Among the extraordinary body experiences, there’s one that has been popular enough to appear in TV series, inspire a band name, pop/rock songs, and even a comic humorous villain: the phantom limb.
So we just skirt the hallway sides,
A phantom and a fly,
Follow the lines and wonder why
There’s no connection
The Shins, Phantom Limb
So, what are phantom limb experiences? Well, very broadly, when someone has feelings in or feels like they still have a part of the body that is actually missing. For example, when someone gets an arm amputated because of gangrene or a war accident, they might still have a vivid experience of the missing limb. Sometimes, even if people know their arm is missing, they still feel as if they can answer the phone, pat someone on the back, say goodbye, and so on. However, some other times, they are in the unfortunate situation of phantom limb pain.
Phantom Limb Pain is most commonly seen after limb amputation, but similar syndromes can occur with the removal of other body parts including breasts, testicles, eyes, and tongue. (Ramachandran and Hauser, 2010)
Sufferers of phantom limb pain report feeling pain in a missing part of their body. For example, if a person suffered pain in their arm and it was amputated, they can still experience the pain after the operation. A case like this appears in an episode of House M.D.. During the episode, an old war veteran is angry because he suffers from an excruciating phantom pain: he experiences his missing fist as clenched and painful, and he cannot open it to relieve the tension. House relieves his suffering by using Ramachandran’s Mirror box therapy.
Ramachandran is a neuroscientist who developed the Mirror Box to help sufferers of phantom pain. If someone feels pain in their phantom arm, they put their reimaging arm into a box with a mirror. They stare at the reflex, which gives them the impression of having their arm back again. They can move their arm in the box and when they see the reflex of it, they experience that they can move their phantom arm. In the episode, once the veteran sees the reflection in the mirror, as if he still had his hand, he can finally experience his fist opening and the pain going away.
Are there any other cases like this? The Rubber Hand Illusion is a somewhat similar and extraordinary body experience that can be created in the laboratory. In this illusion, subjects stare at a rubber hand. First, the experimenter simultaneously strokes both their hand and the rubber hand. Eventually though, the experimenter strokes only the rubber hand. If subjects keep their eyes fixed on the rubber hand, they experience the stroking as if it was happening to their real hand.
So, one may wonder, what is the common thing between this illusion and Ramachandran’s mirror box? In the Rubber Hand Illusion, you come to think what is happening to the fake hand you are staring at is happening to your real hand. By using the mirror box, phantom limb sufferers come to think that what is happening to the image of their real hand is happening to their phantom hand. These cases raise interesting questions. In particular, why do we sometimes feel a part of our body even when it is not there?
Ramchandran, K., & Hauser, J. (2010). Phantom limb pain #212. Journal of palliative medicine, 13(10), 1285–6.