Atul Gawande has a very interesting piece in the latest New Yorker titled The Itch; as part of the essay, Gawande explains the role of mind in our perceptions thus:
The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor—a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals. When Oaklander theorized that M.’s itch was endogenous, rather than generated by peripheral nerve signals, she was onto something important.
The fallacy of reducing perception to reception is especially clear when it comes to phantom limbs. Doctors have often explained such sensations as a matter of inflamed or frayed nerve endings in the stump sending aberrant signals to the brain. But this explanation should long ago have been suspect. Efforts by surgeons to cut back on the nerve typically produce the same results that M. had when they cut the sensory nerve to her forehead: a brief period of relief followed by a return of the sensation.
Moreover, the feelings people experience in their phantom limbs are far too varied and rich to be explained by the random firings of a bruised nerve. People report not just pain but also sensations of sweatiness, heat, texture, and movement in a missing limb. There is no experience people have with real limbs that they do not experience with phantom limbs. They feel their phantom leg swinging, water trickling down a phantom arm, a phantom ring becoming too tight for a phantom digit. Children have used phantom fingers to count and solve arithmetic problems. V. S. Ramachandran, an eminent neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, has written up the case of a woman who was born with only stumps at her shoulders, and yet, as far back as she could remember, felt herself to have arms and hands; she even feels herself gesticulating when she speaks. And phantoms do not occur just in limbs. Around half of women who have undergone a mastectomy experience a phantom breast, with the nipple being the most vivid part. You’ve likely had an experience of phantom sensation yourself. When the dentist gives you a local anesthetic, and your lip goes numb, the nerves go dead. Yet you don’t feel your lip disappear. Quite the opposite: it feels larger and plumper than normal, even though you can see in a mirror that the size hasn’t changed.
Gawande goes on to describe the “brain’s-best-guess” theory of perception.
For those of you who have read V S Ramachandran, Oliver Sacks and, more recently, Jonah Lehrer, some of these thoughts might not be new. But, the sensation of itch, and its origins in our minds is something that I am learning for the first time.
Some parts of the essay (like the description of a lady who scratched her scalp, bones and into her brains) does not make a pleasant reading; however, it is one of those un-put-down-able pieces. Take a look!