I want you to do a thought experiment with me.
I want you to imagine this: Imagine an island where, because of genetically inherited traits, an entire society of people has been born without arms. Always have been.
They’ve learned how to get along anyhow and live their lives, as humans will. And because this island is in a remote place where visitors are not welcome, no one on this island has ever seen a person with arms. Every human they’ve ever seen has been just like them. Do you have such a place visualized?
Now I want you to think about this: In a place where every human being is armless, armless people are the norm, in fact the only kind of people. The word “armless” itself is meaningless. They would have no idea what an “arm” looks like or is, or any reason to make any random mental leap that there could ever be such a thing as an “arm.” Okay, I want you to remember our island, but put it on hold for right now. We’ll come back to it in a little bit.
For right now I want to talk about some things in the real world.
In his book Hallucinations, famous neurologist Oliver Sacks describes something called Phantom Limb Syndrome. It’s a very common condition for those who have had a limb amputated. Phantom Limb Syndrome is when they feel the illusion of a limb, where the one they lost would be. They know the limb is not really there. But their brain makes them feel the limb anyway.
We know, with our crude understanding, that parts of our body are “mapped” to certain regions of our brains. The part of our brain that controls our eyes, for example, is in a specific place – the same place for everybody. The part that controls our left toe, or our tongue, and receives signals from them: these are all specific sections. The fingertips, Sacks point out, have a remarkably huge corresponding section in our brains. This makes sense because fingers have been so important to human beings, both in our daily lives and in our rise to the top of the evolutionary food chain.
The neurological “mapping” of body and brain is so specific that it can be manipulated (with a hand) during brain surgery. No kidding. For certain types of brain surgery (such as removal of epileptic sites that cause seizures), the patient will remain awake with their head opened while the doctor physically maps out their brain. The doctor will stimulate different sections of the brain, and the patient will report out. If a doctor stimulates this tiny section of the brain, the patient will feel like someone is pulling their toe. If the doctor stimulates this other section of the brain, the patient can see star shapes, or smell cooking brownies, or have any of the billions of other experiences that humans have, all between our senses and our brain.
It makes sense then that even if your arm or leg is removed, you might still “feel” something is there, because even though the external limb is gone, all the sections of your brain that have always been mapped to that limb are still there, functioning away. The drone has crashed but the remote-control pilot is still in headquarters with all his screens, pressing controls and moving his joystick about.
A really interesting thing is this: some people who were born without the arm or leg in the first place will also feel a “phantom limb.” Isn’t that something? This means their brains were provided by genetics and nature with the architectural framework to sense and control an appendage that was never there. This is important for later.
The brain, of course, does not receive what is called “proprioceptive feedback” from a phantom limb: the “report back” of sensation and data that a real limb would give. So over time what the brain will do is, it will start to re-map its neurological areas. This can get real uncomfortable for the person with the phantom limb. Sacks gives us some examples in his book. Some people report the phantom arm-section “disappears,” for instance, leaving a phantom hand attached to a shoulder (probably because the neurological framework of the hand is so strong it doesn’t go away). Some people say a phantom hand will clench up or no longer do what they want it to do, which can get very painful.
Remember, even though the arm is not really there, pain is all signals in your brain, which can be very real. Consider a migraine, for instance. No real part of your external body is in pain with a migraine – it’s just in the brain – but it hurts like a bitch. Now for phantom limb pain doctors can use a mirrored box that makes it look to your brain like the missing hand is there, and therapy with that visual feedback can help the pain go away. Isn’t that something?
People with missing limbs also report that putting on a prosthetic is like slipping their phantom limb into a glove, giving it a physical manifestation on the outside which the phantom limb can be used to control. Someone whose phantom leg twitch and hurt uncontrollably can slip the prosthetic leg on “over” the phantom limb and then control it. It changes their lives. This is important too.
Okay, so that’s all the fascinating real-life medical stuff. Are you ready to go back to our island? Remember, from the beginning? Let’s take these ideas back to our island, in the theoretical world of creative conjecture.
Remember, everyone on the island is born without arms and have never seen a person with arms, so human being to them is an armless person. But now let’s also say that some of these people, in varying degrees, have Phantom Limb Syndrome – a likely thing that happens.
Think about this.
Do you think, wouldn’t their phantom limbs lead them to the inescapable sensation that something was missing, that even though no one has arms, the idea, the concept of an arm could be something deeply felt, desired in a vague, perhaps indefinable way? And if only some of the population had Phantom Limb Syndrome for their arms, wouldn’t they feel they were somehow different or special, to think that something is not quite the way it should be, even though armless people are of course normal?
Wouldn’t they feel they were having sensations of an inexplicable kind which nevertheless felt completely real and important regarding something they felt but had never been shown? And, isn’t that something we feel, sometimes?
Okay, now this: Having never seen any arm, of any human kind, could the people of this island properly envision what an arm looks like? Wouldn’t they, from their purely nebulous and elusive sensations, all have a different idea of what an arm is, or maybe not even clearly formulate the concept that what they felt was an arm?
Can’t this happen with things even more complicated with arms?
We are done exploring our theoretical island. Let’s talk about us.
Do you think there are things, important things, we know of and feel nostalgia for, which we cannot even put in words, just out of our reach? Things our wonderful brains are capable of sensing – giant things that might be what make us so great as a species. Even though we’ve never agreed on exactly what they mean, and if we’re pressed for specifics, we’ll be at a loss, or we’ll do our best and come up with wildly different definitions around the same things (think about how religions are the same, and how they are incompatible too). The way someone would try to describe something they have a phantom framework for but have never seen?
Isn’t it possible that our brains have been provided with the architecture in ourselves for these important things we know we’re attuned to feel even though our raw intellect is lacking in the functions to make sense of them? The way that a person with Phantom Limb has the higher brain power to feel a limb even though the physical reality is the limb just is not present? Mightn’t we all be an island of armless people, when it comes to these great human things, with some feeling their Phantom Limbs more than others and reaching for an explanation even though we’re all inventing our own concept of those aspirations purely on guesswork from our own imaginations, devoid so far of proprioceptive feedback?
Are we making that mirror-box when we make that story, that painting, that song? Are we slipping on that prosthetic when we drive with an arm out the window in the middle of the night, when we love somebody?
Are we all going to try to build those vehicles in our world, those real things that allow us to press our greatest human notions into a concrete manifestation, to provide ourselves and each other with the feedback and the control to birth into our lives the things we see inside which make us so worthwhile?