In the A2 health module we look at pain perception and what can affect this. One of the most fascinating disorders within pain (well in my opinion at least) is phantom limb pain. Phantom limb pain is when pain is perceived in a limb (although it can be experienced in other parts of the body too – there’s been writing on phantom menstrual pains in women who have had hysterectomies) which has been amputated.
As psychologists this type of pain is important as it provides massive evidence that pain perception is influenced massively by psychological factors: it’s a top-down process. This must be the case in phantom sufferers as there is no physiology there to send any signals (as specific theory suggests) to the brain so the brain must be ‘creating’ the pain signal itself.
Whilst stumbling recently I came across TED – Inspired talks by the world’s greatest thinkers and doers – where there are some excellent videos (some general science interest and others specifically linked to psychology and neurology). One video in particular caught my attention: A journey to the center of our minds.
In a wide-ranging talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran explores how brain damage can reveal the connection between the internal structures of the brain and the corresponding functions of the mind. He talks about phantom limb pain, synesthesia (when people hear color or smell sounds), and the Capgras delusion, when brain-damaged people believe their closest friends and family have been replaced with imposter’s.
Not all of the video is relevant to OCR (still excellent viewing) but the part in the middle regarding phantom limb pain and possible remedies is superb (email and rss subscribers – you may have to visit the site to view the video). This video is one in a series called “How the Mind Works“. One other video of note in this series is Susan Savage-Rumbaugh’s (new to OCR 2008) where she asks whether uniquely human traits, and other animals’ behaviours, are hard-wired by species (an article on this to follow).
Personally, I believe that this video provides even more support for the thesis that phantom limb pain is very much a psychological process (well as far as the perception of it goes). Obviously, I am not saying that there is no physiological processes going on – in most cases there has to be the physiological nauseous event to trigger the pain – but maybe our minds are more instrumental in pain perception that some think.