Objects become extensions of us
Around that same time, neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran was exploring this kind of phenomenon with amputees who experience phantom limb pain. Phantom limb pain is when an amputee feels excruciating pain in the limb that has been amputated. It might seem impossible, but it makes sense when you think about how the brain codes for that limb and how the brain reorganizes itself upon losing that limb.
For instance, if an arm is amputated just below the elbow, groups of neurons that used to code for the hand obviously no longer receive sensory input from the mechanoreceptors in that hand. Over time, some of those neurons gradually develop connections to nearby neurons that have been coding for the elbow, which is still receiving sensory input.
Sometimes those connections can cause the brain to think that the hand has somehow moved up right next to the elbow. Your brain knows full well that if your right hand were curled up so much as to be close to your right elbow, it would be incredibly painful. (Don’t try this at home.) So, the brain naturally generates a pain response. If the missing limb were still there, some movement of it would quickly allow the brain to figure out that the hand is not at all curled up like that. With the limb missing, there’s no way for the brain to use proprioception to figure this out. However, with visual input, it can.
Ramachandran had the genius idea to place a mirror next to the amputee’s intact limb. When the patient sits in the right position and the mirror is set at the proper angle, the reflection of the intact limb looks to the patient just like a copy of the missing limb, and in a location where that missing limb would naturally be. Movements of the intact limb are visually processed by the patient’s brain as copycat movements of the missing limb as well. Thus, if a patient is feeling pain in their phantom right arm, watching a mirrored reflection of their left hand clench and unclench a fist can train their brain to realize that the (missing) right arm is not at all contorted in a manner that should cause pain. For cramping and other muscular pain in the phantom limb, Ramachandran’s procedure is remarkably effective.
Whether they are tools, toys, or mirror reflections, external objects temporarily become part of who we are all the time. When I put my eyeglasses on, I am a being with 20/20 vision, not because my body can do that — it can’t — but because my body-with-augmented-vision-hardware can. So that’s who I am when I wear my glasses: a hardware-enhanced human with 20/20 vision.
If you have thousands of hours of practice with a musical instrument, when you play music with that object, it feels like an extension of your body — because it is. When you hold your smartphone in your hand, it’s not just the morphological computation happening at the surface of your skin that becomes part of who you are. As long as you have Wi-Fi or a phone signal, the information available all over the internet (both true and false information, real news and fabricated lies) is literally at your fingertips. Even when you’re not directly accessing it, the immediate availability of that vast maelstrom of information makes it part of who you are, lies and all. Be careful with that.
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