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Alien Limbs: Living in a Struggle Between Body and Mind

Alien Limbs: Living in a Struggle Between Body and Mind

How literature can help people with extreme body disorders.

People with Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) live in a constant struggle. Their bodies do not match the image of what they should look like; the cure for this mismatch, sufferers feel, is to amputate parts of the body. And, with the removal of one’s physically healthy body part, comes a paradoxical feeling of completeness.

The rare condition often drives people to act as if they had a disability, by using wheelchairs or wearing prostheses or putting themselves in situations of danger, by performing amputations, either at home or in pseudo-clinics.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, though it also reflects a dissonance between the body and mind, is the phantom limb syndrome (PLS). The individual feels (typically painful) sensations in a nonexistent limb, even if he or she is aware that body part is no longer there. PLS leads to uncomfortable feelings, which include tingling, throbbing, burning, clenching and cramping.

Images and metaphors

Images and metaphors play a crucial role in describing the physical pain described by sufferers. Because the phantom limb cannot be understood or completely communicated, metaphors are used to help illustrate the pain felt. Examples include “insects crawling through the skin and veins” and “salt being poured into the skin.” Interestingly, PLS treatment makes use of the relationship between images and the condition, though in a more physical, rather than linguistic way. Robot-hands, vision-based therapy, and rubber-hand illusion are among the mind/body treatments used to eradicate the pain.

Both Body Integrity Identity Disorder and the Phantom Limb Syndrome have been predominantly researched through biomedical models that struggle to find comprehensive reasons or cures. Thus, these conditions insist that we also debate them from a more nuanced view.

Reflections on the Embodied Text uses what is common in both conditions – the need for rupture and its paradoxical relationship with an individual’s desire to feel whole – as the starting point. Through the use of literature, fictional works, and psychoanalysis, this thesis aims to understand these perplexing psychosomatic conditions more thoroughly, in relation to one another.

Psychoanalysis and Literature

Neurology has taken over the field of diagnosis and treatment of these two conditions. But, since we are dealing with extremely complex somatic and physical dimensions, the analysis might benefit from a psychoanalytic and literary perspective. Individuals often state that neuroscience seems to have nothing to do with what they are feeling. By failing to distinguish the ‘mind,’ which involves a complex and intertwined relationship between the psyche and the brain, and the ‘brain,’ purely physical, the neurological perspective falls short at alleviating the pain and may, on the contrary, increase the feelings of alienation.

The mirror-box

Solutions that are based on the notion that the mind can alter the body showed more success. The mirror-box is a therapeutic device that alleviates phantom limb pain by superimposing a mirror image of the existing limb onto the absent one. While it is often not recognized as a valid treatment in the medical world, the mirror therapy can treat amputees’ psychosomatic conditions; it alters the psyche through a physical device that projects a kind of illusion, a mirror image.

Psychoanalysis

As in the mirror-box therapy, psychoanalysis also works by searching for meaning and ways of healing in the images and illusions in the patients’ unconscious. Thus, we can have some insight into BIID and PLS by using the mirror-box metaphor, to explore how the illusions through which we are formed can alleviate experiences of fragmentation.

By discussing PLS and BIID together for the first time, using the mirror-box as a metaphor, and examining how fiction connects the body to a particular notion of reflection, this thesis ultimately raises questions concerning the rooted notions of the ‘self.’

Read the full dissertation here.


Share your Science
The Share your Science section aims at giving students and researchers a space to share their thesis to a broader audience. UA Magazine wants to increase the visibility of recent academic work and serve as a bridge between universities and societies.

Image Credit: Golan Levin / Flickr

Monika Loewy
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