Phantoms in the Brain (episode 1)

We take 'the normal' for granted in our everyday experience, but the brain processes responsible for creating our sense of normality are incredibly complex. You may think that you know the position and state of your arm because your brain senses it, but the reality is that in addition to that sense, your brain contains a cortical map of your arm, which in normal circumstances happens to coincide with the position and state of your arm, in which case nothing out of the ordinary would be experienced.

But if we don't experience this split, how do we know this is the case? Because patients with phantom limb syndrome, for instance, have sensory experiences of their limbs, sometimes even painful, even when these limbs have been amputated or lost in some other way long ago. In extreme cases, patients may feel the presence of a body part that they never had to begin with, as in the case of physiological females who experience a phantom penis and even phantom erections.

V. S. Ramachandran is one of the Sherlock Holmes types of the neurological world, playing detective and trying to paint a coherent picture of how our brains work and produce our sense of self, freedom, personhood and normality by looking at those cases that fall outside the realm of the normal. Rather than dismissing his patients as crazy or delusional, he has taken the accounts of their odd experiences seriously and attempted to understand the neurological basis for their conditions. His findings are truly fascinating, as you can see in the first part of this fascinating documentary.

Click here to check out more Ramachandran goodies.

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