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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dreaming of a Painless Future

V.S.Ramachandran in his lucid and accessible book 'Phantoms in the Brain' writes:
As with most nature/nurture debates, asking which is the more important variable is meaningless - despite extravagant claims to the contrary in the IQ literature. (Indeed, the question is no more meaningful than asking whether the wetness of water results mainly from the hydrogen molecules or from the oxygen molecules that constitute H2O!). But the good news is that by doing the right kinds of experiments, you can begin to tease them apart, investigate how they interact and eventually help develop new treatments for phantom pain. It seems extraordinary even to contemplate the possibility that you could use a visual illusion to eliminate pain, but bear in mind that pain itself is an illusion - constructed entirely in your brain like any other sensory experience. Using one illusion to erase another doesn't seem very surprising after all.
Phantom limbs, for those who don't know what it is, are imaginary limbs that continue to exist in the mind in spite of a specific limb being amputated. Strangely, some of those who have phantom limbs feel extra-ordinary physical pain in those limbs. Sounds crazy from a common sense perspective to realize that someone who doesn't have an arm is boggled down by unimaginable pain in that arm. As neuroscience has put the spotlight on, the pain is very real and V.S.Ramachandran, a leading neuroscientist has developed a gimmick of a solution which involves a mirror through which the patient can see his/her phantom limb to get rid of it and eventually the pain born out of it.

I didn't know until I read this book that physical pain is an illusion constructed in the brain. I've read before that there are no pain receptors in the brain (which is why those who contemplate suicide try to shoot themselves in their brains). But this fact makes sense from an evolutionary vantage point - pain is the brain's way of instructing the animal: guard your body & keep it safe so that you remain fit enough to pass on your genes. Just for a crazy split-second, I thought: if the wiring in your brain is screwed up where you don't feel pain anymore, wouldn't that be cool?

The author mentions that in some cultures women don't experience any pain during labour. With these women as inspiration, you rewire your circuit such that the pain receptors are out of the brain's normal functioning (I don't think the medical technology is yet there, but let me just hypothesize). You're a cop operating on a risky route; you bust gang and in the process you get shot on your shoulders. You don't feel any pain but you can see blood gushing out of you. With a cool head, you wrap a piece of cloth or get whatever first-aid possible. Call an ambulance, explain your situation and give them your location. Of course, there's a lot of exaggeration involved in that scenario, but I hope the point is clear.

And then I got back from my reverie. My knowledge of physiology, brain's response to a biological crisis & human immunity is just damn flimsy. But wishful thinking never hurt anyone.

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