Amputation frightens me just as much as the next person, but there is one component of losing an appendage that I think would be interesting to experience: the “phantom limb” sensation. The feeling that the arm or leg or other appendage is still present, still attached, still moving, long after it’s been dismembered. Some call it “stump hallucination” — which sounds sorta dirty to me — and also like some sort of psychedelic forest mushroom. The phrase “Phantom Limb” sounds so much better. It’s almost as cool as the name for an underground comic superhero or a punk band.
80% of all amputees report phantom limb sensation. I don’t mean to insult any of my differently-abled readers by pouring salt on old wounds with this topic, but I must say that in some ways you’ve got it lucky if you’re missing an arm and a leg yet still feel its presence. Because you can do whatever you want to with it and no one will be the wiser.
With a phantom arm, I’d pick my nose in public whenever it itched. I wouldn’t need to wipe it off. And that’s only the beginning. I’d flip off rude clerks and obnoxious co-workers, giving them the phantom finger while smiling and nodding to their faces. I’d shoplift behind my back while talking to the department store clerk. I’d freak out everybody in arm wrestling matches at the local saloon. And if I had a phantom leg, well, I’d kick people who deserved it like crazy.
I’m no perv, but I can’t promise that I wouldn’t be curious enough to give a few people a little phantom feel up, either. No hard feelings, right?
And, of course, it goes without saying that it would be EXTRA cool to shake phantom hands with a fellow amputee. We could high five when no one was looking or phantom thumb wrestle. Or even a fist fight. Anything goes with my amputated ghost buddies.
I’ve heard that the brain doesn’t die right away when the head is chopped off — and that some people’s final vision is their headless torsos. But I want to know: do decapitated people have phantom head? I’m not so sure two heads are better than one — wouldn’t that be kind of schizophrenic for awhile there?
I apologize for being so glib. Phantom limbs aren’t always as fun as I make them sound. There’s a serious condition known as “phantom limb pain” which is quite horrific. Image feeling like your hand had a nail driven through it — and no one could do anything about it, because it wasn’t really there, not physically anyway. Just that zinging, pain, dismembered yet attached, present yet not physical in a way that anyone could help you. People with this condition have been driven to suicide. (Probably twice: after slashing their phantom wrists doesn’t work).
Doctors haven’t quite figured out what causes sensation in missing body parts. Some say that phantom limb is wishful thinking — a phantasy so powerful it manifests itself as “real” in the patient’s brain. But this has been discredited — how many phantom bitch-slaps are you willing to take after claiming that 80% of all amputees are psychotic? Instead, most doctors see the nervous system as the cause. Some claim it’s related to the nerve endings in the stump, which “tingle” after the trauma and therefore create “stump hallucination” — a sensation which reaches ghost-like out of the stump and the brain, literally, “fills in the blanks.” Another explanation focuses on the brain itself, which has a hardwired map for controlling body parts, and continues to rely on this map even after the limb is gone. It’s sort of like using a map from 1982 to drive around modern day Russia. You’re bound to end up in Transylvania. This can also lead to some wire-crossing. Some phantom limb patients actually feel a tickle on their cheek when their phantom limb acts up. Others have even claimed to experience orgasms in their missing limbs! (See the “wishful thinking” theory above).
But maybe all this phantom limb business is not so scientific after all. Legend has it that Lord Nelson felt pain in his phantom limb — the sensation of fingers digging into the arm he lost after an attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife — and claimed that this was “direct evidence for the existence of the soul.” If an arm can “exist” after it’s been removed, why not the whole body after it has been destroyed? Sounds logical, right? But also frightening: I want to know who was digging their nails into his phantom sleeve. And I truly hope our souls aren’t really the same shape of our bodies, like some ghost out of a bad cartoon. I’d like to think my soul is much more amorphous and gelatinous than that. More like a floating jellyfish or something, stingers and all. You heard me right: I want to be a phantom Man o War, floating in the air you breathe!
But I digress. I have to say that, soul or not, I don’t really believe all that much in phantom limb. Because if it were true, all the other things that we’re separated from would still haunt us in very weird ways. We’d all still feel tethered to our mothers through phantom umbilical cords or surrounded by strange bags of phantom placentas. Mothers would feel phantom children curling in their wombs, growing larger and larger, all the way into their nineties. In fact, there would be phantom wombs for hysterectomy patients, not to mention the ghosts of an innumerable amount of surgical procedures: phantom tonsils, phantom biopsies, phantom wisdom teeth, phantom Siamese twins, phantom foreskin, phantom liposuction fat, and on and on and on. Not to mention phantom fingernails and beards and nose hair and all the other things we snip away day after day without a second thought.
How long is my phantom nose hair, anyway? And does this explain why I trip over my phantom feet for no apparent reason sometimes? If only I was a jellyfish, with my phantom pseudopods, I wouldn’t have these problems.
[Recommended reading (and source for some of the above, including that orgasm in the limb business): Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. (NY: William and Morrow, 1998). Much more information and pleasure reading at Dr. Ramachandran’s home page ]