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|Sheldrake, Rupert. Seven Experiments That Could Change the World. |
New York: Riverhead, 1995.
When people lose a flesh-and-blood limb, they do not usually lose the sense of its presence. It feels as if it is really there, even though it is no longer materially real. What kind of reality does the phantom have?
....In addition to a sense of its shape, position, and movement, amputees generally experience various feelings within the missing limb, such as itching, warmth, and twisting. Phantom limbs can generally be moved at will, and they also move in coordination with the rest of the body. Indeed, they are felt to be part of the body....
One of the early theories of phantoms was that they were a kind of memory. It was therefore assumed that they would be absent from people born without a limb (aplasia), for example as a result of their mother having taken thalidomide, a now-banned tranquilizer, during pregnancy. But although most people born without a limb do not seem to have phantoms, between 10 and 20 percent do. Some born without hands experience the presence of fingers, which can be bent. Others born with shortened arms feel their arms to be longer than they really are. For example, a man whose right forearm was almost completely missing, with his hand attached to his elbow, subjectively felt the defective arm to be as long as his normal one. Unlike most phantoms following amputation, the phantoms of congenitally absent limbs are hardly ever painful.
Phantoms can arise when sensation is lost rather than the limb itself....
Phantoms are also experienced by paraplegics, who have a broken spinal cord. Sufferers are partially paralysed, with no feeling or control of the body below the break. Nevertheless, they often experience phantom legs and other organs, including phantom genitals.
....Just as phantoms can appear when nerves are severed, so they can when nerves are anaesthetized. This phenomenon often occurs in the context of orthopedic surgery. Many patients given a local anaesthetic in the spinal cord experience phantom legs, the proportion depending on the location of the anaesthetic. In one study, 10 percent of those with epidural anaesthesia had phantoms, while 55 percent had them with subarachnoid anaesthesia. The phantom legs are usually partially flexed, and thus while patients are lying on their backs they rise up in the air above the actual legs.
...Most anaesthetized patients with phantom arms found that they could move them voluntarily, particularly flexing and extending the hands and moving the phantom fingers. As the anaesthetic wore off, the phantoms disappeared as sensation and active movement returned to the limb....
....People who wear artificial limbs usually take them off to go to bed, and then the phantom may become very painful. William Warner, an American veteran who lost his right leg above the knee in Italy in 1944, described it as follows:
I get it so bad at times I am unable to sleep. I have talked to a few doctors, but there isn't much they can do. Sometimes at night I get up and put my limb on and walk around, it helps some. As soon as I take it off, it starts in again.
Oliver Sacks has described a similar case where the amputee explicitly thought of the phantom in two differnt ways: the good phantom that animated his prosthesis and allowed him to walk, and the bad phantom that hurt when the prosthesis was off at night. Sacks comments: "With this patient, with all patients, is not use all-important, in dispelling a 'bad' (or passive, or pathological) phantom, if it exists; and in keeping the 'good' phantom. . . alive, active, and well?"
....The sensitivity of amputees to the weather is legendary, and here the folklore is continually reinforced by experience. "Involuntary movements of the absent toes or fingers are frequent, and in very many persons are unfailing precursors of an east wind." It would be relatively easy to investigate empirically the accuracy of such weather forecasts, and also to find out whether they could be fully explained in terms of temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and other straightforward physical factors.
Other aspects of the folklore are harder to check, but no less fascinating. One which crops up recurrently recalls the traditional magical belief that a separated part of the body still retains a connection with it by a kind of action at a distance, or nonlocal connection. I first encountered this way of thinking when I was living in Malaysia. One day when I was staying in a Malay village, a kampong, I was cutting my fingernails, throwing the parings into a nearby bush. When my hosts saw this, they were horrified. They explained that my enemy might pick them up and use them to harm me by witchcraft. They were amazed that I did not know that bad things done to my nail clippings could cause bad things to happen to me.
I subsequently discovered that such beliefs are very widespread, and are one of the fundamental principles of sympathetic magic, expressed concisely by the anthropologist James Frazer as follows: "Things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed." One of the most intriguing features of quantum theory is that the principle of nonlocality--as expressed in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox and Bell's Theorem--makes much the same point about physical processes in the subatomic realm.
