IT IS THE STUFF of nightmares ... and horror movies. A woman awakens from a troubled sleep; it is dark; a hand tightens around her neck, vicious and implacable; with her right hand, she tries desperately to pull it off. And then, as she struggles, she realizes who her assailant is: her own left hand. Even after she pulls it away, she is too frightened to fall back asleep.
This scenario describes some of the more extreme behavior associated with an unusual condition known as Alien Hand Syndrome (AHS). When The Learning Channel presented a show on AHS about a year and a half ago, the first expert featured was Feinberg.
"I thought by studying this disorder, we could really learn something about how the mind on the one hand and the brain on the other hand interact and work together," said Feinberg, who, besides his appointment at Beth Israel Hospital, is also associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "Alien Hand Syndrome is a disorder where one hand, the left or the right, acts in a fashion which the patient feels is out of their control. For instance, the left hand would do things that the patients themselves feel they're not performing, actions which are against the patients' conscious intentions."
While many people with AHS have had radical brain surgery to treat severe epilepsy, Feinberg says it can happen to anyone who has had brain damage. The case of the woman whose hand attempted to strangle her goes back to the earliest study of the disorder, written in Germany in 1908; but in matter-of-fact fashion, Larry, one of the patients on the show, also reported waking up one night to find his left hand around his neck. Sometimes when he is trying to eat, recalled Larry, his left hand will grab his right hand "and just won't let me get a fork- or spoonful of food."
Feinberg and the other experts trace AHS to the corpus callosum, the large bundle of nerve fibers that links the left and right cerebral hemisphere. During the radical surgery that Larry underwent, the corpus callosum was split. "The key to the alien hand is the notion that you can have two consciousnesses in a single individual," says Feinberg. And by cutting the corpus callosum, "you potentially have divided the mind."
While Farah has pushed to bring more clinical evidence to bear on theories about the mind, Feinberg has moved from clinical work to more theoretical investigations.
"As a behavioral neurologist," he explains, "my basic data-base is patients with brain lesions" from head injuries, tumors, or anything else that disrupts the brain's processing. He is interested in how brain damage affects their personality and how they view the world. But lately he has been taking a larger view, the study of consciousness itself, and last year he was guest editor of an issue of a professional journal, Seminars in Neurology, which focused on consciousness.
Yet that, as he tells it, has been his abiding interest all along. Both of his parents were psychologists, and he has always been fascinated by "the idea that I had a mind" -- such a seemingly immaterial thing that plays such a huge part in making us who we are. As an undergraduate at Penn, he was caught up in entertainment, performing with several students who went on to careers in music, comedy, and other creative fields. While he knew that his father would have had a "total M.I." (heart attack) if he had gone into show business, he does still find occasional ways to combine his interests. For a chapter heading in his book in preparation, "Altered Egos," Feinberg quotes from the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime":
To Feinberg, these lines suggest a psychological experience called the Capgras syndrome, a feeling of dislocation and disconnection. This syndrome and several others are common subjects of Feinberg's research into consciousness. And he has been struck by the way literature over the centuries reflects, in his words, these "perturbations of the self" -- often long before any psychologists were there to coin their names.
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself -- Well ... how did I get here?
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 3/13/98