Tag Archives: Brain

Medical Microfiction: Phantom Limb Syndrome

Redrawing the Map

He had a full tank, a thousand in the bank, and a newly acquired degree in psychology. With nothing to lose, Arnold hit the road for Canada. He dreamed of an expatriate lifestyle: getting drunk abroad, meeting exotic women, and other Hemingwayesque fantasies.

But when he reached the border between Montana and Saskatchewan, he found a steep cliff abutting an endless ocean. Where had Canada gone? He sped up and down the unknown coastline looking for a clue. As the sun set, Arnold found a solitary billboard overlooking the place where Canada had been:

Dear America,

Sawed off!




Canadian flag.
Canadian flag. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s a terrible, terrible pun at the end. I apologize for its sheer awfulness. Or is it awesomeness? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Phantom limb syndrome is a perception of feeling in a limb that has been amputated. A person experiencing this syndrome may feel as if the missing limb is still there and functioning normally. Most commonly, the person will experience pain, often severe.

English: Author: btarski Date: 6/23/06
The sensory homunculus shows how the brain organizes input from your body parts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It happens because the brain rewires itself after an amputation to make up for the lack of nerve signals that usually come in from a particular body region. Unfortunately, the regions of the postcentral gyrus responsible for collecting signals from the limbs are located near the regions for the face. That means for people with phantom limb syndrome, touching different areas of your face can make you feel sensations on your phantom limb.

Today’s story is an illustration of phantom limb syndrome from the brain’s perspective. Arnold has never been to Canada, but he’s certain it’s right where it should be. After all, he’s still getting signals from the region. It’s not until he drives all the way to the border that he realizes the truth: that Canada has been gone for a long time, and somehow he never got the memo. In the same way, a person who has experienced amputation will receive nerve signals that make the limb seem like it’s present, but in reality it’s gone.

Moral of the story: if you’re going to Canada, call ahead first.

Medical Microfiction: Autonomic


Thank you for installing AutoNoggin3000. Your personalized brain optimization report is now loading.

Franklin clicked on the report’s Background Processes tab. Breathing.exe, digestion.exe… OldTaxReturns91.exe?! It took up 25% of his working memory. Franklin closed the program.

The clarity of his thought increased instantly. Curious, he reloaded OldTaxReturns91.exe. His processes dulled again as the ongoing sex tape in his head came back online.

Excited by this discovery, Franklin skimmed the report for other unnecessary processes. Like this one with a turntable icon: DemBeats.exe. That must turn off the earworms. He terminated it.

The coroner’s report called his death a heart attack.


A Turntable!
Crank up DemBeats.exe!

The autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system responsible for the things your body does automatically. These are processes that happen regardless of whether you consciously think about them or not. Things like breathing, digestion, salivating, heart rate, and yes, sexual arousal.

Heart rate’s an interesting one. Heart muscle, also called cardiac muscle, is the only muscle in the body that produces its own electrical signals allowing it to contract. To put it anther way, your heart is a completely closed system. If given a continuous supply of nutrition and oxygen, your heart will go on beating without you. Past experiments have kept animal heart cells alive in the lab for years without bodies. More recently, there’s research in the works that allows you to drop a “dead” heart into a chemical cocktail that’ll start it right back up. That’s why in the medical world, life and death aren’t defined by heartbeat alone (it’s a combination of things, but that’s a topic for another day).

If the heart’s a closed system, then what does DemBeats.exe do? The autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate. It’s a natural pacemaker. So if you were to shut down that program, the heart itself decides how fast it beats, which means Franklin’s gonna have a heart attack.

The information technology sector was a signif...
Ever wanted to overclock your brain? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would happen if we could optimize our brains like we do our computers? I for one would love to turn off background processes at will that were distracting or inconvenient. And what if we could clean out and organize all those old files we’ve been collecting? You could forget bad memories and clear out room for new ones. You could rescue those old files you wish you’d taken better care of, like my terrible Italian language skills.

Hey, where did all these old episodes of Pokemon come from?

If you could optimize your brain, would you want to change anything, and if so, what?

Medical Microfiction: Encephalic


Lights on.

I awake remembering the fireflies.

Brief consciousness. It’s probing my memories again.

I would scream, but I no longer have lungs. Or a face.

I remember everything now. Fireflies on the lawn of the graveyard. Then it broke from the mausoleum: a horror in flesh, studded with the mismatched limbs of the dead. They were still moving. As it groped for me, I glimpsed the inside of its putrid flank: rows of human brains embedded in rot.

Now it wakes me only when I’m needed. Another node in its processor.

I remember fireflies flaring and fading.

Lights off.


neuron fractal 4
Neuron fractal. (Photo credit: Anthony Mattox)

Last time we talked about disembodied organs, I gave you a few suggestions on what to do you if you ever get to hang out with your liver. Today’s word encephalic means pertaining to the brain (not to be confused with myeloencephalic). Etymologically, it’s a nifty word because “en” means “inside” and “cephal” means “head”. To the ancient Greeks, the brain was “that thing inside your head”.

Well, I’m not one to argue with the ancient Greeks!

This story’s my attempt to write H.P. Lovecraft-style horror in 100 words. The problem is that Lovecraft never said anything in 100 words or less. As a writer, he’s known for his dense, descriptive writing style designed to evoke the feeling of terror.

Since the brain’s the name of the game today, I chose the central image of fireflies to suggest how an electrical signal brings a neuron in the brain to life. I’ll spare you the complex description of how neurons fire–at least for today–and anyway, it’s best done in person, with a pen and napkin and lots of hand-waving. We often talk about the brain using analogies about “wiring” because, at least to some degree, this is how neurons work. When a certain level of voltage is created in a neuron (called an action potential), the neuron “fires” and sends a signal down its long axon, or tail, which can have a lot of different effects depending on the type of neuron.

Human brain - midsagittal cut
Human brain – midsagittal cut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this case, the poor narrator’s brain is being used by the monster of horror as a processor of sorts. Whenever an electrical impulse enters the now-disembodied brain, the poor guy becomes briefly conscious, just long enough to remember how he got there, before the monster switches him off again.

Fortunately, none of us will ever have to face such a fate. …I think.

Any other Lovecraft fans out there? What’s your favorite horror story or author?