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Phantom Limbs

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Warning: this section gets gorey. We'll start off with fatality, trauma, and bear attack. Neurologists Robert Sapolsky and Antonio Damasio weigh in on 19th century philosopher William James, and his theory of emotion (and of bears), which says “emotion is a slave to physiology.”

Then we'll look at sensations of feeling that hang on long after the physiology goes away. Radiolab takes a field trip to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (a collection of medical oddities), and finds a photograph of the severed feet of Civil War soldiers (pictured, on the right.). Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, D.C., CP 1043.

And then we'll speed back into the present-day to see brain doctor V.S. Ramachandran solve the case of a painful phantom limb. Pain relief by but mere smoke and mirrors.

Comments [11]

Ann Hohmann

I am the daughter of that psychologist who wrote about changes in emotions with paraplegia. He was a psychologist at the University of Arizona when he wrote this article, 22 years after being shot in WWII.

PSYCHOPHYSIOLOGY Volume: 3 Issue: 2 Pages: 143-& Published: 1966

My father would never deny that feelings of anger about the injury were intense. In fact he was a consultant (along with all the rest of the paraplegics in the VA SCI center in Southern Calfornia) to the movie, The Men (1950). Marlon Brando learned what emotions to show in that movie by talking with these men. Many of these men were extras in the movie and several were my honorary uncles.

My father wrote that article after years of living in a wheelchair. The statements he makes in the article were not meant to be "hard" science. But he wanted to stimulate the discussion about William James' hypothesis by providing information about the lived experiences of men who had spent all or almost all of their adult lives in wheelchairs.

I wrote to Dr. Demasio after I heard this Radio Lab and told him what I knew. He stated that he could not remember any Radio Lab recording he had done on emotion.

Aug. 07 2017 05:39 PM
Randal Samstag from Bainbridge Island, WA

Many have debunked the James - Lange theory embraced by your guests for good reason, including, famously, Ludwig Wittgenstein. See this devastating (IMHO) rebuttal by philosopher Colin McGinn: " . . .the horribleness of my grief when someone I love dies cannot be explained as the horribleness of the sensations I feel in my body. It results, rather, from the horribleness of what my grief is about; my bodily sensations may not be particularly horrible in themselves."

Aug. 07 2016 08:38 PM

The glib assurance that Radiolab and your selected guests have discovered the mechanism of emotion is incredibly irritating for a person with paraplegia like myself. For instance, you have a guest who references an un-named but apparently "famous" psych who became paraplegic and confirmed that those with no/less body sensation due to spinal cord injury ("SCI")feel less emotion; the psychologist's name is never mentioned and I have never been able to locate this groundbreaking research we are assured is out there. I first heard this theory as a newly injured para 23 years ago, sitting in on my first class after my hospital stay. Having only weeks ago suffered the emotional trauma of losing my ability to walk, stand, run, feel, I knew this theory was ablist misunderstanding. It annoyed me so much I researched the theory and the "evidence" and found only one study, done on 10 Korean War vets, quads who were _asked_ if there was a "difference" in their emotion vs their able body emotions. This questionnaire was given in the early 1960's, 30 years before the ADA, at a time when those with SCI lived hopeless lives and person who has sustained such an injury was simply a burden to society. I could find no "famous paraplegic psychologist" writing on this theme, and when the fictitious doctor's research is mentioned, his procedure (if he actually existed) was entirely unprofessional and worthless.

Radiolab is Ablist/bigotted against the disabled. For your production company to re-broadcast this episode with no counter argument or even mention of the many who disagree with the theory (there are numerous reactions on line to this episode of Radiolab, including one on the site for the Reeve Foundation) is irresponsible. Is there ANY other group that Radiolab would produce such a one sided view about the inferiority of said group? People listening to your program will now think they know about the mechanism of emotion, that people with spinal cord injuries have no emotion and are therefore sub-human. I'll probably listen to Radiolab again sometime, but I will never do so thinking that I have learned anything from the discussion.

Aug. 07 2016 03:26 PM
Nicolien van Schouwen from Washington, D.C.

