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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 [6]

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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