Phantom Arm

Oh MAN, I had the weirdest experience last night.

You know how sometimes you sleep in a strange way, then wake up and your arm has such a pinched nerve  that it no longer has any feeling? I imagine it’s a little freaky for anyone, but it’s particularly worrisome if everything you do desperately depends on your left arm being functional.

So, I wake up and reach for my sleeping arm in order to rearrange my sleeping position. When I reach to where I feel like it is, I grasp nothing. Air. I’m sleepy and disoriented enough that it doesn’t occur to me to actually look for my arm. I really feel like my arm is sticking out on my left, even though it’s laying limp on the bed. So, I try again. Once again, I get nothing.

Now I’m getting a little worried. Something weird is going on. I look, and see my arm is not where I feel like it is. But, somehow I can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t the actual location of my arm. My visual perception says the arm is on the bed. My spacial perception tells me the arm is sticking out to its left.

I suspect what’s happening is that I’m mentally telling my left arm to stick out so my right arm can grab and control it. But, my arm isn’t obeying orders. This is so foreign, that it’s hard to mentally grasp, especially when you’re sleeping. My suspicion is that part of how people have fine motor control is that we learn familiar patterns. So, when the pattern is screwed with, it’s very confusing. So confusing that even when I rationally “explain” to myself that I’m wrong, I can’t correct the problem.

Finally, I have my right arm pick up the left arm. Then, I lay on my back and put the left arm on my chest. At this point, there weirdest thing of all happens. I have the sensation of having two arms combine into one. I would compare it to the feeling you have when you cross your eyes then uncross them. You have two visions that coalesce into one, and neither of them has the primacy of being “right.”

I certainly behave like I’m a single mind interacting with reality. But, more and more, it seems to be the case that my brain is more like a parliament, with different parts contributing to the available data pool, and different parts achieving a consensus on what action I should take. I wonder if the “two arms combining” feeling was just a rare manifestation of two competing arguments coming to the same conclusion.

Anyone else ever had this?

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8 Responses to Phantom Arm

  1. Jérémie Clos says:

    “But, more and more, it seems to be the case that my brain is more like a parliament, with different parts contributing to the available data pool, and different parts achieving a consensus on what action I should take.”

    Marvin Minsky, the godfather of strong AI, developed a point similar to yours in his books (I think it was “Society of Minds”) where he tried to think of a high-level model of the mind (which is an essential requirement for the creation of a “real” Artificial Intelligence). Fascinating work if you have time to kill.

  2. Nihils says:

    Sounds like your mind was calibrating the location of your arm, bouncing between two points until it got an accurate reading because the sensory equipment got jumbled from the blood loss. So you still have a single “mind”, it just relies on remote readings to correctly interact with the external world.

    Or it’s both because everything is parts making up a whole: cells making organs making organisms; numbers making software making OS. The whole is still the whole, but it is also these billions of much smaller interactions.

  3. ElsbethRenee says:

    This is an interesting analogue to the buddhist concept of no-self. (1) There is no single entity, as you put it, but rather a stream of consciousness. As a physical chemist, this idea appeals to me; it meshes quite well with the idea that everything in the universe is made of the same basic stuff, and that we are all systems in equilibrium with our surroundings. Another interesting connection is with recent studies about affective forecasting errors. (2)

    (1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatta
    (2) http://journal.sjdm.org/10/9607/jdm9607.html

    P.S.: I am not a Buddhist, so my explanation isn’t very nuanced. I have found this concept very useful in my attempts to develop equanimity, though.

  4. Fred says:

    You might be developing an alternate personality that takes place only at night, Zach.

    Watch out for an unusual amount of soap bars around your house.

  5. Chamale says:

    I’ve experienced this only once, while recovering from surgery and using an inadvisable quantity of opiates. My right arm was hanging over the side of the bed, and I felt like I could raise it above my head – but I wasn’t. In the darkness, I couldn’t see my arm, but I could feel that it was not where I thought it was.

    I resolved to start punching myself in the crotch with that arm, and had the odd sensation of thinking my arm was moving and then feeling nothing at the impact point. I regained control of the arm very suddenly, and the punches immediately went from illusionary to very painful. I stopped punching right away, obviously, but I was glad to have my arm back.

  6. Juan Manuel says:

    > Anyone else ever had this?

    No, you’re just crazy

  7. Billy Nitro says:

    That sort of sensation isn’t uncommon, akshully. Parts of our brain that serve a similar function are close together, so it’s entirely reasonable that in your sleepy confusion, they started behaving in concert and you couldn’t tell the difference. Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran has done some work about this. You should check out his work if you’re unfamiliar.

  8. rash says:

    “But, more and more, it seems to be the case that my brain is more like a parliament, with different parts contributing to the available data pool, and different parts achieving a consensus on what action I should take.”

    i get the exact same feeling, sometimes it seems like i can ‘listen in’ to different parts of my brain arguing before deciding on something, and the parts of the brain seems distinct, didn’t know anyone else got that.

    haven’t had the arm thing before though.

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