Listening to the fascinating story of mind-body relationship, my mind swung back to my brain operation 14 years ago. My vision started to get impaired slightly due to a benign tumor ( meningioma) growing around my optic nerve and carotic arteries located behind the middle of my forehead, where both cross over. The operation took 11 hours and I lost the vision in one eye ( which was supposed to stay healthy and working) and half the vision on the other eye ( which was predicted). Human errors happen and by peeling the meningioma loose from the optic nerve the doc might have cut more than intended.
1. My vision was so blurred that I needed help with everything. It took exactly 14 days when try brain suddenly made my vision sharp, , the brain had figured out how to refocus. Now I wanted to start drawing, writing since I am a garden designer.
2. I could not write, made one letter and then it became a line. The eye- hand coordination in my brain seemed fine but starting to write it was not. I knew how to write and started practicing writing letters. When writing I "lost" my hand with pencil, got scared and did not know where it was....had to follow my arm from my shoulder to my hand to find it . The hand felt touch but did not react to my command to get to the paper. My ffield of vision was severely impaired And not " seeing" the hand made me loose touch with that part of the body, it felt it was not mine. I practiced daily for many months, learning how to scan to find my hand until slowly over time it became part of me again. This show reminded me of that di appropriated feeling between my brain and my hand.

Dec. 07 2014 01:41 PM
Mark Bowers from Orlando, FL

We run a sensory deprivation center in Baldwin Park / Orlando Florida and regularly hear of all kinds of similar experiences from our 'floaters'. Our tanks have 1000 lbs of epsom salt and water solution at skin temperature; after a few minutes floating without gravity, in the dark, in water the same temperature of your skin, your brain begins to do all kinds of wonderful and unusual things as it no longer has to deal with the 'physical' side of reality. Most everyone comes out feeling incredible, some with very fascinating stories. I really enjoyed this podcast. It was interesting to hear the mind body relationship described as a conversation. Exploring your mind without the g-force required under the experiments in the podcast can be a life changing experience.

Dec. 06 2014 02:16 PM
Frank Thorne from Clovis, NM

This is all fine and good but having used Isolation Tanks; Williams James idea no body no feeling does not match the reality of my many times where I had no sensation of my body but had often intense emotions. Go float see for yourself.

Nov. 23 2013 03:16 PM
l w calhoun from Atlanta

Phantom pains from a limb that's been amputated might be similar to a computer having an address to a memory location that no longer exists.

Sep. 12 2012 06:38 PM


I think this might be the study mentioned in the episode:

Feb. 28 2012 10:48 PM
Casper Reaves from Los Angeles

I heard this show for the second time today. One comment which struck me was when talking about physicians after the Civil War having amputation patients talk about phantom limbs. And for physicians at the time, they did not even know about germs.

Very interesting statement in terms of the History of Science and how key discoveries like germs, atomic theory, or duality of light influence how science and medicine is applied and further researched.

Sep. 26 2010 06:55 PM
Deborah from Montreal

Hey Radiolab

This episode was just earth shattering for me, I was so interested in the connection between the body and the brain and emotions -

I was the most impressed by the story told by Dr. Antonio Damasio about a psychologist who became paraplegic and then noticed that he started to feel less emotions. That is incredible. however, I have tried to research this fact to get some more info and found nothing. I looked up Antonio Damasio on some scientific search engines, since he said 'there is plenty of data on paraplegics and emotions'... and I could not find a single article he wrote about the topic. Or anyone else for that matter. I have been searching for hours.

the only thing i did find was a bunch of blogs - blogs that comment on your show says that paraplegics have less feeling... so obviously this 30 seconds blurb in your show has had a lot of impact....but I am yet to find data backing it up. I really wish Dr. Damasio had at least mentioned the name of this famous psychologist who became paraplegic and then felt less emotion... or had referenced something to support what he said... I am finding nothing!

Jul. 04 2010 11:37 AM
clark from New Kingston, NY

This stuff is right in line with vipassana meditation - where one can sit and observe the sensations of the body - and realize exactly what you're saying here - that the body begins changing sensations before the mind actually registers, recognizes and cognizes the feeling. Careful observation via vipassana is fascinating, particularly if you do it for 10 days in straight silence. :) (See for more info on that.)

once again, radiolab is right on target!

Dec. 16 2008 10:23 AM

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