Just as Philip Martinez could fool his brain into thinking his missing left arm had magically reappeared, anyone—even someone with all body parts intact—can trick his or her brain into thinking phantom thoughts, Ramachandran discovered. Want to fool yourself into thinking your nose is three feet long or that a rubber hand is actually your own? Read on.
The experiments I've discussed so far have helped us understand what is going on in the brains of patients with phantoms and given us hints as to how we might alleviate their pain. But there is a deeper message here: Your own body is a phantom, one that your brain has temporarily constructed purely for convenience. I know this sounds astonishing, so I will demonstrate to you the malleability of your own body image and how you can alter it profoundly in just a few seconds. Two of these experiments you can do on yourself right now, but the third requires a visit to a Halloween supply shop.
To experience the first illusion, you'll need two helpers. (I will call them Julie and Mina.) Sit in a chair, blindfolded, and ask Julie to sit on another chair in front of you, facing the same direction as you are. Have Mina stand on your right side and give her the following instructions: "Take my right hand and guide my index finger to Julie's nose. Move my hand in a rhythmic manner so that my index finger repeatedly strokes and taps her nose in a random sequence like a Morse code. At the same time, use your left hand to stroke my nose with the same rhythm and timing. The stroking and tapping of my nose and Julie's nose should be in perfect synchrony."
After 30 or 40 seconds, if you're lucky, you will develop the uncanny illusion that you are touching your nose out there or that your nose has been dislocated and stretched out about three feet in front of your face. The more random and unpredictable the stroking sequence, the more striking the illusion will be. This is an extraordinary illusion; why does it happen? I suggest that your brain "notices" that the tapping and stroking sensations from your right index finger are perfectly synchronized with the strokes and taps felt on your nose. It then says, "The tapping on my nose is identical to the sensations on my right index finger; why are the two sequences identical? The likelihood that this is a coincidence is zero, and therefore the most probable explanation is that my finger must be tapping my nose. But I also know that my hand is two feet away from my face. So it follows that my nose must also be out there, two feet away."
I have tried this experiment on 20 people and it works on about half of them (I hope it will work on you). But to me, the astonishing thing is that it works at all—that your certain knowledge that you have a normal nose, your image of your body and face constructed over a lifetime should be negated by just a few seconds of the right kind of sensory stimulation. This simple experiment not only shows how malleable your body image is but also illustrates the single most important principle underlying all of perception—that the mechanisms of perception are mainly involved in extracting statistical correlations from the world to create a model that is temporarily useful.
The second illusion requires one helper and is even spookier. You'll need to go to a novelty or Halloween store to buy a dummy rubber hand. Then construct a two-foot by two-foot cardboard "wall" and place it on a table in front of you. Put your right hand behind the cardboard so that you cannot see it and put the dummy hand in front of the cardboard so you can see it clearly. Next have your friend stroke identical locations on both your hand and the dummy. Within seconds you will experience the stroking sensation as arising from the dummy hand. The experience is uncanny, for you know perfectly well that you're looking at a disembodied rubber hand, but this doesn't prevent your brain from assigning sensation to it. The illusion illustrates, once again, how ephemeral your body image is and how easily it can be manipulated.
Projecting your sensations on to a dummy hand is surprising enough, but, more remarkably, my student Rick Stoddard and I discovered that you can even experience touch sensations as arising from tables and chairs that bear no physical resemblance to human body parts. This experiment is especially easy to do since all you need is a single friend to assist you. Sit at your writing desk and hide your left hand under the table. Ask your friend to tap and stroke the surface of the table with his right hand (as you watch) and then use his hand simultaneously to stroke and tap your left hand, which is hidden from view. It is absolutely critical that you not see the movements of his left hand as this will ruin the effect (use a cardboard partition or a curtain if necessary). After a minute or so, you will start experiencing taps and strokes as emerging from the table surface even though your conscious mind knows perfectly well that this is logically absurd. Again, the sheer statistical improbability of the two sequences of taps and strokes—one seen on the table surface and one felt on your hand—lead the brain to conclude that the table is now part of your body. The illusion is so compelling that on a few occasions when I accidentally made a much longer stroke on the table surface than on the subject's hidden hand, the person exclaimed that his hand felt "lengthened" or "stretched" to absurd proportions.