Our brains sometimes just refuse to believe the truth. No, we’re talking not deniers or conspiracy theorists today—just phantom limbs.
If you ask RN, a 57-year-old woman, she would agree that she does not have a right hand: it was amputated after a bad car crash when she was 18. She would also tell you that she has never had a right index finger: she was born with a congenital deformity that gave her only the rudiment of a thumb, immobile ring and middle fingers, and no index finger at at all. More than 35 years after the amputation, she feels pain in a phantom right hand, which has five—not four—fully mobile fingers.
One day you might not have to ask someone to lend a helping hand–because you’ll have a third arm of your own. At least, that’s a possible application of a mental trick scientists performed on 154 healthy volunteers: These men and women were made to feel as if they had three arms.
To pull off this ruse, the researchers placed a prosthetic arm next to a volunteer’s two real arms, and they touched the subject’s right hand and the rubber hand in exactly the same place at the same time. Because the taps were synchronized, the volunteer’s brain was tricked into feeling them both. According to Science Daily:
“What happens then is that a conflict arises in the brain concerning which of the right hands belongs to the participant’s body,” says Arvid Guterstam, one of the scientists behind the study. “What one could expect is that only one of the hands is experienced as one’s own, presumably the real arm. But what we found, surprisingly, is that the brain solves this conflict by accepting both right hands as part of the body image, and the subjects experience having an extra third arm.”
To prove that the test subjects really were having three-arm experiences, the scientists threatened both the fake and real hands with a knife, and determined that the subjects’ palms sweated the same amount in both circumstances. In other words, they had the same stress levels regardless of whether a real hand or the prosthetic was in danger.
As for applications, the researchers surmise that similar techniques could help someone paralyzed on one side to gain a feeling of ownership over a prosthetic. “It is also conceivable that people with demanding work situations could benefit of an extra arm, such as firemen during rescue operations, or paramedics in the field,” the study’s leader, Henrik Ehrsson, told Science Daily. Hey, what about the rest of us?
See Ed Yong’s post on Not Exactly Rocket Science for more details…
80beats: In a Sensory Hack, What You Touch Affects What You See
80beats: Virtual Reality Gives Out-of-Body-and-Into-Someone-Else’s Experience
80beats: DARPA’s Next Prosthetic Arm Will Connect to Your Brain
Not Exactly Rocket Science: The Quantum Leap effect – creating a body-swapping illusion
Image: Guterstam et al.