Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Phantom limbs, body image maps, and allocentric views of you and me

I realize I'm going to come across as someone with a secret desire to have one of my limbs cut off, but so be it: I'm back to babbling about Body Identity Integrity Disorder, but the reason why I impose it on your this times around is because I've just read an amazing article, Brain Games, in the May 11 issue of The New Yorker, revolving around the research of Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran.

You can read the abstract of it here, but if you find body disorders and neuro-science remotely interesting, I really urge you to read it in full, although it is admittedly a bit long. Registration for their digital reader is free...

So what does Ramachandran have to say about BIID? Well, this is my simplified take on it: As you probably already know, every single piece of your body is mapped in the brain as a form of body-image. However, the problem with people suffering from apotemnophilia - the disorder in which you have a desire to have one of your limbs amputated - is that there is a discrepancy between the body image and the actual body. Essentially, the brain map of the body isn't complete, doesn't include whatever limb it is the person desires to have removed. In other words, if Ramachandran's theory and research is correct, there is a perfectly sound neuro-scientific reason why people, who we tend to dismiss as crazy, feel that a given limb of theirs doesn't belong to them, even though they have learned to believe and see that it does.

Really, I'm doing the article no justice at all, but anyhow, next time you dismiss someone with some kind of disorder as crazy, do consider this:

Ramachandran describes his approach to science as "opportunistic": "You come across something strange - What Thomas Kuhn, the famous historian and philosopher of science, called 'anomalies'. Something seems weird, doesn't fit the big picture of science - people just ignore it, doesn't make any sense. They say, 'The patient is crazy'. A lot of what I've done is to rescue these phenomena from oblivion".

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