The cure involves placing a mirror along the length of the intact leg in such a way that, from the patient's view, there appears to be a limb where there is actually none. The amputee moves the limb, wiggles toes, and bends the knee and, of course, it appears that the missing leg is doing the same.
Something about the amputee seeing the missing limb "move" tricks the brain, and the phantom pain stops or lessens.
Scientific American had an interesting article, "The Mirror Cure for Phantom Pain," by Lorimer Mosley in April 2008. Mosley discusses the research to date and what the scientific community thinks of it. The most dramatic part of the article is about an amputee Mosley met in Australia:
his remarkable method of gaining relief from an excruciating pain in his missing foot: he would put his prosthetic leg in the exact location he felt his own leg to be, and then drive a screwdriver into the painful spot. As long as he could see it, driving the screwdriver into the exact site of his pain turned it off just like a switch-he called it his 'magic button'.SEEING is the "magical" sense in the case of both the Australian amputee and patients using the mirror cure. When the brain sees the image of the missing limb (or something being done to it), it believes the limb to be present.
As exciting as this cure is for the terrible pain amputees experience, the process is also exciting for what it shows about the brain and the mind. The mind knows that there is no leg there. The brain is fooled by an image. The brain is completely literal. The brain and the mind aren't the same thing. How can they be if one knows no leg exists and the other sends out (or fails to send) signals as if it does?
The questions and possibilities raised by this simple and inexpensive cure are huge philosophically, psychologically, even ethically.
Does visualization also fool the brain? Are the images of advertising perhaps tricking the brain in some way that compels us to consume? What else can trick the brain? Does the process have an analogue with the other senses? Might it be true, after all, that violent imagery does have a negative effect on us all?
We live in an age in which the brain is worshipped. Brain-based everything is everywhere.The mind, in some quarters, is pooh-poohed as a comforting construct. The mirror cure suggests otherwise; at least it's not a closed case.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, indeed!
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