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4/22/09

Wilder Penfield & Brain Maps, V.S. Ramachandran & Phantom Orgasms


Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield performed pioneering experiments in the 1940s and 1950s. During extensive brain surgeries, he applied electrodes to different regions of the brain and stimulated them. He then asked patients what they felt. He recorded and correlated sensations, images, even memories, as reported by the patients. By this means he mapped the brain and found, for example, that the brain area involved with lips and fingers occupies as much space as the area which handles the entire trunk of the body. Of course, the lips and fingers are highly sensitive, and such a large dedication of neuronal space helps explain why. Interestingly, he found that the areas did not always correspond to places on the body. The genital area is not on the brain next the area for thighs. Instead, it is located next the area for the feet. This is a fact that has far reaching implications for the account which follows.

V.S. Ramachandran, University of California, San Diego, received a call one day. An engineer from Arkansas wanted to talk about something that was puzzling. Here is the narrative:

"Is this Dr. Ramachandran?"

"Yes."

"You know, I read about your work in the newspaper, and it's really exciting. I lost my leg below the knee about two months ago but there's still something I don't understand. I'd like your advice."

"What's that?"

"Well, I feel a little embarrassed to tell you this."

I knew what he was going to say but . . . he didn't know about the Penfield map.

"Doctor, every time I have sexual intercourse, I experience sensations in my phantom foot. How do you explain that? My doctor said it doesn't make sense."

"Look," I said. "One possibility is that the genitals are right next to the foot in the body's brain maps. Don't worry about it."

He laughed nervously. "All that's fine, doctor. But you still don't understand. You see, I actually experience my orgasm in my foot. And therefore it's much bigger than it used to be because it's no longer just confined to my genitals."

Patients don't make up such stories. Ninety-nine percent of the time they're telling the truth, and if it seems incomprehensible, it's usually because we are not smart enough to figure out what's going on in their brains. This gentleman was telling me that he sometimes enjoyed sex more after his amputation. The curious implication is that it's not just the tactile sensation that transferred to his phantom but the erotic sensations of sexual pleasures as well. ( A colleague suggested I title this book "The Man Who Mistook His Foot For A Penis.") (From Phantoms In The Brain: Probing The Mysteries of The Human Mind, by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. NY: Quill (Harper Collins): 1998)

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