In relation to phantom limbs, the belief is that the fate of the severed limb continues to affect the person of whom it was once part. Stories I have received from readers of Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine show that this tradition is alive and well. One man, William Craddock, described how he originally came to know of this belief from his father, who worked as a boiler keeper and maintenance man at a hospital in Jacksonville, Illinois:
In the 1940s I used to stop at the boiler house on my way home from school. One day my father had something wrapped in cloth on the workbench and he tried to hide it as I came in. I could see the cloth had blood on it, and when I asked my father what it was he said never mind. He later told me it was an amputated limb and that he had just wrapped it to make sure nothing was bent in an unnatural way. He told me he knew a man who was suffering great pain with an amputated arm and they finally dug it up and straightened his fingers. His pain left.
And here is another story, of a man who had a finger amputated and preserved in a jar:
The man was OK for several years. Then he went back to his doctor, who had amputated his finger, complaining of a feeling of extreme cold in the missing finger. The doctor wanted to know where the jar with the missing finger was. The man told him it was in his mother's heated basement where it had always been. The doctor told the man to call his mother and check the jar. The mother didn't want to but did and found a broken basement window a few inches from the jar. As soon as the finger was warmed up the pain left.
The American psychologist William James carried out a survey of nearly 200 amputees in the 1880s, and found that beliefs of this kind were "very widespread"....
Such experiments would not be hard to perform, given the cooperation of the staff and patients at a hospital where the severed limbs are routinely burned without consulting the patients. For the purposes of this experiment, the severed limbs would be divided at random into three groups. One lot of limbs would be burned as usual; the second would be buried straight; the third buried bent. This would be done following a "double-blind" procedure so that neither patients nor doctors knew the fate of the severed limbs. At various times thereafter, the patients would be questioned about their pain, if any. If there were no significant differences between groups, the sceptical hypothesis would be vindicated. But if there were differences such that those with burnt limbs had more burning pain, and those with limbs buried bent sufferend more pain than those with limbs buried straight, then traditional folklore would receive experimental support. And medical practice could be altered accordingly, at least to the extent of offering patients some say in the way their severed limbs are disposed of.
How are phantom limbs related to out-of-the-body experiences? In out-of-the-body experiences, people find themselves 'outside' their bodies, implicitly or explicitly within a kind of phantom body....
Such experiences have been known in most, if not all, traditional cultures. Even in modern industrial societies, they are far from uncommon. Surveys have repeatedly shown that between 10 and 20 percent of the population remember having at least one out-of-the-body experience.
All of us have similar experiences in our dreams, when we seem to travel far and wide even though our physical body is asleep in bed....
Some people have dreams in which they know that they are dreaming, known as 'lucid dreams.' They still have a dream body, but now they can will where they go, and to some extent control their experience. Such dreams are very like out-of-the-body experiences, the main difference being that one is entered from the dreaming state, one from the waking.
In esoteric literature, traveling in lucid dreams or in out-of-the-body experiences is known as 'astral travel', and the body in which this happens is called the 'astral body' or 'subtle body'. For many people this terminology is obscure and off-putting, and in the following discussion I shall simply refer to the 'non-material' body....
What does all this mean? The answer depends very much on one's world view. For some people, the non-material body is an aspect ofthe psyche or soul. It normally animates the physical body but is capable of separating from it. Phantom limbs are aspects of the soul or psyche. They have a psychic rather than a material reality. This is probably the most widespread traditional view....
By contrast, from the point of view of the contracted mind, phantoms and the non-material body are illusions generated within the nervous system. The phantoms are not where they seem to be: they are in the brain. For a committed materialist or mechanist, the brain theory is not so much a hypothesis as an article of faith: it must be true. Institutional medicine is still under the sway of the mechanistic theory, and hence the official view, taught to amputees by doctors and in hospitals, is that the phantom phenomenon is located inside the brain.
However, the exact location of phantoms has proved remarkably elusive. At first, the predominant hypothesis was that phantom limbs and phantom pain were caused by the generation of impulses by nerves in the remaining stump, particularly in nodules of nerves that grow at the cut ends, called neuromas.... This theory has repeatedly been tested, in attempts to relieve phantom pain, by surgically cutting the nerves from neuromas, either just above the neuroma or at the roots, next to the spinal cord. Although there is sometimes temporary relief, the phantoms persist and the pain usually returns. Moreover, the stump hypothesis cannot explain why some people born without limbs also experience phantoms in the absence of any injury to the nerves.
The next hypothesis moved the seat of the phantoms from the neuroma to the spinal cord, suggesting that the phantoms arose from spontaneous, excessive activity of nerves within the spinal cord that had lost their normal input from the body. Various nervous pathways within the spinal cord were cut in attempts to stop these effects, but the phantoms persisted and so did the pain. This hypothesis is also refuted by the experience of paraplegics whose spinal cord had been broken high up, for example in the neck. Some feel severe pain in the legs and groin, yet the spinal nerve cells that send impulses from thoseareas to the brain originate well below the level of the break, which means that any nerve impulses arising within them would not traverse the break.
