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Aplasic phantoms and the mirror neuron system: An enactive, developmental perspective

Abstract

Phantom limb experiences demonstrate an unexpected degree of fragility inherent in our self-perceptions. This is perhaps most extreme when congenitally absent limbs are experienced as phantoms. Aplasic phantoms highlight fundamental questions about the physiological bases of self-experience and the ontogeny of a physical, embodied sense of the self. Some of the most intriguing of these questions concern the role of mirror neurons in supporting the development of self–other mappings and hence the emergence of phantom experiences of congenitally absent limbs. In this paper, we will examine the hypothesis that aplasic phantom limb experience is the result of an ontogenetic interplay between body schemas and mirror neuron activity and that this interplay is founded on embedding in a social context. Phantom limb experience has been associated with the persistence of subjective experience of a part of the body after deafferentation through surgical or traumatic removal. We maintain that limited association is inconsistent with the extent to which phantom limb experience is reported by aplasic individuals.

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Notes

  1. We might understand this by employing the metaphor of the cell membrane whose tensegrity, or tensional integrity, is maintained by compression and pressure from each side of the membrane’s surface. Its embodied immersion has the membrane in sharp relief at the interface. Though here we might be accused of moving towards a philosophy of immanence, of the necessary balance of the constituted/constitutive forces, rather than remaining strictly within the phenomenological conception.

  2. We refer here only to the physical world of objects, but would argue that the capacity to think reflexively of oneself as a self is only possible in socially embedded agents, and these are agents which naturally possess an endogenous intersubjectivity (Gallagher 2007), that is, the practical knowledge of oneself that guides from the inside out. It is through the combination of a socially embedded self-awareness and prereflective bodily self-awareness—derived through active felt agency—that a subjective conception of ourselves by ourselves (first-person) and an intersubjective conception by others of us as persons (second-person) is entailed. It is this notion of personhood which extends the self temporally into a world of morally culpable agents and morally vulnerable patients. Thus, it is that agency is ontically and epistemically prior to self, and it is agency and reflective awareness which entails personhood as judged from a first-person (subjective), second-person (empathetic/intersubjective), and third-person (objective) perspective.

  3. For the sake of clarity, let us state simply that our definition of “social” is broad and not the one favored by, for example, some linguists and sociologists as being specific to human beings and including a set of social structures, norms, institutions, culture, language, and so on. “Social” in our sense is more broadly biological, applying to living organisms that interact in a collective coexistence. See De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007) for an operational, enactive definition of the social which is compatible with our use of the word.

  4. Perhaps we might understand self-givenness in terms of Husserl’s concept of “eidetic intuition”: the direct givenness which “refers to the acts in which ‘objects show up in person’” (Depraz et al. 2003, p. 45) and which primarily reveals itself as a perceptual and imaginative act concerned with disclosing an essence [ibid., p.55]. Self-givenness is concerned with the revelation of the tight experiential coupling between body and ownership of the experience.

  5. Melzack et al. (1997) found that 20% of congenital aplasics in their questionnaire study to have experienced phantoms (n = 76). Saadah and Melzack (1994) report a phantom incidence of around 10% in another questionnaire study of 100 aplasics.

  6. This notion of an innate body schema challenges the earlier acquired postural model favored by, amongst others, Piaget (1962), Merleau-Ponty (1962), Wallon (1947, 1965), and Simmel (1966). In their model, the infant’s experience is entirely interoceptive with the external perceptual abilities, which mark the exteroceptive domain, only developing after a matter of months.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Vittorio Gallese, Alessandra Umilta and Ezequiel Di Paolo for helpful discussions on the themes of this paper. RW’s work on this paper was supported by the EU Marie Curie - Research Training Network 035975 “DISCOS - Disorders and coherence of the embodied self”.

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Correspondence to Susan A. J. Stuart.

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Wood, R., Stuart, S.A.J. Aplasic phantoms and the mirror neuron system: An enactive, developmental perspective. Phenom Cogn Sci 8, 487 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-009-9138-2

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Keywords

  • Aplasia
  • Phantom limb experience
  • Body schema
  • Enactivism
  • Mirror neuron system
  • Embodiment