V.S. Ramachandran designed an experiment that was utterly brilliant in its creativity and its simplicity. Most importantly, it worked. It was life changing.
Ramachandran is a neuroscientist who is famous for a variety of discoveries about the human brain. In particular, his work has helped reveal the incredible qualities of its plasticity and malleability. Decades ago, he designed an experiment to alleviate phantom limb pain by using two simple mirrors.
Phantom limb pain is a kind of curious thing in and of itself. Documented in medical literature for more than 500 years, many physicians had written about the challenging phenomenon some patients had after losing limbs. For years, even decades, these patients continued to feel a painful sensation in the limb that was missing. Some felt as though their lost arm or leg was held permanently in an awkward or painful position. They remarked that they wished to move it back into a more typical, comfortable position. Of course, that was impossible.
In a flash of curiosity, V.S. Ramachandran created a mirror box. He placed two mirrors together at a right angle and invited people to step inside the box. Suddenly, those who, say, lost their right arm, could see their left arm projected on the right side of their body. Inside the mirror box, it appeared that they had both arms. Then, they could “move” their missing limb into a better position by simply moving their remaining limb. And shockingly, this led to actual relief of the phantom pain! For many people, this was a permanent shift.
I love this experiment. I love that it worked. And if you’ll allow me, perhaps we can also enter this as a bit of a life analogy also:
There are times when we face one another too, and our human brains also have mirror neurons. When we see the emotions of the person standing in front of us, the neurons in our own brains begin to fire and sync with the other person. Isn’t that an incredible thing? (By the way, V.S. Ramachandran has done work on this too.)
we recognize each other and smile,
we demonstrate need to one another,
we marvel in the presence of one another,
and at times,
we present pain:
broken and insecure attachment,
grief and longing,
fear and anxiety.
In all of these, in ourselves and in others, we can choose the intention to see one another well. Certainly, with our vision, we can’t save anyone into wellness. But by choosing to mirror back what is true — love, belonging, acceptance, openness, our own humanity and vulnerability — we can create conditions that allow us to see each other and see ourselves with more clarity.
We can see each other with more truth, more safety, and more healing. And sometimes, we can reconnect or reconfigure our relationship with what we need or what we’ve lost. This too is brilliant in its creativity and in its simplicity.