The hypothetical source of the phantoms has had to be shifted yet further back, into the brain. Areas of the thalamus and cerebral cortex that receive nerve impulses from the affected limb have been removed, but this ultimate surgical attempt to stop the pain has also failed. Even when the appropriate areas of the sensorimotor cortex are removed, the pain generally returns, and the phantom is still present!
Current versions of the brain theory push the supposed seat of the phantoms even further back, deeper into the cerebral tissues. One hypothesis proposes that the phantom depends on the way that new nerve connections are built up in the brain, 'remapping' the areas which would previously have received nerve impulses from the amputated organ. But the sprouting of new nerve connections would take weeks or months, and phantoms can appear immediately, as, for example, when the nerves serving a limb are anaesthetized. To avoid the need to invoke the sprouting of new nerves, another hypothesis proposes a rapid 'unmasking of latent circuits' within extensive regions of the brain. Yet another proposes that the body image is generated by a complex network of nerves in different parts of the brain, called a neuromatrix. The neuromatrix 'generates patterns, processes information that flows through it, and ultimately produces the pattern that is felt as the whole body.' This neuromatrix is largely 'hardwired.' Although modified by experience, it is supposed to be innate, because people born without limbs can have phantoms of absent structures. It involves so much of the brain that to destroy the neuromatrix 'would mean destruction of almost the whole brain.'
At this stage, the brain theory of phantoms becomes practically irrefutable. If the removal of any particular region of the brain fails to abolish the phantom, then it must be generated by other parts of the brain. 'Parallel' or 'back-up' or 'latent' systems can be postulated indefinitely, rather as in pre-Copernican astronomy, epicycles could always be added to the supposed orbits of the planets to account for any awkward phenomena. Irrefutability is a virtue for committed believers, but a scientific vice.
In thinking about phantoms, medical researchers have been driven again and again to postulate concepts such as the 'postural schema', 'body schema', or 'body image'. The terms were introduced around the beginning of the century as a theoretical basis for explaining clinical observations, but their usage has remained extremely vague. In a critical review of the doctrine of body schema, two eminent German neurologists have concluded:
There does not exist a well-defined and unitary theory of the body schema. On the contrary, various authors have developed quite different ideas resting upon quite different premises, intended to serve as explanation for different clinical phenomena. Moreover, the few really original contributions in this field have been subject to frequent misunderstandings and distortions. . . Once this theory had been established, a great variety of disturbances were termed 'disturbances of the body schema'. These were then used to prove the validity of the theoretical concept. This is a classical case of petitio principii, in that one hypothesis served to explain another hypothesis and vice-versa. Experimental investigations to test the theoretical hypotheses and their general validity without prejudice have been done very rarely.
Freudians have their own particular interpretations of the body schema. This exists in 'sensory-cerebral space-time' and involves 'mental projection of the ego'. Phantoms are produced by the unconscious as a result of 'a narcissistic desire to maintain the body's integrity in the face of a realistic loss or a rejection of symbolic castration of a body organ.' Such theories add to the terminology, but tell us next to nothing about the nature of the body image or the unconscious mind.
All the conventional scientific theories are framed within the paradigm of the contracted mind: body schemas, images and phantoms must be in the brain, irrespective of the most immediate experience. However, if the mind is extended within and beyond the body, there is no need to confine the body image to the brain or even to the nervous tissue. In particular, the phantom limb may not be confined to the brain but exist just where it seems to exist: projecting beyond the stump.
The extended mind resembles the traditional idea of the soul pervading and animating the body. But I think it is most helpful today to interpret this concept in terms of fields. The body is itself organized and pervaded by fields. As well as electromagnetic, gravitational, and quantum matter fields, morphogenetic fields shape its development and maintain its form. Behavioral, mental, and social fields underlie behavior and mental life. According to the hypothesis of formative causation, morphogenetic, behavioral, mental, and social fields are different kinds of morphic field, containing an inherent memory both from an individual's own past, and a collective memory from countless other people who have gone before.
Although I prefer to think of the fields of phantoms as morphic fields, the hypothesis I propose testing here is more general. I am not at present concerned with the specific feature of morphic fields, namely their habitual nature, shaped by morphic resonance. I am exploring the more general idea of fields as organizing patterns in space and time. I propose that these fields are located just where the phantoms seem to be. These fields can extend beyond the flesh-and-blood body, projecting beyond the stump.
