Phantoms: Where does it hurt?


Back in January I talked about a fascinating video from a TED conference where Vilayanur Ramachandran discussed a new ‘treatment’ for phantom limb pain that he had come up with: the mirror box. I’m fascinated by phantom limb pain as I feel that it provides massive support for the thesis that pain perception is a psychological perception rather than a purely physiological phenomenon.Well over the last few months there has been a few really interesting posts from around the web that concern phantoms that I will summarise here. All these pieces of research can be used in the A2 Psychology of Pain topic.

Inspired by Ramachandran’s talk at TED a group of military hospitals researched the ‘mirror box’ concept that he put forward on 22 patients with amputated lower limbs and found some impressive results. After 4 weeks of treatment, 100% of patients in the mirror group reported a decrease in pain [and] two patients had brief reactions (<2 minutes) of grief on viewing the reflected intact lower limb.

If you want to read more about this then you can go over the CNN coverage of the research.

More on phantoms and the brains perception of the body comes from an edition of ABC’s National Opinion programme where they John Bradshaw discusses how our perception and ownership of our body can break down after brain injury – leading to disorders where we think our limbs are someone else’s, where we feel there’s a phantom body behind us, or where we think we’ve been cloned. [From Mind Hacks]

Finally, and most strangely, an article on phantom penises:

Since male-to-female transsexuals typically feel themselves to be ‘a woman in a man’s body’, Ramachandran and McGeoch reasoned that their response to penectomy might well be different from that of other patients. And so it proved: while 58% of men who have undergone penectomy for other reasons reported sensation in a phantom penis afterwards, only 30% of those who had done so as part of gender reassignment had a similar experience. So people who felt that a penis was not part of their true body image were much less likely to experience a phantom penis after removal.

Stranger still, perhaps, 62% of a group of female-to-male transsexuals reported having had phantom penis sensations before any surgery. In many cases the sensations dated back for years: in others, they did not occur until hormone treatment had begun. No non-transsexual women, unsurprisingly, reported the sensation of having a phantom penis (’even when prompted’ as the researchers say). [From Conscious Entities via Dr. X]

Well a wide-ranging selection of articles there. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post I am a big believer in the idea of a cognitive body image that has a profound effect on the way that we perceive our body and the senses that we get from it. From pain perceived in a limb that is not present to having sensations in a penis that has been removed it is all compelling evidence for the cognitive and psychological influence of the mind on our perceptions.

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4 Responses to “Phantoms: Where does it hurt?”

  1. Mark Souter April 14, 2008 at 9:58 am #

    Ramachandran is an impressive speaker and a funny bloke too.

    You can still catch his 2003 Reith lectures as a transcript or ‘listen again’ audio via the BBC. The one where he discusses this ‘mirror therapy’ is at

  2. Jamie Davies April 15, 2008 at 10:50 pm #

    You’re right – Ramachandran is definitely charismatic. The BBC link is excellent – well worth a listen. Thanks Mark.

    – Jamie

  3. SUSY November 25, 2008 at 7:18 pm #

    Sorry, but this mirror box doesn’t work for everyone. My mom has been using it for one entire month and her symptoms have gotten worse :(


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