Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Phantom Limb Pain and its Afterlife Implications

Ever heard of phantom limb pain? I saw a show about it once a long time ago on the Discovery Channel. Basically it works like this: A person has a significant body part amputated or severed (usually an arm or leg, but sometimes a breast or even an eye). After the limb or body part is gone, the person feels sensations from that missing body part. The sensations are usually painful in nature, but not always.

Wikipedia describes phantom limb pain thusly (I am removing references in the quote for your reading convenience. If you want the references, click on the Wikipedia link):

A phantom limb is the sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still attached to the body and is moving appropriately with other body parts. Approximately 50 to 80% of amputees experience these phantom sensations in their amputated limb, and the majority of these people report that the sensations are painful. Phantom sensations and phantom pain may also occur after the removal of body parts other than the limbs, e.g. after amputation of the breast, extraction of a tooth (phantom tooth pain) or removal of an eye (phantom eye syndrome).

Phantom pains can also occur in people who are born without limbs and people who are paralyzed. Phantom pains occur when the missing limb causes discomfort. Other induced sensations include warmth, cold, itching, squeezing and burning. The missing limb often feels shorter and may feel as if it is in a distorted and painful position. Occasionally, the pain can be made worse by stress, anxiety and weather changes.

For afterlife-scoffing materialists such as myself, phantom limb pain causes no controversy, and creates no explanatory problems:

Some people with phantom limbs find that the limb will gesticulate as they talk. Given the way that the hands and arms are represented on the motor cortex and language centers, this is not surprising. Some people find that their phantom limbs feels and behaves as though it is still there, others find that it begins to take on a life of its own, and doesn't obey their commands.

In the early 1990s, Tim Pons, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), showed that the brain can reorganize if sensory input is cut off. Hearing about these results. S. Ramachandran realized that phantom limb sensations could be due to "crosswiring" in the somatosenory cortex, which is located in the postcentral gyrus, and which receives input from the limbs and body. Input from the left side of the body goes to the right hemisphere and vice versa. The input from extremities comes into the somatosensory cortex in an ordered way, the representation of which is referred to as the somatosensory homonculus. Input from the hand is located next to the input from the arm, input from the foot is located next to input from the hand, and so on. One oddity is input from the face is located next to input from the hand.

Ramachandran reasoned that if someone were to lose their right hand in an accident, they may then have the feelings of a phantom limb because the input that normally would go from their hand to the left somatosensory cortex would be stopped. The areas in the somatosensory cortex that are near to the ones of the hand (the arm and face) will take over (or "remap") this cortical region that no longer has input. Ramachandran and colleagues first demonstrated this remapping by showing that stroking different parts of the face led to perceptions of being touched on different parts of the missing limb and subsequently demonstrated that the somatosensory cortex reorganizes using magnetoencephalography (MEG) which permits visualization of activity in the human brain.

But what about the afterlife-believing immaterialist? Does phantom limb pain create problems for such a worldview? Well, I believe that it depends on the immaterialist in question.

Some immaterialists may accept the above quoted materialistic explanation for phantom limb pain. This is all well and good, and I would indeed applaud any immaterialist who adopts such a materialistic explanation. But if the immaterialist accepts such a material explanation for phantom limb pain, then why not also accept a material explanation for near-death experiences, or even death itself (in other words, no afterlife and no immaterial consciousness or soul)?

But let's move on to the immaterialist who believes that phantom limb pain is the result of that part of one's spirit or soul continuing to be attached to one's body, while the corresponding physical body part is missing (By the way, the reason I'm bringing this whole topic up in the first place is because I recently had a discussion about phantom limb pain with an afterlife-believing immaterialist).

Why, if the immaterial spirit portion of the amputated limb is still "attached" to one's soul, is it uncontrollable? Shouldn't one be able to still control one's spirit limb just like one can control their own thoughts? Or why wouldn't the spirit limb disappear into the immaterial afterlife dimension and wait for the rest of one's soul to arrive upon their death? Why would a material tool such as a mirror box be so helpful in relieving the phantom limb pain if the cause of the pain is the immaterial and disembodied spiritual portion of the limb?

At one point while discussing phantom limb pain with my immaterialist friend, I took the conversation one step further. I asked, "What if one's head is amputated instead of an arm? Would the person feel phantom head pain?" To this he only laughed, as if my question was totally absurd. I considered his laugh a victory on my part. Why? Because in his laughing dismissal of my question, he revealed that he believed the soul or spirit to be materially limited to the head, and that he was assigning a spiritual-physical disconnect or independence in an arbitrary fashion.

If one's spirit exists in one's arm and one's head, than isn't it logical to conclude that one's spirit exists in the entire body? Why would a spirit be able to control a physical body that is missing an arm, but not a body that is missing a head? Why would a person's immaterial spirit or consciousness experience phantom pain when an arm is severed, but not when one's head is severed?

