Phantoms In The Brain

by mo on Sunday, March 20, 2011

After having watched Ramachandran’s talk on TED, and reading Forrest’s review of Ramachandran’s book, I decided to get my hands on it and read it for myself. Accessible yet at the same time entertainingly esoteric, Ramachandran’s book, “Phantoms in the Brain” provided me with a lot of the groundwork upon which I further developed the research direction of this project.

One point that Ramachandran clarifies from the beginning is that he chose to study such anomalies as “phantom limb awareness” syndrome because it is only through the supposedly “odd” behaviour of these patients that we can “solve the mystery of how various parts of the brain create a useful representation of the external world and generate the illusion of a ‘self’ that endures in space and time” (Ramachandran 1999, p. 12).

Perhaps in this way we can use visual communication and the design of objects to make us more aware of the working of the mind – a timeless fascination of ours – by drawing upon some sort of unexpected variation of what we are accustomed to accept as “normal”.

“To what extent is all this intricate circuitry in the brain innately specified by your genes or to what extent is it acquired gradually as the result of your early experiences, as an infant interacts with the world? Even if certain circuits are hard-wired from birth, does it follow that they cannot be altered? How much of the adult brain is modifiable?” (Ramachandran 1999, p. 20).

One aspect to consider is the idea of “body image” – more so a reference to our mind’s mapping of our body parts and their relationship to one another:

“We have a vivid sense of our body and of the position of our limbs and their movements. Two eminent English neurologists, Lord Russell Brain and Henry Head (yes, these are their real names), coined the phrase “body image” for this vibrant, internally constructed ensemble of experiences – the internal image and memory of one’s body in space and time” (Ramachandran 1999, p. 44)

Can design be manipulated so that it plays with and hence makes us aware of our image of body?

One therapy that Ramachandran conceived to help ease the pain felt by patients suffering from phantom limb pain was the use of what he coined, a “mirror box” – a simple contraption that uses basic visual illusion:

“To enable patients like Irene to perceive real movement int heir non-existent arms, we constructed a virtual reality box. The box is made by placing a vertical mirror inside a cardboard box with its lid removed. The front of the box has two hole in it, through which the patient insets her “good hand” (say, the right one) and her phantom hand (the left one). Since the mirror is in the middle of the box, the right hand is now on the right side of the mirror and the phantom is on the left side. The patient is then asked to view the reflection of her normal hand in the mirror and to move it around slightly until the reflection appears to be superimposed on the felt position of her phantom hand. She has thus created the illusion of observing two hands, when in fact she is only seeing the mirror reflection of her intact hand. If she now sends motor commands to both arms to make mirror symmetric movements, as if she were conducting an orchestra or clapping, she of course “sees” her phantom moving as well” (Ramachandran 1999, p. 46).

Upon reading about this “mirror  box” and the subsequent “amputation” of the phantom limb, I was simply in awe. This sense of wonder for the human body was inspiring – how is it that a simple visual illusion can completely warp our physical and psychological sense of our body self? And seeing as it is was a product of visual illusion, does that mean visual communication and design has the potential to do so as well?

“Now just think about what all this means. For your entire life, you’ve been walking around assuming that your “self” is anchored to a single body that remains stable and permanent at least until death. Indeed, the “loyalty” of your self to your own body is so axiomatic that you never even pause to think about it, let alone question it. Yet these experiments suggest the exact opposite – that your body image, despite all its appearance of durability, is an entirely transitory internal construct that can be profoundly modified with just a few simple tricks. It is merely a shell that you’ve temporarily created for successfully passing on your genes to your offspring” (Ramachandran 1999, p. 62).

As a semi side note, one quote that Ramachandran draws upon as the inspiration of his opening chapter is the one by Marxist writer, J.B.S Haldane:

“The world shall perish not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder.”

At the end of the day, the reason why I’ve chosen this to be the basis of my research is so that the end product, the final design resolution, evokes that sense of “wonder” that I first felt when I read about phantom limbs. As cliché and obsolete as styles, movements and trends in design may become, the sense of “wonder” never loses its appeal because I guess that in the end, humans are intrinsically attracted to those things in the world that inspire a sense of pure awe.

Reference: Ramachandran, V.S. & Blakeslee, S. 1999, Phantoms in the brain :human nature and the architecture of the mind, Harper Perennial, London.


Print this post

Leave your comment