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Physical Experiences as Constructs of the Mind: Looking Closer at Phantom Limb Pain and Severe Depression

BMCsoccer01's picture

In Emily Dickinson’s poem The Brain – Is Wider Than the Sky, she stated that our experiences and feelings are constructs of our mind and that we feel and experience what our brain tells us to  (1, 2). In other words, her belief was that the happenings in our lives occur because we tell ourselves that they do.  Thus, our behavior both mentally and physically she presents as a product of our mind.  So, in terms of mental stability and physical experiences- how much of these experiences/conditions are mental and how much of them are physical?  Does she believe that a woman in labor is only experiencing pain from child birth because she is telling herself she is in pain and does a person only fall into depression because they have convinced themselves that their actions embody depressive behavior?  Are we literally a victim of a painful experience or is it our mind that tells us we are in pain and thus creates a construct for us that would not exist otherwise?              

            Furthermore, through previous research on mental conditions such as epilepsy and depression it has been observed that one’s behavior can change by altering the central nervous system. It would appear that these findings would reinforce Dickinson’s position that the mind is capable of creating our own reality.  However, how then does a doctor turn to a patient who is suffering from severe depression and say that the reason that they are in the position they are is because their brain is controlling the perception of their self-worth and world.  Why then do we prescribe medicine and take preventative measures when in fact the reason that people fall victim to mental illnesses and experience pain is due to their brain’s inherent capabilities?

                  In looking at the condition of a phantom limb, one cannot escape the thought that the mind’s trickery is at work.  This condition has been validated in the medical world and the pain that accompanies this experience is very real.  Phantom limb pain is defined commonly as pain appearing to come from an area where an amputated limb used to be (3).  In addition, after the amputation is complete the individual continues to “feel” as though their limb is still present and can experience sensations from this ghost extension.  Furthermore, there are cases in infancy in which children are born without a limb, yet still have the sensations and feelings that a limb exists, even though they were never actually born using the extremity (3).  These childhood cases demonstrate that not every experience/condition is purely physical because the individual is perceiving something that is hard-wired into his/her brain without ever knowing the full effect of having that limb at their disposal.  This in itself supports Emily Dickinson’s idea that the brain is capable of creating constructs of the world around a given person.  Even though a person has never experienced something physically, the mind still has the capability of producing a real-life sensation that mimics what could happen in a given moment. For example, when in sleep and dreaming one could be shot and experience what it would feel like to have a bullet wound, without ever having this experience physically manifest itself.

            One of the primary treatments for this condition, utilizing an electrical prosthetic limb, also further reinforces Dickinson’s claim that change in behavior of the individual will arise through changes in the brain and its function.  In using brain imaging, researchers have found that a change in the sensory cortex of the brain occurs in people who are victim to this condition (4).  If the brain were not dictating reality, then addition of a physical prosthetic appendage without its electrical component would serve to correct this situation.  However, this is not the case; the electrical impulses that are sent from the patient’s muscles aid in the rewiring of his/her sensory cortex back to its original state (4).  It is only through this reversion of the nervous system that any pain and behavior that accompany this illness may subside. 

            Another example of the mind’s power over an individual’s perception of reality can be seen in cases of severe depression.  Here, the individual has a negative view of his/her self-worth and experiences an array of consistent behavioral symptoms that this mental plague exudes.  In very severe cases, electric shock therapy is used as a remedy to temporarily activate certain neurons in the brain, in an attempt to rewire this organ to create more “sound” behavior.  As was the case with phantom limb pain, the purpose this treatment is to alter the brain and its mental pathways in order to correct physical behavior or symptoms.  Once again, Dickinson’s words are supported in the evident observations that exist after this treatment occurs.  In most patients, the therapy is effective and allows for normal functioning. 

            The common trend with these conditions seems to be that the mind has jurisdiction not only over one’s thoughts and behavior, but also over one’s reality and perception of self in the world surrounding them.  After extensive review of these ailments and their treatments, I am forced to come to the conclusion that Dickinson may be on to something.  Thus, I believe that research in the medical world should begin to more deeply explore more about the hard-wiring of the mind and the role that it plays in producing various diseases and focus less about the physical components of the patient’s symptoms.  After much research, we could then ask ourselves: Is what we experience physically truly reality or does our biological makeup (the hardwiring of our mind) create these physical experiences; indicating that everything that our body endures is purely mental and the physical world exists as a construct of our mind? 


(1)  Biology 202 home page, on the Serendip web site,

/bb/neuro/neuro03; accessed 23 February 2009

(2)  Dickinson, Emily. Poem 632:  The Brain – is Wider Than the SkyComplete Poems

of Emily Dickinson.  New York:  Little, Brown & Company, 1976.

(3)  Flor, H (2002) Phantom limb pain: characteristics, causes and treatment.  Lancet, 1,


(4)  Lotze M, Flor H, Grodd W, Larbig W, and Birmbaumer N (2001) Phantom

movements and pain: an fMRI study in upper limb amputees.  Brain, 124, 2268-



Paul Grobstein's picture

Is "constructs of the brain" the same as "telling onself" things

Couldn't we be BOTH "a victim of a painful experience" AND have the brain "constructing" our "reality"?  Pain as a pattern of activity in some part of the brain (the I-function) is no less "real" an experience just because it is caused by activity in some other part of the brain.  And it doesn't mean that someone is "telling herself she is in pain" and so could stop it herself.   All of our experiences being a product of the brain isn't quite the same thing as "happenings in our lives occur because we tell ourselves that they do."  At least not if by "we" one means the I-function.  There are lots of things we experience in the I-function that we have very little control over at all.