Phantom Limbs and Moby Dick

Phantom limbs are one of the strangest phenomenon you'll ever hear about. As far as I can tell, phantom limbs were first described by Herman Melville, who gave Ahab, the gnarly sea captain of Moby Dick, a "sensory ghost". Ahab is missing a leg (Moby Dick ate it), and in Chapter 108, he summons a carpenter to fashion him a new ivory peg-leg. Ahab tells the carpenter that he still feels his amputated leg "invisibly and uninterpenetratingly." His phantom limb is like a "poser". "Look," Ahab says, "put thy live leg here in the place where mine was; so, now, here is only one distinct leg to the eye, yet two to the soul. Where thou feelest tingling life; there, exactly there, there to a hair, do I. Is't a riddle?"

Twelve years later, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a "doctor of nerves" at Turner's Lane hospital in Pennsylvania, noticed that many of his soliders injured during the Battle of Gettysburg displayed a strange set of symptoms: After their limbs were amputated, it was not uncommon for a soldier to continue to "feel" their missing arms and legs. The patients said it was like living with a ghost. Their own flesh had returned to haunt them.

Weir Mitchell went on to write several medical reports about the "sensory ghost" phenomenon. He even wrote a short story about it, entitled "The Case of George Dedlow," which was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1866. (Readers thought George Dedlow was a real person, and started a collection for him.) Even William James got in on the action, and wrote an 1887 article on "The Consciousness of Lost Limbs." (James loved this sort of "psychical" stuff.)

But most scientists and doctors didn't know what to do with this phenomenon. It was just too strange, too immaterial. After Weir Mitchell became a full time novelist, sensory ghosts lapsed into obscurity. Sadly, it would take another 30 years - and another brutal war - before sensory ghosts were re-discovered. In 1917, confronted by the maimed soldiers of WWI, the neurologist J. Babinski described his own version of sensory ghosts. He makes no mention of Herman Melville, William James or Weir Mitchell.

Now we are fighting another war, and, as always, many soldiers return home missing a limb. A significant percentage of these soldiers will develop "phantom limbs". But now, almost 150 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, we finally have a way to treat these "ghosts":

Scientists have developed a computer system which allows amputees to see and move a 3D "phantom limb" in place of their lost one, it was revealed yesterday.

In a small study, the system, created by scientists at the University of Manchester, has helped some patients suffering from a condition known as phantom limb pain - discomfort felt by a person in a limb that is missing due to amputation.

Project leader Craig Murray, of the university's school of psychological sciences, said: "One patient felt that the fingers of her amputated hand were continually clenched into her palm, which was very painful for her.

"However, after just one session using the virtual system she began to feel movement in her fingers and the pain began to ease."


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Silas Weir Mitchell was a great American neurologist. Unfortunately, he's best known now for pioneering "the rest cure," which became a common treatment for hysteria and other afflictions of the "frail female nervous system". (See, for example, "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.)…
Phantom limb syndrome has always been intertwined with war. It was first discovered by Silas Weir Mitchell after the Battle of Gettysburg, when the hospitals of Philadelphia were overwhelmed by soldiers with amputated limbs. Many of these soldiers said that they still felt their missing arms and…
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If someone told you that they wanted to have a perfectly good leg amputated, or that they have three arms, when they clearly do not, you would probably be inclined to think that they are mentally disturbed. Psychiatrists, too, considered such conditions to be psychological in origin. Voluntary…

After Weir Mitchell became a full time novelist...

A slight correction: Mitchell never became a full time novelist until he was too infirm to work. He spent his winters on medicine, his summers writing novels, poems and short stories.

Thanks for the correction. Weir Mitchell was quite the polymath. Now that our culture is so interested in "consilience," it only seems fair that we rescue Weir Mitchell from the shadow of "The Yellow Wallpaper". He did many things besides invent the rest cure.

Interesting. I didn't know Moby Dick was first.

By math teacher (not verified) on 15 Nov 2006 #permalink

This is an interesting advance in the treatment of phantom limbs, but not, in fact, the first successful attempt to treat them. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran made a break through in treating phantoms some time ago. He discovered that phantoms were the result of cross wiring in the somatosensory cortex.

According to Ramachandran, phantom limbs arise in some people because when the somatosensory cortex learns an arm, for instance, is out of commission, it decides to delegate arm space for another purpose. The neurons correlating with the face in the somatosensory cortex start invading the neighboring area associated with the arm. The face neurons and the arm neurons began to overlap. So, when the sufferer's face neurons are stimulated, it inadvertently triggers feelings in the missing appendage.

For reasons that are too complicated to go into here, Ramachandran surmised that patients couldn?t control their phantom limbs because of cross wiring in their optic circuitry. So, he designed a simple contraption to prove his hypothesis. He took a cardboard box, cut two armholes in the side, and placed a mirror inside. When subjects put their working arms and phantoms in the box, it created the illusion that they were seeing both their limbs.

This tricked their optic circuitry into recognizing the phantom, which enabled patients to "move" them. In some cases, the illusion actually resulted in the disappearence of the phantom.

(For more on this see:…)

My guess is that the research being conducted at the University of Manchester was spurred by Ramachandran's findings.

Weir Mitchell was quite the polymath. Now that our culture is so interested in "consilience," it only seems fair that we rescue Weir Mitchell from the shadow of "The Yellow Wallpaper". He did many things besides invent the rest cure.

You may be the only person interested in my current dissertation chapter, then. It addresses the collision of Mitchell's beliefs about social evolution (as reflected in his historical novels) and his thoughts about biological evolution (largely Lamarckian). Not that I'd inflict it on you, but I thought I'd try to explain why I piped up with that condescending correction...