Intended for healthcare professionals


Phantoms in the brain

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 04 September 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:587
  1. Peter W Halligan, MRC senior research fellow,
  2. Adam Zeman, consultant neurologist,
  3. Abi Berger, science editor
  1. Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3UD
  2. Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Edinburgh, Western General Hospital, Edinburgh EH4 2XU
  3. BMJ

    Question the assumption that the adult brain is “hard wired”

    After amputation many people experience vivid sensations of the body part they have lost.1 These “sensory ghosts” can arise within hours of the loss of the limb and are often painful. Such phenomena have been a mysterious part of medical lore for over a century, but recent research suggests that phantoms can teach us substantial lessons about the organisation and plasticity of the brain.

    Fig 1.

    How amputees perceive their phantoms

    (Credit: ALEXA WRIGHT)

    Embedded Image

    We stand to learn most from phantoms if we attend closely to patients' subjective reports. One innovative study, for example, has made use of digital photography to depict how amputees perceive their phantoms (fig 1) (A Wright et al, Wellcome Trust Sci Art Project, 1997). By remaining true to patients' own experiences, the researchers found it …

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