The influential neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran explains some mirror experiments everyone can try at home to better understand how the brain perceives the world. “You probably look in a mirror every day without thinking about it,” writes Ramachandran. “But mirrors can reveal a great deal about the brain, with implications for psychology, clinical neurology and even philosophy.” By positioning a mirror in a specific way, we can tempt the brain into believing something false, thereby examining how it processes information.
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These same experiments with a mirror are being used to treat patients with chronic pain disorders. When chronic pain persists in one limb, for example, using a mirror to tempt the brain into seeing it as the other, healthy limb can “unblock” the affected arm resulting in pain reduction. “In placebo-controlled clinical trials on returning war veterans, mirror visualization feedback has been found to be strikingly successful in some patients,” says Ramachandran. The technique is often used when a patient feels phantom pain from an amputated limb.