The experiment I propose is analogous to that on the sense of being stared at, outlined in the previous chapter. Just as a person may be affected by being looked at, so a person may be affected by being 'touched' by a phantom limb. Whatever the nature of the field that underlies the phantom, the person 'touched' is organized by similar fields, and the fields of the amputee and the subject may interact.
The simplest form of this experiment is to follow the same general procedure as in the test for the sense of being stared at. The subject sits behind a person with the phantom arm, and in a random sequence, the person with the phantom either does nothing (control) or taps the subject on the shoulder with the phantom hand. The beginning of each trial is indicated by a click, buzz, or other mechanical signal. The subject then says whether he or she has felt the phantom touch or not. The result is recorded and the subject is told if the answer is right. This feedback should enable subjects to learn the unfamiliar feeling of a phantom touch--if it is possible to learn.
Of course, in the case of subjects with phantom legs rather than arms, the subject will be trying to detect a phantom touch from the foot, a phantom kick.
One of the amputees who wrote to me following my article in the Bulletin of the Institute of Noetic Sciences was Casimir Bernard of Hurley, New York. He lost his right leg below the knee on active service in Norway, as a member of the Allied Expeditionary Force in 1940. He had since worked as an expert in electronics manufacturing at IBM. He was already interested in psychical research, and was keen to try some experiments to find out if he could indeed touch someone with his phantom leg. He thought the experiment would best be conducted with a 'sensitive' subject.
He discussed the matter with Dr. Alexander Imich of New York City, a retired chemist, who approached Ingo Swann, also living in New York City, who had taken part in a long series of apparently successful parapsychology experiments at the Stanford Research Institute in California. The three men worked together in designing and executing a series of tests, usually with Swann as the subject and Imich as the experimenter, but also with Imich as the subject and Swann as the experimenter. In these tests the subject attempted to feel Bernard's phantom leg. The experiments were carried out over several different days in March and April 1992.
The project has been written up by Swann as 'An informal report of a preliminary experiment to sense a "phantom limb"'. I am grateful to Ingo Swann, Alexander Imich, and Casimir Bernard for their permission to quote this report. Here is Swann's description of the procedure:
Mr. Casimir Bernard sat in a position in which he could raise or lower the phantom limb. The subject (Swann), with a hood covering his head to his shoulders, sat in a chair just in front of Mr. Bernard, in a position in which he could pass his right hand downward and back and forth through the limb if it was extended upward. The subject was then asked to call if his hand contacted the phantom limb. Dr. Imich silently signaled with a finger to Mr. Bernard either to raise or lower the limb. A bell was used to signal the subject to attempt each trial.
Rather than using a random number generator to determine whether in any given trial the phantom was to be raised or lowered, the experimenter made up a random-type sequence as he went along. The subject then called whether or not the limb was there. His calls were scored as correct or incorrect, and he could also pass, or in other words decline to answer. (Swann passed on 17 out of 175 trials, and Imich on 11 out of 96.) If he was correct, he was told. Thus there was the possibility of the subject learning to recognize the presence of the phantom as the experiment went along.
These are the gross average results, as given by Swann:
Swann also looked at the learning effect, which has often been found in psychic experiments at the Stanford Research Institute. Not surprisingly, psychic skills generally improve with learning, just as ordinary skills do. In his own words:
During my long tenure as an experimental designer at Stanford Research Institute, many characteristics signifying learning were studied and identified so that they could be reinforced. It was found that psychic learning progresses through subtle but predictable episodes, which appear to build on each other if they are reinforced with proper measures. Some of these indicators of learning are well-understood in general learning studies, but some are peculiar to psychic learning.
Swann plotted the cumulative number of correct calls on a graph, which also shows the line that would be expected on the basis of pure chance, with half the calls correct and half incorrect (Figure 11). With Swann as subject, a learning effect began to show up around trial 133. In the 25 trials from trial 133 until the end of the experiment, Swann was correct 22 times, against a chance expectation of 12.5. (I have examined the complete set of data statistically, taking the proportion of correct calls in successive groups of ten trials and analyzing the trend by means of linear regression. The tendency for Swann to be correct more often toward the end of the trial than toward the beginning, in other words the learning effect, is statistically significant with a probability of p=0.03.)
With Imich as subject, the performance also improved with experience, with a learning effect occurring around trial 68. In the 17 trials from this point to the end of the experiment he was correct 11 times, against a chance expectation of 8.5.
