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Revealing the invisible: the paradox of picturing a phantom limb

G. D. Schott
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awt244 960-969 First published online: 24 September 2013


Illustrations of phantom limbs are intriguing as they depict an invisible perception. But such illustrations are also important: they provide a form of objectivity to phenomena, which particularly in the past, have often stretched credulity. Acknowledging the paradox of using images to reveal an absent though sensate body part, depictions of phantom limbs are discussed from the neurological perspective, starting with medieval pictures that showed the miraculous restoration of limbs, and which possibly represented pictorial metaphors for a phantom limb. Centuries later, phantom limbs—whether resulting from amputation or deafferentation—became illustrated, and some reasons for their illustration are considered. Although often depicted by others, the most precise and perhaps revealing illustrations of these phantoms have been those made when patients guide the artist, or draw the phantom themselves. In the case of phantom pains, the painful component too is sometimes illustrated, again, as with the miraculous, in metaphorical terms. More recently, depictions of phantoms have also been revealing in studies of some underlying mechanisms of phantom phenomena, notably in demonstrating novel patterns of referred sensations after amputation and attributable to cortical plasticity. Mention is made of photographs of phantom hands visualized using a mirror box, such visualization recalling full circle the miraculous restoration of limbs pictured in the past. The nature of the outline of the phantom is included in a discussion of demarcation of an invisible body part, before concluding that images of phantom limbs provide an invaluable background to understanding and studying these remarkable sensory phenomena.

  • phantom limb
  • illustration
  • miracle
  • perception
  • deafferentation
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