”.  Basically, you place a mirror inside a cardboard box, place your existing limb inside of the box and the reflection of your limb rests visibly in the place where your amputated limb USED to be.  Basically this devious doctor is tricking your brain into thinking you have two functional limbs of the same kind.  In 2007, a study done at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. found that 100% of patients who were given the mirror treatment reported less PLP than groups treated solely by using mental visualization or a “closed box” mirror treatment.  This finding was encouraging when you consider that the alternative remedy was prescribing pain medications which, not surprisingly, would lead to a high percentage of pain killer abuse in veterans who had been suffering from PLP.  It seemed Dr. Ramachandran had achieved the first “successful amputation of a phantom limb”.  Go figure.

By trying to tie in my original idea of Consciousness V Conscience and how I might relate it to phantom limbs, I stumbled onto a few psychological therapies that mercifully knocked me off track.  There is a therapy called desensitization therapy that is similar to the mirror treatment, but focuses on psychological disorders and phobias (If you’ve got a fear of spiders, I’ll teach you how to center yourself and then chuck you in a room full of spiders.  It’s not that cruel, but you get the idea).  However, the content and focus of one particular therapy reminded me just how far we are willing to go to chop off that limb just to spite ourselves; conversion therapy – the therapy that takes the “gay” in you and makes it “straight” (See? Abracadabra…).  If you are willing to have certain parts of your body hooked up to an electro-shock device or ingest nausea-inducing drugs while you take a glance at some homoerotic pornography, you might stand a chance at changing your sexual orientation and finding some kind of spiritual redemption (or so says conversion therapy).  Now there are less brutal ways of applying this form of therapy and to be fair, as is mentioned by the American Psychological Association according to their policy on conversion therapy, psychiatrists are asked to “…refrain from discriminatory practices in their work, to recognize cultural differences, including those due to sexual orientation, and to respect individuals’ right to self-determination.”  The point being made is that a person’s spiritual or religious convictions might be even more important to them than their own sexual identity, so those beliefs need to be respected and taken into account.

But while psychiatrists are being held accountable for how they treat patients and are asked to be mindful of a person’s religious beliefs and practices, there are still groups that exercise their right to rub your nose in their moral-righteousness (National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality) and they are willing to help you rid yourself of that unwanted, same–sex attraction.  And so long as there is ignorance, there will always be those that naively think they can cure themselves and their communities of homosexuality (and so long as people are born into this world as homosexuals, the cycle will continue).  The problem, which I hope seems clear to most, isn’t that people can have a same-sex attraction, but that people have a difficult time accepting themselves or those around them. 

There are groups that aim to help those trying to make sense of their sexuality ( and offer an outlet for the confused and persecuted (What a Christian thing to do…), but that’s just the icepack after the punches have been thrown.  How do we approach the groups bullying their communities into conformity, into misguidedness?  How do you speak to someone that doesn’t want to listen?  How is it that this is as far as we’ve come with all that we know and all of the rights we’ve been given?  If the mirror treatment taught me anything, it’s that we need to rewire our brains; we need to adapt and learn how to work with who we are.  Perhaps Dr. Ramachandran was onto something when he asked his patient to look at his reflection and to study it.  Maybe there are those that need to take a long look in the mirror, really see themselves for who they are and think deeply about how they perceive others; think hard about how little difference there is between one another and try to rid themselves of whatever burden it is they carry around – because maybe only then can we have a successful amputation of sexual preconceptions and human ignorance from our culture.  It’s a thought.


The Moth – Aimee Mullins: A Work in Progress (Podcast) – CHECK THIS OUT!


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