Psychological Research

, Volume 83, Issue 1, pp 196–204 | Cite as

My hand in my ear: a phantom limb re-induced by the illusion of body ownership in a patient with a brachial plexus lesion

  • Mariella PazzagliaEmail author
  • Giorgio Scivoletto
  • Anna Maria Giannini
  • Erik Leemhuis
Original Article


Corporeal awareness of body unity, continuity, and integrity is hardwired in the brain, even following massive deafferentation. Following peripheral limb injury, referred phantom sensations are reported frequently on the cheek and, rarely, on the ear. Here, we explore how brain plasticity mechanisms induced by multisensory stimulation of different facial regions (cheek and ear) modulate the feeling that a complete missing limb is still attached to the body. We applied the modified rubber hand illusion (RHI) paradigm following synchronous and asynchronous stimulation of the face–hand and ear–hand in the unusual case of a patient with a brachial plexus lesion, who had lost upper-left limb sensation and developed a phantom sensation of the arm restricted to the ear. He experienced a strong illusion of ownership of the rubber hand during synchronous stroking of the ear but not the cheek and reported more defined tactile sensations in his previously numb body part during the illusion than when simply touching the ear. Phantom experiences are not exclusively based on sensory memories of the once-present body periphery, they are organized into a topographic cortical map with the ear–hand area adjoining but separate from the face. Multimodal experiences specifically modulate possible remapping of ear–hand representations and generate a more defined connection between the brain’s memory of the body and what one feels of the actual physical body. We suggest that RHI is a form of sensory intervention that makes the best use of residual signals from disconnected body parts after peripheral injury, evoking and controlling the limb sensations.



The authors acknowledge research support from ANIA Foundation.

Author contributions

MP: study concept and design, acquisition of data, analysis and interpretation, writing and drafting of the manuscript, critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content. GS: performed acquisition of neurologic data. AG: critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content. EL: drafting of the manuscript, critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and animal rights statement

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

The patient provided written informed consent to take part in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Rome “La Sapienza”RomeItaly
  2. 2.IRCCS Fondazione Santa LuciaRomeItaly

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