This passage from V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain is mainly known for the first handful of words — “pain is an opinion” — as succinctly illuminating a statement on the subject of pain neurology as there has ever been. But the passage continues, referring to an extraordinary cure Ramachandran achieved treating a man with phantom limb pain. The man was tortured by agony in a clenched fist that was not there. With a clever arrangement of mirrors, Ramachandran created the illusion that the man’s amputated arm was restored. The mere appearance of his phantom hand opening and closing normally cured the agonizing “spasms”. It is one of the most curious anecdotes in all of pain science, and the inspiration for the famous words that start this passage.
Pain is an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to an injury. There is no direct hotline from pain receptors to ‘pain centers’ in the brain. There is so much interaction between different brain centers, like those concerned with vision and touch, that even the mere visual appearance of an opening fist can actually feed all the way back into the patient’s motor and touch pathways, allowing him to feel the fist opening, thereby killing an illusory pain in a nonexistent hand.
These three articles on PainScience.com cite this item as a source:
- The Complete Guide to Trigger Points & Myofascial Pain
- Pain is Weird
- Mind Over Pain