Blog Post

Mind Over Matter

I just experienced one of those coincidences that turns your head around and makes you see in a different way.  I was in my office with my wonderful Research Assistant, Erica Fretwell, having just met with the designer from FlyWheel who is building out an author blog for me, having just hit "send" to return to my editor the hundreds of line edits of my book, "Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Change Our Schools, Workplaces, and Everything Else."  


One chapter tells how I used my current reading in neuroscience, at the time when I was a Vice Provost and part of the group starting a new cognitive neuroscience center at Duke, to heal an arm that had been ripped out of its socket in a fall.  Actually, it was an arm, an elbow, and my mouse thumb.  The nerves were yanked away, the limb was lifeless, and I was reading V. S. Ramachandran's brilliant use of nineteenth-century mirror boxes to cure pain and creepy feelings of movement in amputees who were experiencing phantom limbs. Mirror boxes were used by  street thieves in India to fool the unsuspecting, making it look like a right hand was on the table when really it was a mirror image of the left---while the right was picking your pocket.   I won't say much more about this except that, since nothing else was working to rehab my injured arm, I improvised a rather ridiculous adaptation of Ramachandran's mirror stimuli to convince my brain that my arm was getting better and, eventually, it really was.   The mouse thumb took longer.  About a year.  A lot of mirrors and mind games.  And if I think about it too much, it will stop working, even to this day, seven years later.   Mind matters.   Even if none of us (including me) quite believed it all.  It worked.  That's what matters.


And so does connection.  Into my office today comes Laura Wagner, the Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, who was badly injured in the Haitian earthquake.  You may have read about her in the media.  As happens in international disasters, the story of those Americans hurt or injured in that nation's devastating natural disaster made our headlines, almost as much as the horrific lost endured by the Haitians.  Through injury, trauma, and the media assault, Laura Wagner stayed true, honest, dignified, and strong.   Although I had not met her, I know her advisers, teachers, and mentors and all spoke with the same admiration I feel whenever I read about her in the news.  Laura is participating in our Haiti Lab at the Franklin Humanities Lab here at Duke.  And she is one of our new HASTAC Scholars.  I have never met her before but was delighted when she turned up at my office.  Her strength and determination are evident even on a brief meeting, and that means she is rehabiliting her injuries to her arm with the same determination and clarity she brings to her work as an anthropologist and her love for Haiti.  That means, every study shows, that she has an excellent chance of recovering as much of her left arm as possible, the one that was crushed in the earthquake.  To an outsider, it already looks as if it is working again.  I am sure she will continue to improve.  She will.  She will.


But here is what has me utterly stunned.  In the course of our brief meeting, she mentioned that she is using Ramachandran's mirror boxes to rehab her arm.   As far as any of us knew seven years ago, I was the first person to come up with this loopy form of rehab.   It worked.  Or because I believed it worked, my arm and elbow and thumb are working now, but I was sure it was a one-off, an eccentricity that kept me on target in the mindnumbing rehab sessions and which, indirectly or otherwise, contributed to my arm working again, for which I will lifelong be grateful but I had no idea it might have actual, practical rehab implications beyond my own eccentric practice.  Except there she was, standing in front of me just now, telling me that a physical therapist at UNC hospital was trying this experiment, had learned about it from someone, had heard it worked before and so they were trying and, well, it was working but no one knew how or why or much else about it.  Except it was working.


My whole heart swelled, and I hugged her, with my arm, an arm that works because mind matters and so do a lot of the other important, vital, connections in this very small world of ours. 


1 comment

Google "the andrews method." I once had a cough that would cause me to seize up when I had a fit, but was able to remove the seizing up part by developing a muscle memory for what muscles in my throat to consciously relax when I felt like I was about to cough (or that was the plan I held in my head anyway. The point is it worked).