UPDATING THE BRAIN
In his book, The Brain That Changes Itself neuropsychiatrist Norman Doidge, MD gives many impressive accounts of brains that changed. One example is “phantom limb pain”, where severe, chronic pain seems to come from a limb that has in fact been amputated. How can a hand hurt so much when it isn’t even there?
Doidge explains that the pain never does come from the limb – even before amputation – but from the brain. What happens after amputation is that the brain continues to generate the pain that had occurred at the time of injury, and gets stuck with that pain signal. The signals get stuck because the brain doesn’t get the opportunity to be updated, as it would have done if the limb had remained and healed.
One doctor came up with a remarkable solution that’s now widely used with those who suffer in this way. He had a box constructed with a mirror that would go out at right angles in front of the person sitting at it. A man who had one arm amputated sat at a table with the box, and he put his existing arm out in front of him. With his head in just the right position, the reflection in the mirror made it look like he had two good arms.
The man took the box home and sat with it for ten minutes twice a day. His eyes kept seeing two healthy arms – and that was enough to update his brain. On a scale of 1 to 10, his pain reduced from 9 to 2 within three weeks, and corresponding changes in the brain were confirmed through fMRI brain scans.