The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains that one of the brain’s main tasks is continually to monitor and regulate our bodily functions, and it does this through establishing self-reflexive maps – images linking circuits of neurons which are established in the brain to correspond to different bodily activities, between which there is two-way feedback. This is essential to our well-being and obviously applies to routine physical functions such as the monitoring of body temperature, or the release of hormones to increase appetite stimulated by a fragrant waft of cooking, for example. Living in the world is a complicated business, so the brain constantly keeps in touch with the feedback from various systems and continues to regulate responses.
Artist Alexa Wright has undertaken an intriguing project with patients with Phantom Limb Syndrome, which occurs where people who have has amputations continue to experience sensations in the non existent limb. Neurologists understand that sensations arise as a result of a dynamic plasticity in the brain which allows it to re-map bodily awareness, often very soon after the limb has been removed. Areas on the cortex which formerly received sensory input from the amputated limb continue to be activated from parts of the brain on adjacent areas of the cortex linked to parts of the body surface close to the amputated limb, so it feels as if the limb is still there, though not always in a normal state. ‘One man had a phantom arm fixed at right angles which he had to accommodate when passing through a door,’ writes neuro-psychologist Peter Halligan who with his colleague John Kew worked with Wright, ‘another was plagued by his phantom arm floating up through the bedclothes when he was trying to sleep.’
Wright conducted interviews with eight patients and photographed them as they appeared to the outside world and then digitally manipulated photographs to create visual evidence of their actual felt experience, reconstituting the missing limb parts. Viewing the actual and the phantomised images side by side helped patients begin to come to terms with the nature of their revised self-image. The neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has explained how patients can retain their brains through visual feedback and reports on one of his own phantom limb patients who was encouraged to place his arm in a box fitted with internal mirrors which gave the illusion that his missing arm was intact. After practising with this simple device he found that the phantom arm he had known for over ten years had all but disappeared. The experiment suggested that when his brain was presented with conflicting signals – visual feedback informing it that his arm was moving again even while his muscles denied the fact – his mind resorted to ‘a kind of denial’ and was alerted to the real situation.
Wright’s photograph’s may have a gentle therapeutic effect but they have also been exhibited in conventional gallery spaces and they are moving because of their paradoxical ordinariness, enabling viewers to share an intimate identification with the subjects’ unconventional self-perceptions. One, ‘GN’, a safety inspector who had had his right arm amputated as a result of a motorbike accident thirty four years ago, reported that his phantom limb had shrunk over the years and that he now felt only the presence of his thumb, attached to his shoulder stump.
That the brain can compensate for loss, even if in strange ways, that it can continue to alter and re-programme itself, is somehow both reassuring and marvellous too. But though we are talking here of actual material plasticity with real change in brain tissue and the brain’s capacity to invent and reinvent experience, it almost explains the flexibility and scope of the imagination. The creation and manipulation of mental maps are essential to our survival but as a secondary function they give rise to the ideas, thought, plans and fantasies by which we distinguish our imaginations, our creativity and, indeed, our art. ■
Siân Ede is Arts Director for the UK Branch of the Gulbenkian Foundation and is the author of Art & Science, of which this is an extract.