Phantom Limbs

As I’ve mentioned before, I share my home with three cats. The oldest, Casper, who turns 14 this year, has always been a grump. As he’s moved into his golden years, he’s become even more of a sour puss. He just does not like to be Messed With.

On Casper’s list of activities that humans must not do to his person:

  1. Brushing, combing or otherwise grooming his fur
  2. Attempting in any way to remove snarls from his coat
  3. Petting past the shoulders
  4. Trimming his nails
  5. Removing him from anywhere he has curled up to nap, including your lap

Should a human attempt any of these activities, Casper will give a warning growl that will grow in volume and gusto. If the human persists, Casper will bring out the big guns–his claws and teeth. He has excellent aim.

Several months ago I made the mistake of trying to shave a snarl off Casper’s chest with my horse clippers. Casper snagged the back of my right hand with his claw, hit a vein and a nerve. Lots of blood and part of my hand and pinkie finger are still numb.

I thought of my minor injury as I was listening to an interview with medical doctor and behavioral neurologist V. S. Ramachandran. Dr. Ramachandran has, among other things, worked with people experiencing phantom limb pain. It turns out there are particular parts of the brain associated with sensation in particular parts of the body. An arm might be removed, but those parts of the brain continue to “report” the sensations that the arm was feeling.

In one particular case, a patient felt as though his missing left hand was gripped into a tight fist, with the fingernails digging into his palm. He was in constant pain, with no way to find relief. How do you relax a hand that is no longer there?

Dr. Ramachandran devised a simple therapy to help the patient. He set up a box with a mirror inside, and positioned the patient so that the right hand was reflected in the mirror. The reflection then made it look like the left hand was still there. The patient watched in the mirror as he opened and closed his right hand in an attempt to trick his brain into thinking he’d relaxed his left. It took a number of sessions, but he was eventually pain-free. Such an elegant and simple treatment. The human brain is an amazing instrument.

I’d like to think it’s superior to the cat brain. But when I consider how the feline set keep us at their beck and call, petting and pampering, feeding them delicacies and providing warm soft places to sleep, I’m not so sure which of us is the genius.

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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