Phantom Breast Syndrome

Phantom limb sensations are one of psychology’s curiosities. Were you to suffer the amputation of a limb, your brain might then misinterpret spontaneous activity in brain areas that once received the limb’s sensory input. Thus, amputees often feel pain in a nonexistent limb, and even try to step out of bed onto a phantom leg, or to lift a cup with a phantom hand.

Phantoms also haunt other senses as the brain misinterprets irrelevant brain activity. Therefore, those of us with hearing loss may experience the sound of silence—tinnitus (ringing in the ears in the absence of sound). Those with vision loss may experience phantom sights (hallucinations). Those with damaged taste or smell systems may experience phantom tastes or smells.

And now comes word from the Turkish Journal of Psychiatry that 54 percent of 41 patients who had undergone a mastectomy afterwards experienced a continued perception of breast tissue, with 80 percent of those also experiencing “phantom breast pain.”

As I shared this result (gleaned from the Turkish journal’s contents in the weekly Current Contents: Social and Behavioral Sciences) with my wife, I wondered: Is there any part of the body that we could lose without the possibility of phantom sensations? If an ear were sliced off, should we not be surprised at experiencing phantom ear syndrome?

The larger lesson here: There’s more to perception than meets our sense receptors. We feel, see, hear, taste, and smell with our brain, which can experience perceptions with or without functioning senses.