The other day, I was reading in bed with my cat Westley sitting on my lap. He was warm and soft and purring, his plump body exerting a pleasant pressure on my legs.
Suddenly I realized that I was feeling Westley’s warmth and weight on both of my legs. As an above-knee amputee, this is an impossibility for me. I looked down at my lap and took stock.
As expected, my leglet was encased by the hard, epoxy-coated socket that keeps the prosthetic leg attached to my body. Thus, there was no way that I was actually feeling the warm, cuddly vibrations of my cat purring. And yet I perceived this comforting sensation across my whole lap. As I concentrated more fully on the feeling, it slipped away, and in its absence I realized that I just had my first pleasurable phantom sensation since the amputation ten years ago.
I regularly have non-painful sensations of my missing limb along with the painful ones — such as when I am getting settled in bed and have to find a comfortable position for the phantom limb. I don’t object to those sensations, but I don’t enjoy them either.
Yet the phantom sensation of Westley purring on the right side of my lap delighted me. And it got me thinking about phantom pain and sensation and where these come from and why they persist. The pleasure of phantom “cat-on-lap” sensation sparked hope and possibilities that I had not previously considered.
The topic of phantom sensations also came up during a webinar I led last week on embodiment in qualitative research (because I’m a total nerd!). I disclosed that I am an amputee and explained how my unruly body relates to my experiences conducting research.
One of the webinar participants asked me how phantom pain is explained by medicine or neuroscience research. And I answered that researchers really don’t know the causal mechanisms, although they have identified some affected areas of the brain in amputees who have phantom pain. A new insight also popped into my head at that moment: phantom pain is from the imagination. Yes, the brain is involved, and neurotransmitters and such, but phantom sensations are holistic, embodied creations that we imagine into being.
I am accustomed to thinking of phantom pain as an unfortunate byproduct of decades of surgeries and chronic pain that led to the development of specific neural pathways. That is, I think of phantom sensation as a dysfunction of my brain’s sensation and perception system. Conversely, I think of imagination as a positive function and the source of my writing, teaching, and creative living.
It makes sense that my first pleasurable phantom sensation would be cat-on-lap, given my adoration of my fur babies and reputation as a crazy cat lady. Pleasure liberated me from the paradigm of system failure, prompting the recognition that my brain and body and spirit were all collaborating to make something, rather than only being mired in painful dysfunction.
The human nervous system is accustomed to discerning and constructing sensation and perception using imperfect inputs as we function in our everyday lives. That is, we can’t pay attention to every sensation our bodies experience at every moment, and our senses can get confused fairly easily. So our brains compensate using selective attention and logical guesses based on established patterns to enable us to live in world and react quickly and (more or less) appropriately with our bodies. This attention and guessing and reasoning is imagination in action.
My nervous system does the best it can to compensate for my missing limb, and it makes mistakes that it interprets as pain, which sucks. That it can also make pleasurable mistakes in the form of cat-on-lap is a reminder of all the pleasant or unremarkable but essential ways in which we use our imaginations all day, every day as embodied beings.
I’m willing to bet that dog-on-lap sensation works almost the same way.