Isn't the immaterialist's assumption that a severed head results in death some kind of concession to the materialist position? Why can't I just cut off my head and continue to live while experiencing phantom head pain? Isn't the immaterialist's assertions regarding the spirit and various severed body parts totally arbitrary?

If I lose my hand, and I still "sense" it's existence, then why don't I still "sense" the existence of my complete and intact mental facilities when I get a frontal lobotomy? Why don't I still "sense" the existence of my head when it gets blown off? Why do I instead die and (presumably) move on to the afterlife once my head is blasted to bits?

If the destruction of my head but the preservation of the rest of my body results in ascension to the afterlife, then does only my "head" portion of the spirit ascend while my "spiritual" arms and legs remain on Earth? I doubt that any immaterialist would agree with that proposition! So why should my spiritual arm remain with me after physical amputation, if my spirit in its entirety will ascend to Heaven when something as simple as a .22 caliber bullet pierces my brain stem?

As you can see, many unusual questions arise when immaterialism is combined with phantom limb pain (or any biological phenomenon for that matter). When biological hairs are split, such as in the case of phantom limb pain, only the materialist explanation makes any sense at all.


Anonymous said...

You know, whats so interesting about this whole idea is this idea of what death means to afterlifers in the first place. Why is it that we must first die to experience heaven? What's the point? If the point for an afterlifer is that this is some kind of pre-heaven that we are living in right now, some preparatory jaunt before the big eternal, why not get it over quicker?

More importantly, and I think more relevant to your point, if phantom limb pain has to do with our 'spirit' or 'soul' being whole while our body is damaged, why does the afterlifer EVER seek medical attention? In the end, according to many afterlifers, if our body is just a vessel for our soul, but the soul itself stays intact no matter what happens, why even attempt to heal it? Why not just let things happen medically as they will, because in the end, either you will heal naturally and your soul is still intact, or you will die and go to heaven anyway.

Granted, there ARE crazy ass afterlifers who believe this, those that refuse any kind of medical attention, but they are fringe elements. In order to be consistent with being focused on the next life, it would imply a disdain for this one, and this 'earthly body'.

Damn, I think I just solved medicare/medicaid healthcare problems. Pass a law that says that if you hold a belief in the eternity of the soul, and believe that you are going to go to the afterlife, that you are barred from seeking medical attention, because it doesn't really matter in the end anyway. That leaves those doctors/medicines/hospital beds that are in short supply open to those of us who DO give a shit about this life.

I'm a genius!!!



Aaron Kinney said...

Very good points Olly. And yes, it is interesting to see afterlifers who seek material medical attention for their physical body.

Its like I said back in the day: There are no Christians [or afterlifers] in foxholes.

These people are, for the most part, materialists in practice.

Krystalline Apostate said...

A little off topic, but:
Tag, you're it.

Anonymous said...

"These people are, for the most part, materialists in practice."


@Ka, I liked your book list a lot!


BlackSun said...

Great points, Aaron. When people say that consciousness is "more than the brain," I always wonder why there are no examples of it.

In every case, when the brain is damaged or destroyed, consciousness ceases.

Remember Phineas Gage?

Could it get any more simple?

Anonymous said...

blacksun: Not to mention Clive Wearing.

V.S. Ramachandran is definitely one of my favorite neuroscientists, right alongside Antonio Damasio. He's got a great 5-part series for the BBC Reith Lectures, which addresses phantom limbs as well as synaesthesia and some other topics. Well worth a listen, especially given the topic of your blog.

Aaron Kinney said...

Thank you for the info, both Blacksun and Gene!

Strangely enough, I dont recall Clive, but I think I do recall Phineas.

Ill look up the Ramachandran stuff from the BBC. Sounds like its right up my alley!


Krystalline Apostate said...

Great post. Very interesting.
Had an interesting conversation in the park this morning. 2 guys were talking about 'feeling a presence', I explained that was simply the neural pathways. You have someone/something in your life for x amount of time, the hypothalamus builds pathways.
I gave 'em the laymen's version: they both looked a little confused as it was. Never would've gotten my workout done if I'd sallied out w/somatosensory homonculus (homonculus? What an interesting choice of terminology.)

Thanks. Fascinating, how many atheists are such avid readers.

Is anyone else having problems commenting at I tagged him, but every time I try to 'tag'/comment, I get a weird message about an uncompleted request.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Hey, Aaron:
Sorry, know I've been a pain in the ass lately. ;)

olly said...

Ka -

I was trying to comment on Joey's site too, wasn't working... not sure whats up. As for being avid readers, with rejecting the mainstream comes finding your own way... hard to do that without SOME reading I suppose. :)


Aaron Kinney said...


Thanks for the 9/11 memorial link thingy. I find it interesting, but am hesitant to sign up, because I have the feeling that my memorial to any given victim, while sincere in its homage to that person and their unjust demise, would be interpreted very unfavorably by 99% of everyone that read it.

breakerslion said...

