Phantom Sensation

phantom limb
Source: BBC

*Another video on phantom sensations

The video we watched in an Anthropology of the Body lecture piqued my interest in phantom limbs. (Pardon my bad memory; I’ve forgotten names.) It was about the man who lost a forearm and was invited to test a prototype for an up and coming technology for prosthesis. He had himself a prosthetic arm that had less features i.e. did not have wrist-moving capabilities. He was amazed at what a future prosthetic arm would be able to do and was in awe of its functions and sophistication. I have to admit, before the video, I never thought much about prosthesis. I have hardly ever come across someone with a prosthetic limb. That being so, I only realised then, that prosthesis works through nerve endings, sensory neuron connections, and the conscious experience. The video was about prostheses, but it led me to think about the phantom sensation.

The terms ‘phantom limb’ and ‘phantom pains’ were introduced by physician Silas Weir Mitchell in the late 19th century (Hirstein & Ramachandran 1998; Bille et al. 2010). Phantom pains is medically defined as painful sensation of missing limbs, of which are materially absent (Bille et al. 2010).

Phantom pains occur post-amputation, which results in a loss of physical body part and effects a psychological reaction too. Psychologist Paul Schilder (in Weiss 1958) posited that the concepts of body image and self are relevant to amputation. He suggested the ‘body image’ is a link born out of the mind and the body, necessary for any body, even healthy bodies, to function (Nelson 2001) — it is how one perceives his body, and go on to manoeuvre the world through the body. After going through a bodily alteration, it is likely that one will hold on to his former body image for a period. In most cases, illusions persist through life (Müller in Wade 2003).

In the context of amputation or bodily modification, the persistence of a formal body image results in phantom sensations. For instance, psychologists found that post-plastic surgery, unless psychotherapy is instituted, improved cosmetic facial appearance is not readily celebrated (Weiss 1958). Likewise, those who amputate their limbs have to go through a change in their perception of their ‘body image’. Weiss (1958) postulated that those who do not experience phantom-limb sensations have come to terms by accepting their loss of limb and sensation. I beg to differ, as that implies that sensation is purely in the mind or about willpower. Instead, I suggest that the phantom sensation can indeed be attributed to sensations in the brain, but will extend it beyond cognitive acceptance to the biological nerve endings and neurons as well.

Philosopher René Descartes asserted that phantom sensations testify to the unreliability of the senses (Wade 2003). Looked at in another way, perhaps it testifies to the reliability of the senses but the denial of loss. What can pain do for this people? Surprisingly, it can have a functional value. The pain serves as a function to convince an amputee that has the limb — denial being the compensating mechanism (Weiss 1958).

In this sense, absence can be powerful in terms of shaping people’s perception of body image. The “presence of absence” makes for an interesting phenomenon, even extending beyond phantom sensations in amputated limbs, but to other parts of the body and types materiality loss. As Wade (2003) succinctly put it, “these phantoms have provided perception with a tangible legacy”.

*note: I couldn’t attach a video to the post unless I upgraded my plan, so I linked it instead.


1. Bille, M., F. Hastrup & T. Flohr Sørensen 2010. An anthropology of absence. (1st edition). London: Springer Verlag.

2. Nelson, D. 2001. Phantom Limbs and Invisible Hands: Bodies, Prosthetics, and Late Capitalist Identifications. Cultural Anthropology 16, 303-313.

3. Ramachandran, V. & W. Herstein 1998. The perception of phantom limbs. The D. O. Hebb lecture. Brain 121, 1603-1630.

4. Wade, N. 2003. The Legacy of Phantom Limbs. Perception 32, 517-524.



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