Phantom Limb Pain

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Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the Biology section of Ideas Roadshow’s Extended Essay Guide which you can find in the EE section of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal, where Duke University neuroscientists Jennifer Groh and Miguel Nicolelis highlight how the intriguing phenomenon of “phantom limb pain” can be used to probe a wealth of issues related to the structure of our brains. 

Excerpt from the clip Suddenly Painful featuring Prof. Jennifer Groh


While Professor Groh focuses on the mysteries underlying what “spontaneous neural firing” really means, her fellow neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis invokes phantom limb pain as direct support for his belief that the brain actively constructs our representation of the world around us rather than simply recording sensory inputs, as biologists long believed:

“Interestingly enough, if you now change the framework and you put the brain in the centre of the picture, you find a completely different explanation for phantom limb pain. If you appreciate that the brain has an internal model of the body, which it has developed over the years, now what happens when you lose part of it? Suddenly, the brain has an internal model that is mismatched to the body and it is this mismatch that generates the illusion that you still have a part of yourself that has disappeared.”

Possible areas of investigation for an extended essay include an analysis of the history of phantom limb pain, competing scientific explanations, current and future experiments and implications for our general understanding of brain structure. 

Related Ideas Roadshow content includes the clips Suddenly Painful, Constantly Testing, the compilation video Examining the Brain and the enhanced eBooks and hour-long videos Knowing One’s Place: Spatial Processing and the Brain and Minds and Machines.


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