I think I know what you're getting at with your comment above Aaron. I only wish those that sow the seeds would be the ones to pay the price. Too many proxy killings. Everywhere.

Your post reminds me of one of my own musings on the "Tramp and Shout" meme. If Gawd is supposed to bring everyone back to life on the last day, how exactly is that supposed to happen?

Is It going to clone everyone? In which case, is that really the same person?

Is It going to pick among all the lost hair, dead skin, and excreted organic matter until It has a complete set? In which case, how much of a person is in the grave and how much is in a septic tank somewhere?

May be It's going to transmute organic matter from inert materials, like clay? In which case, I'd rather be a former hammer than a former nail. And the moon really is made of green cheese. Why not?

Do these people ever really listen to what they are saying?

Krystalline Apostate said...

I find it interesting, but am hesitant to sign up, because I have the feeling that my memorial to any given victim, while sincere in its homage to that person and their unjust demise, would be interpreted very unfavorably by 99% of everyone that read it.
Thus far, no 1's taken a swing at me. We're already interpreted unfavorably anyways.
Just puttin' the 'human' in 'humanist', way I see it.

If Gawd is supposed to bring everyone back to life on the last day, how exactly is that supposed to happen?
Ingersoll did a great riff on that 1.

"We are told by this faith that at the last day all the men and women and children who have ever lived on earth will appear in the self same bodies they have had when on earth. Everyone who knows anything knows the constant exchange which is going on between the vegetable and animal kingdom. The millions of atoms which compose our bodies have all come from animals and vegetables, and they in their turn drew them from animals and vegetables which preceded them. The same atoms which are now in our bodies have previously been in the bodies of our ancestors. A man has many times been mahogany and mahogany many times man. A missionary goes to the cannibal islands and a cannibal eats him and dies. The atoms which composed the missionary's body now composes in great part the cannibal's body. To whom will these atoms belong in the morning of the resurrection?"
Funny stuff.

Aaron Kinney said...

That is definitely very interesting. Considering that there is a 99.9999% chance that at least some of your atoms belonged to another human being not too long ago. who gets which atoms?

Regarding the 9/11 thing, I was also thinking that my tribute to a victim's memory would involve an absolute impaling of government (both US and other) as well as religion in general. Considering that most victims were pro-state and pro-God, I think that my bashing of the memes that lead to the victim's death, and my chastising them for supporting such horrific ideas (God and state) would draw a bit too much fire for my patience... IMO.

What do you think? Im open to feedback here, but I feel like my tribute would be unwanted and unappreciated, considering that I am an atheist AND an anarchist :/

Krystalline Apostate said...

Considering that there is a 99.9999% chance that at least some of your atoms belonged to another human being not too long ago. who gets which atoms?
You know what the theist would say, like that old beer commercial: "Why ask why?"
Im open to feedback here, but I feel like my tribute would be unwanted and unappreciated, considering that I am an atheist AND an anarchist :/
Well, IMO, it's nigh well impossible not to step on someone else's toes in this world.
Most atheists are unwanted and unappreciated anyways.
The day's come & gone anyways. Maybe next year.

Anonymous said...

Hi - it's a frustrated Mojoey. I just wanted to clarify that I have a blogger induced problem with commenting. When I upgraded to blogger beta - well, upgrading is not the right word. When I mistakenly upgraded to blogger beta, the commenting will not accept comments from the old blogger. If you are going to comment, you must choose other, and then enter your name and site – like I did for this post.

I strongly recommend holding off upgrading until blogger gets this fixed. It has killed my posting traffic.


Unknown said...

I'm an Afterlifer,but not one of them hokey ones that you see...interesting point on the head metiphor...but if the brain is the conduit to the soul and it got severed from the body it wont receive the oxygen from the blood pumped from the heart which is in the body the brain waz severed the brain dies and soul loses for beleiving afterlife.I think Heaven and hell are in the same space just in different dimensions,there is no God that is seperate and that we are God.and I seek medical attention so I can conquor Life by living it to the fullest and that way I can meet Death with Prestige...either way whether or not there is an afterlife I could give a fuckless cuz ceasing to exist sounds just as Blissful...Peace...I have huge respect for those who shake beleifs of others because it only strengthens mine...and for those of you who are critical about spelling(many atheists are cuz it gives them a false sense in being intellectual most likely due to insecurities through childhood)...I don't give a flying fuck because you all are smart and know what I'm saying so therefore no need to put in extra effort therefore allowing efficiency...again....Peace and if there is a Heaven I'm sure ill see you there cuz christains are wrong and disbelief doesn't constitute being barred...(FUCK RELIGION)..continue focusing on the one life we live because making the world better allows smoother transition
To another plane if it exists...pardon my rambling wanted to let you know I'm not one of them zealots who attack...

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Unknown said...

Oh, you've died and come back? What was it like? Explain, closed-minded atheist.