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Monday, 7 March 2011

"The Man Who Mistook His Foot for a Penis" by V. S. Ramachandran

There was a time when I couldn't resist telling this little gem to anyone who would listen. That compulsion is getting old, so I thought I'd get share the reference one more time before I move on. If I haven't already regaled you with this one at a cocktail party, read on...

Phantoms in the Brain by V. S. Ramachandran is an incredible book. It describes in great and sympathetic detail a number of neurological disorders, including phantom limbs, anosognosia, and Capgras syndrome. It's got wit, insight, everything the home neurologist could want. The book in the title of this post doesn't exist, but Ramachandran jokes in one of the more lurid passages that he considered it before he decided on Phantoms in the Brain. Enter Dr. Wilder Penfield.

Artist's interpretation of the
Penfield Homunculus
Like many Canadians of my generation, for me advertising has forever associated Dr. Penfield with the smell of burnt toast, but according to Ramachandran Penfield's contributions was to map the so-called "Penfield homunculus" in the brain. In our brains we have a map of our body which is not an exact geographical reference. Instead, those portions of our body which are more sensitive or require finer motor control take up more neurological real estate. Look left and you'll see what I mean.

That has interesting ramifications when people lose parts of their body. Take the hand for example. In the absence of stimulus, the cheek, which is more or less adjacent to the hand on the homunculus, may colonize or encroach on the neurological territory that formerly belonged to the hand. What that means for the owner of the brain is that when they touch their cheek, they may experience a similar sensation in their missing hand.

How fascinating! You say. Read on. The feet are next to the genitals on that same map. Ramachandran writes about a man who loses his leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident, and several months later begins experiencing orgasm in the missing foot. Members of both sexes have reported similar experiences. The phenomenon is said to be unnerving but not at all unpleasant. Now go ahead and make all the jokes you want.

So like I said it's really good book, check it out. To finish off I have included a Heritage Minute, for those who need to brush up on the burnt toast reference. Cheers, -M


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