The neuroscience of an unwanted limb

ABC Catalyst has a completely astounding video on someone with ‘body integrity identity disorder’ who deliberately caused a leg amputation to feel satisfied with their body. It goes on to explore the neuroscience of body image and explores some of the best known body swap experiments.

The voice over is a bit cheesy in places but otherwise it’s brilliantly explained, linking an unusual condition with the experimental lab science.

People described as having BIID feel as if a perfectly healthy limb is not really part of them. Like Robert Vickers, the man featured in the documentary, they can sometimes take extreme measures to get it amputated.

Preliminary evidence suggests that it might arise from a distortion of our neurally mapped body image and recent studies using the rubber hand illusion or the body swap illusion have been thought to tap the same sort of body image distorting effects.

One of the most compelling parts of the documentary is when the gentleman with BIID actually takes part in all the experiments.

After he takes part in the rubber hand illusion the presenter asks a really interesting question: “Is this anything like you experienced with your leg?”, “No” he answers, giving her a look like she’s a bit crazy.

This is the sort of question that is almost never asked by cognitive scientists. We create what we think is something similar in the lab, and then study it to death, but rarely do we actually get people with similar distortions to try it out and ask them what they make of it.

Vickers also recently recorded a programme for ABC Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor where he talks incredibly eloquently about the experience of his body, the turmoil of having an unwanted healthy limb and gives a remarkably good review of the scientific literature.

Both are highly recommended.

Link to amazing Catalyst programme on BIID.
Link to Robert Vickers on Ockham’s Razor.

3 thoughts on “The neuroscience of an unwanted limb”

  1. Interesting as it seems to be denial without neglect. I’ve just finished Ramachandran’s chapter in his book Phantoms in the Brain in which he talks about denial patients who refuse to believe a limb belongs to them. Of course, these patients are more unusual in that they are neglecting the left side of their bodies as not existing, but the man in this article seems similar in that he feels as though the limb does not belong to him, even though he does recognise it’s part of his body.
    Interesting too that it was his left leg. Left neglect tends to be chronic whereas right side neglect tends to get better. I’ve also encountered much more confabulation in my frontal clients who have right frontal lobe damage. Ramachandran has some interesting ideas in his chapter, and goes so far as to suggest that limb denial is possibly a neurological example of the Freudian concept of denial. Its certainly an interesting left/right hemisphere distinction.

  2. It’s worth noting that BIID also expresses itself by a need to be paraplegic, or to be blind, or to be deaf. Different individuals have different needs than amputation.
    If you are interested in learning more about BIID, you may wish to visit a resource site about BIID with most of the academic writing about BIID. You may also wish to visit a multi-author blog about the experience of living with BIID.
    Disclosure: I am the site owner and primary author on both sites, and I have BIID.

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