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Phantom Limbs, Mirror Box

Thursday, October 22, 2009 Leave a Comment

Readers of this blog will know I am an avid amateur of science, and unfortunately prone to drawing metaphorical conclusions from theoretical progress. This post will be no exception.

Listening to VS Ramachandran's 2007 TED lecture on what 3 unique kinds of brain damage reveal about the mind, I was especially struck by his work with Phantom Limbs and Mirror Visual Feedback (MFV) therapy.

I was familiar with the phantom limb, the sensation some amputees have of feeling the presence of their amputated limb or organ. I was unfamiliar with the experience some amputees have of a paralyzed phantom limb; a painful, cramped sensation that causes its sufferers years of significant discomfort. Ramachandran believed this is because the mind sends commands to the limb, but notices no results, and so through Hebbian Learning the sensation of paralysis is created, and can not be turned off.

Ramachandran's solution was to jolt the phantom limb out of paralysis with the ingenious visual stimuli of a mirror box. He had an amputee move their remaining arm within the mirror box, which created the illusion that the amputee's missing (now mirrored) limb was moving, and the phantom paralysis disappeared. The pain was gone. Even though the patient knew this was just an illusion, the visual stimuli, called Mirror Visual Feedback, was so powerful it released a phantom clench that had caused them pain for years. Ramachandran's solution is a balm to sufferers of this phantom limb paralysis.

Perhaps you see where this is going. There are some traumas that burn a pattern into the brain more emotionally complex than the loss of a limb, that are narrative experiential in nature, and so would require Mirror Visual Feedback of that narrative experience to release their phantom pain.

Theatre is the mirror box of experience (we know because Hamlet tells us so). And knowing that mirror neurons allow us to experience the actions of others as if we were acting ourselves, I wonder if one of the functions of theatre is to heal our minds from patterns of loss; that through empathy, we see our phantom actions mirrored, and feel our pain released.

This is like catharsis but not quite the same; I remember feeling this experience most keenly myself watching A Moon For The Misbegotten at PSF. Deep regrets and patterns of loathing I felt were somehow released from their clench watching Jamie Tyrone find unexpected forgiveness.

What do you think? Has the mirror box of theatre ever released you from a phantom pain? I think our upcoming play The Lesser Seductions of History may mirror the narrative experience of abandoning, or suffering the consequences of committing to, a particular kind of hope...


  • Unknown said:  

    Have you read Phantoms in the Brain? Genius. The story of James Thurber getting hit in the eye with an arrow as a child, often seeing bunnies in people clothing in the blind spot created (thus his famous New Yorker cartoons), has really changed the way I view storytelling. Like through these emotional blind spots or thought process brain gaps - some of the most amazing stories are handed to us in order to cope. Or something like that. It's a really accessible neuroscience book - if you're into that.

  • August Schulenburg said:  


    I was just reading how little sensory deprivation it takes for the brain to begin hallucinating - so quickly our minds' need for stimulation fills the world with meaning. I'll totally check out that book - thanks for recommending it!

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