As Swann points out: "If averaging of all trials is to be used to judge the success of this experiment, then it is not a notable success." But when the learning phenomenon is considered, especially with Swann himself as a subject, the pattern of results "show[s] that something was being learned and that this learning progressively enhanced the ability to determine whether the hands of the subject were interacting with the phantom limb." When the learning effect began to show up, Swann discovered that touching the phantom was unpleasant. He had no prior expectation whether it would be agreeable or not, but after this discovery, he found it easier to feel when the phantom was there, and his scores improved.
Of course sceptics will rightly want to know if the learning effect might have a more straightforward explanation. Could it simply be because the subject learned to use sound or other sensory cues? As Swann himself commented:
Visibility was completely prevented by the hood, but no feasible way was established to prevent hearing. On occasion Bernard's chair creaked, and the subject passed the call on each of these, for it was suggestive of the upward movement of the limb. Imich's room was overheated, and so the windows were open, allowing New York's street noises to be heard, and which masked room noise. But it would seem that the experiment was reasonably secure with regard to sensory cueing, for if not it would have been far easier to achieve a positive result earlier in the course of the trials.
But the possibility of sensory cues could not be entirely excluded, nor could the possibility that the way the experimenter made up the sequence of trials, rather than using an independent method of randomization, introduced some subtle bias into the results.
Swann, Imich, and Bernard circulated this preliminary report to a number of researchers in parapsychology and medicine for their comments. The general consensus was that the experiment was interesting and the results encouraging, but that future experiments would need to use an independent method of randomization, eliminate possible sensory cues such as sound, and in some way control against the possibility that the effect was telepathic, involving the picking up of the amputee's intention to move the limb, or even the signal from the experimenter, rather than being due to the phantom itself. In addition, some researchers pointed out that there was no need for an experimenter at all. The amputee could be supplied with the random sequence directly, for example by means of a set of randomized cue-cards prepared in advance, and could also record the results.
I agree with these comments. My own suggestion for reducing the possibility of subtle cues is to do the experiment through a wall between two rooms, the more soundproof the better. If the phantom can still be detected when it is pushed through the wall, most kinds of sensory cues could be eliminated.
The sceptic within or without would then think of more arguments. Rather than a ghostly hand or foot emerging from the wall and actually being felt by the subject, there might still be some commonsense physical explanation. One obvious possibility: some sound signals might be getting through the wall. This could be tested most simply by asking subjects to wear earplugs. If sound is responsible, then the earplugs should reduce, if not abolishy, the subject's apparent ability to feel the phantom. Another possibility: messages might be passed through some kind of mechanical vibration sensed with the whole body rather than with the ears. This could be tested by seating the subjects on layers of foam padding or some other vibration-damping material. And so on. Reasonable sceptical objections could be tested one by one, as long as the subjects retained enough interest and enthusiasm.
In order to test the possibility that subjects might pick up telepathically what the amputee is thinking about, rather than detecting the phantom itself, another experimental treatment could be icluded, so that the tests are done in three ways rather than two:
Such experiments should reveal if there is indeed an effect of phantom touch over and above any possible effects of thinking or willing.
In my original suggestion for this experiment, I proposed that the subject be passive, trying to respond to phantom touch from the amputee. However, the method used in the Bernard-Imich-Swann experiment involved active feeling for the phantom, and this might in general be a better method. Active feeling would be especially appropriate if the subjects were practitioners of 'therapeutic touch' or other forms of subtle healing, who might be unusually sensitive to phantoms. Therapeutic touch is currently practiced by thousands of nurses and taught in many basic nursing programs in the United States. In response to my appeal for information, Dr. Barbara Joyce, head of the graduate nursing program at New Rochelle College, New York, has written to me about her experience with two women who had had their legs amputated. She tried to reduce pain and discomfort in their phantom legs.
In both instances patients reported that Therapeutic Touch used in the field of the missing limb reduces sensations of itching and pain. Although more clearly with one patient, but to some degree with the second, I was able to 'feel' the phantom or missing limb and my estimation of its location in space corresponded with the patient's 'sensation' of its location.
Perhaps not only experienced touch therapists, but people in general would do better if they were actively feeling for the phantom rather than passively waiting to be touched by it. So I suggest adopting an experimental design in which the subject feels for the phantom in a particular region of space and reports whether it is there or not. In preliminary tests, in which the subject tries to learn how to do this, the tests could be done in the same room, as in the Bernard-Imich-Swann experiment. But then, when the task is more familiar, the tests could be done through a wall, marking on the wall through which the phantom is to be pushed. In some trials, the phantom will be there; in others it will not; and in others the amputee will merely imagine that it is there. The sequence of these trials will be determined by a standard randomizing procedure. The subject will then signal whether he or she feels the phantom or not, and will be informed when the call is correct.
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