The Perception of Phantom Limbs

by mo on Thursday, April 7, 2011

As one of the leading experts on behavioural neurology and in particular, the study of the clinical phenomena, phantom limbs, this article written by Ramachandran provides insight into the wonders that the phenomena reveals about the human mind.

One terms that I found particularly interesting was the idea of “neural plasticity”, explaining that “the study of phantom limbs also provides an opportunity to understand exactly how the brain obstructs a body image, and how this image is continuously updated in response to changing sensory inputs” (Ramachandran 1998, pg.1604).

Transposing this onto the spectrum of design studies, how can design or visual communication emulate or even induce this sense of “neural plasticity”?

He further expands, explaining that patients experiencing phantom limbs provide a valuable opportunity not only for “exploring neural plasticity in the adult human brain but also for understanding the relationship between the activity of sensory neurons and conscious experience.” (Ramachandran 1998, pg.1604)

Another interesting idea is the idea of sensory maps and how they can be altered: “…that sensory maps can indeed change in the adult brain, and they have been largely responsible for the current resurgence of interest in the clinical phenomenon of phantom limbs” (Ramachandran 1993, pg.1604)

Ramachandran simplifies the definition of phantom limb to refer to “the dissociation between the felt position of the limb and its actual position” – simple, easy to understand definition and can be easily translated into the context of design perhaps?

Other interesting concepts: Patients are aware that the phantom limb is an “illusion, not delusion”

One final question that he poses is startling poignant and thought-provoking: If an arm can survive physical annihilation, why not the entire person?

Reference: Ramachandran, V.S. & Hirstein, W. 1998, "The perception of phantom limbs", Brain, vol. 121, pp. 1603-1630.

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