In an article from last Saturday’s Guardian, Rick Hemsley describes his experience of Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, the neurological condition in which the perception of one’s body is distorted:
Floors either curved or dipped, and when I tried walking on them, it felt as though I was staggering on sponges. When I lay in bed and looked at my hands, my fingers stretched off half a mile into the distance.
…my symptoms just got worse. Everything was now distorted, all the time. Walking down the road, parked cars appeared the size of Corgi models, while I’d feel disproportionately tall. At work, my chair seemed enormous, while I seemed to have shrunk.
Seeing the world through a fisheye lens made day-to-day life very difficult. Unable to judge distances accurately, I would often move clumsily or overcompensate. Soon I found it a struggle to leave the house; I had difficulty correctly perceiving the ground, so walking was tricky…Crossing the road began to feel dangerous; when I saw a car coming, I had no idea what size it was, or how far away.
And, via Jonah, here’s an interview with a man called “Jason”, who has body integrity identity disorder (BIID), and who amputated his own hand because “having two hands was a defect – something that was not meant to be.”
Both of these conditions occur as a result of abnormal activity in the somatosensory system. Alice in Wonderland Syndrome is, for example, associated with lesions in parts of the parietal lobe which integrate higher order somatosensory information.
It is also associated with migraines, and can be experienced as hallucinations which are part of the aura that sometimes precedes the headache. The body distortions that occur have been depicted by a number of migraine artists. Thus, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome is probably experienced transiently in most cases, with the distorted body image accompanying a surge of abnormal electrical activity. Hemsley’s case is, however, extreme, and also rather persistent.
From a neurological viewpoint, BIID can be considered as a form of somatoparaphrenia, a condition in which one denies ownership of a part of their body. This can be associated with various neuropsychiatirc disorders, and patients are sometimes under the delusion that their limb is under the control of some external force.
Like “Jason”, most people with the condition report that they have always felt as if there was something wrong or odd about a particular part of their body. This is, therefore, likely occur as a result of congenital abnormalities in the connectivity of somatosensory circuits. Rearrangement of these same circuits is, of course, the basis for phantom limb syndrome, which is experienced by a large proportion of amputees.