The phenomenon of the phantom limb, the doctor explained, was once regarded as a purely psychic hallucination, the sort of thing the mind does when it is grappling with loss, denial being a well-trodden pathway for managing grief. The sense of moving fingers even after the arm is gone was compared to the way that you might see a loved one in their bathrobe and slippers muddling down the hallway looking for the light switch, in the days and weeks after their death.
But it turns out there is more to it, they realized, as the tools for observation expanded what researchers were willing to see––and listen to, for that matter. A pianist long versed in playing music through the body will continue to do so even after the loss of an arm. The music runs through the musician as practiced, even as only some of it reaches the keys.
The discovery raises certain questions about the nature of what was considered phantom and suggests that the idea of limb might also deserve some expansion. I am wondering about the word instrument, too––how immediately we tend to assume that these are what the musician uses to create the art, that the point is somehow mastery of a tool and not instead the long practice of erasing the old ideas of the boundaries of a body, smoothing its distinctive forms and shaping hollow wells of space, tending it daily so as to leave it well enough and ready to be moved.
This post was inspired by something I heard over ten years ago on a radio interview with the late Oliver Sacks. I found a related anecdote in his chapter “Phantom Fingers: the case of the one-armed Pianist” in his Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.