'It's All Done with Mirrors': V.S. Ramachandran and the Material Culture of Phantom Limb Research

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Abstract

This article examines the material culture of neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran's research into phantom limbs. In the 1990s Ramachandran used a 'mirror box' to 'resurrect' phantom limbs and thus to treat the pain that often accompanied them. The experimental success of his mirror therapy led Ramachandran to see mirrors as a useful model of brain function, a tendency that explains his attraction to work on 'mirror neurons'. I argue that Ramachandran's fascination with and repeated appeal to the mirror can be explained by the way it allowed him to confront a perennial problem in the mind and brain sciences, that of the relationship between a supposedly immaterial mind and a material brain. By producing what Ramachandran called a 'virtual reality', relating in varied and complex ways to the material world, the mirror reproduced a form of psycho-physical parallelism and dualistic ontology, while conforming to the materialist norms of neuroscience today.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)342-358
Number of pages17
JournalMedical History
Volume60
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • General Nursing
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)

Keywords

  • Material culture
  • Mirrors
  • Neuroscience
  • Phantom limb pain
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Virtual reality

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