The KEY Questions: How can we ‘unlearn’?

Let’s call him Andrew. As a young man he’d been in a car accident, and as a result had ended up in intensive care. All things considered he’d got off pretty lightly, mostly cuts and bruises, a broken collarbone and several fractured ribs. What was causing the doctors most concern was his left arm, which had suffered the worst of the impact of the crash and was in a terrible state. He vividly remembered lying in his hospital bed looking down at his mangled left hand, barely able to recognize it as his own. The fingers were curled into a misshapen fist and the pain, despite the heavy drugs he was on, was excruciating. Twenty years later he needed no reminder of that pain, for the simple reason he could still feel it. For all that time he had lived in a permanent state of agony from the moment he woke in the morning until the moment he fell asleep each night, and there didn’t seem to be anything the doctors could do to help.

After all, how could they give him drugs to ease the pain in an arm that wasn’t even there?

The fact is they had decided all those years ago, quite soon after he had been admitted, that the arm could not be saved and would have to be amputated. Andrew had adapted to his new life – he had no choice – but could never fully convince anyone that his missing hand still hurt like hell. Though no one exactly doubted his distress, there was no easy way to explain to his friends and family, not to mention the medical fraternity, how non-existent nerve endings could generate intolerable pain. Was Andrew deluded? Psychotic?

‘Phantom limb syndrome’ is well documented, and it just so happens that it provides us with an indisputable, scientifically proven example of the three principles in action.

The sensation of pain, like every other sensation, is created in our brains. Most people are familiar with the term ‘psychosomatic’ as applied to illnesses that are ‘all in the mind’, and to this day, despite many studies confirming the deep connection between mind and body in all aspects of pain control, there is still a degree of negativity attached to the term. Andrew knew perfectly well that his absent hand was no longer sending distress signals up an absent arm to his brain, but that realization only increased his deepening sense of helplessness. Where there was no hand, no arm, how could there ever be a cure?

But in fact the story has a happy ending.

Our unfortunate crash victim was finally set free, and when it happened the cure was as quick as the accident that had led to his disability, if not quicker. An enlightened doctor placed a large cardboard box on a table in front of Andrew, in which a mirror was positioned at a 90% angle to his body. In other words the mirror split the box into two separate compartments. At the doctor’s instruction Andrew placed his one remaining good arm into the right side of the box, next to the mirror so that its reflection could clearly be seen. The illusion of his left arm resting there, restored, intact, was very powerful. But what happened next was truly astonishing. When the doctor asked Andrew to clench his fist very tightly, Andrew saw – and FELT! – his phantom left hand do the same. And when the doctor instructed him to let go of all that tension in the hand, BOTH hands immediately relaxed. Instantaneously, Andrew’s pain was gone.

Over the years he had variously been advised to ‘snap out of it’, to think about something else, to ‘come to terms’ with his situation, as though by a mere effort of will he could stop his missing arm from hurting. But these were rational ‘solutions’ to an irrational problem arising not from the conscious but the unconscious mind. In this case trauma had taught Andrew’s unconscious to intervene on his behalf. The pain was a signal to his conscious mind, an alarm call. It effectively said ‘You’re in trouble. Don’t move!’ And it had repeated that message, over and over, for twenty years. All that was needed was for his unconscious mind to ‘unlearn’ what it had learned in a split second.

What might your unconscious need to unlearn?