Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mirror, Mirror

One of the most interesting, exciting, and totally inexpensive medical cures in recent times is the mirror cure for pain that often occurs in missing limbs. It's called phantom pain and is quite excruciating.

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!

(Photo credit )


One of The Guys said...

Great post! Very interesting stuff. And yes, my brain hurts thinking about it.

The brain gets fooled all the time. Yes, images on TV, Movies, everywhere.

Even makeup on a women can send a false message. (Not that I don't like it) But sometimes I wonder if we're programming ourselves to not even know what reality is anymore.

Or is reality just what our brain decides it is?

P. M. Doolan said...

Apparently it will also work without a mirror. Simply massaging another persons limb will help if the patient is watching. The mirror neaurons in the brain react the same, regardless of who is receiving the massage. This is explained by V.S. Ramachandran in the follwing TED lecture: http://www.ted.com/talks/vilayanur_ramachandran_on_your_mind.html

ChrisJ said...


I have come to the conclusion that the mind sees what it believes, and the brain believes what it sees.

As for reality, who knows - maybe a combination?

ChrisJ said...


Thanks for the link to the TED video. Ramachandran's work is mentioned in the Scientific American article as the first major contributor to this research.

askcherlock said...

I look at children today who play those violent videos and wonder whether there is a subliminal message sent to their synapses that that tell them violence is the way to resolve conflict. Glad I'm not raising my kids in this age.

ChrisJ said...

I so agree. Raising kids today is too tough, and I truly believe that it's more than the usual despair over "today's youth."

Owen Gray said...

The distinction between brain and mind is intriguing. It seems true that -- sometimes -- the mind saves the brain from itself.

It's good to see you publishing again.

Pearl said...

Good to see you back btw.

Pearl said...

What freaky parallels our lives have. I was just explaining this very phenomena to my aunt and uncle a couple days ago.

I've heard obesity explained as a trick of our culture fooling the brain into thinking it must be hungry because of all the media thrill experienced. The switches that demand food click on even when we're arm chair refereeing a sports game rather than playing.

Likewise there's a skew of beauty, people believing themselves uglier and unhappier than they are being normed to a very narrow emotional and physical range from imagery of broadcast.

I'm not convinced about the dire effects of consuming violence causing violence. There seems to be a baseline level of threat that humans need and to simulate may displace doing. It does make a chemical shift in our defaults, could make us more stressed or prickly in expectations.

Would we cultivate a more even culture if we had modelled as consistency theatre and so on of cooperative reconciliation? no loss to do and worth testing out...

ChrisJ said...


Nice way to put it - the mind saving the brain from itself.(Now, if it would only prevail in some of the idiotic social research out there!)

ChrisJ said...


We buy stuff to get ourselves back to the false norm.

Maybe Thomas the Engine is right - I know I can. Don't kids who have that modelled do better?

Ciss B said...

This was really interesting to read and it is really quite a fascinating bit of information! I love to follow discoveries like this and I honestly had never heard about this before, but the mind is so terribly complex that I'm not at all surprised by this information. I'm going to have to do some searching for more info on this - that's for sure.

ChrisJ said...

I don't even know whether I'm asking the right questions, but, yes, it is so complex.

Hels said...

Welcome home Chris (to the bloggy world) :)

I am delighted to see there was an Australian involvement in the Miracle Cure, even if it was a bit peripheral :)

Years ago, in a previous incarnation, I was a psychologist. Sometimes a young woman would come in, broken hearted over some bloke who promised the world then abruptly dumped her. Nothing would make her get over him; there was no future without him; she would suicide if he didn't love her etc etc

We would practise visualising the man concerned in some _repulsive_ condition, until she couldn't even bear to think of him any longer. A favourite condition was thicky pussy snot coming out of his nose and oozing slowly down his face. It worked a treat.

ChrisJ said...


I could have used your help with ex-beau imagery a few times in my life!

The power of images is quite amazing.

angelshair said...

This is such a great topic Chris!
It talks to me a lot because I was much in the mirror thing these past few days.
In african shamanic tradition, the reflect of a person contains his vital substance. So, you attack or heal a person not by working on him, but by working on his reflect :).
I love it when science and tradition coincide together!

ChrisJ said...


This is really very interesting. thank you for adding to my understanding.

You're right about science and tradition coinciding; it's exciting.

Meam Wye said...

Very interesting and quite thought provoking article! Hope you're better now.