“You wanted to make damn good and sure I’d never be able to turn over in bed again without feeling that body beside me, not there but tangible, like a leg that’s been cut off. Gone but the place still hurts.” ~Margaret Atwood
The phenomenon of phantom limbs in amputees (…this is the second time this week I’ve discussed amputation, and I honestly don’t know why) is fascinating, but rather commonplace. Both a strange, frequently painful, sensory experience and a romantic notion surrounding the pain of parted lovers, the phantom limb concept is one we’re all familiar with.
These ghostly limbs usually appear in the empty space the missing limb used to take up, but sometimes, the limb appears somewhere else. Like a phantom hand attached to a cheek. And sometimes, even if the phantom sensations are located in the correct area, they can be… a bit off.
Like experiencing an orgasm in your missing foot, for instance.
Phantoms limbs themselves (and the oddities mentioned above) are the result of a form of neuroplasticity called cortical remapping. Cortical remapping is what happens in the brain after an accident or trauma. It’s the reason people with brain damage can relearn functions of movement, memory, and language- the brain forges new neural pathways and creates a work-around system. And after the trauma of a lost limb, the brain can start the remapping process for the lost sensory information.
But sometimes, the remapping can have some curious effects. Like a hand being remapped onto the corresponding cheek, with sensations felt on the cheek also being felt on the phantom hand.
Why is that?
The cortical homunculus is, basically, the brain’s map of the body. A graphic anyone with so much as an Intro to Psych background is familiar with, it depicts grossly distorted body parts along the corresponding portion of the brain responsible for movement and sensory functions:
As you can see from our little homunculus here, the portion of the brain that corresponds to the hand is next to the portion that corresponds to the face/cheek. This is why, when sensory information ceases for a hand (due to its untimely separation from the body), remapping can cause a neighboring area to essentially step-in and fill the void. In this case, that’s the cheek (note that it can also be the arm). And so, the phantom sensation is now felt in the usurping region- the cheek.
This becomes more evident in folks who lose a foot. Because the foot and the genitals are side-by-side on our creepy little diagram, the sensory gap left by the missing foot can be remapped so that the genitals step in. In kind of a reverse from the last example, where the missing limb appears grafted on the usurping region. Here, the usurping region simply fills in for the lost sensation from the limb.
And then, as dear ol’ Rama can tell us, we get our phantom orgasms:
An engineer in Florida reported a heightening of sensation in his phantom lower limb during orgasm and that his experience actually spread all the way down into the [phantom] foot instead of remaining confined to the genitals: so that the orgasm was much bigger than it used to be.
You know, people will do a lot of stupid things to achieve the ultimate orgasm (autoerotic asphyxiation comes to mind…). Which makes me wonder if, given the information that an amputated foot may lead to more intense orgasms, more people might start wantonly chopping their feet off.
I’m just saying, if word gets out, it might be a safe bet to invest in the prosthetics business.