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Life After Paralysis is a blog that represents a variety of paralysis community members. It is a place for open conversation about the issues and the interests of people living with paralysis, their family, friends, caregivers, and the professionals that serve them. Comments are welcome!
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Can We Feel If We Can't Feel?

So my friend Nicole turned me on to this RadioLab broadcast from April 2009 which posits that individuals who have no physical sensation (specifically referencing folks with quadriplegia in the piece) are also emotionally disconnected. Nicole challenged the assertion. So I ask you, do you believe that our lack of physical feeling means we lack emotional feeling as well? [tp:readmore]

The piece starts with the supposition of discovering our best friend Tommy's murder. The feelings of shock and horror we experience (according to the piece) start in our optic sensors and then our stomach – the clenching of the gut and the sweat on the skin and THEN our brain reacts to the physical stimuli and creates emotion. No sensation in the gut, no emotion. RadioLab goes on to cite an unnamed psychologist, also a paraplegic, who found that his life post-injury lacked feeling both in the sensory and the emotional context.Thus, emotion starts as a corporeal sense and moves into the amygdala where we emotionally process an event.

Like Nicole and so many others who have commented, I call BS. I go a step further and call ableism. Without a full understanding of the complexities of our humanity, we, as individuals living with paralysis are dismissed.

In this RadioLab piece, the 125 year old work of William James is dusted off, re-examined and combined with modern-day neuroscientists. James theorized that “feeling is the perception of the body." Thus, those of us who cannot feel tension in certain muscles, feel our heart beat or our flush growing, if we cannot feel our breathing increase or if we cannot sweat, then we cannot feel emotions triggered by these physical signs. Neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Robert Sapolsky weighed in giving this whackadoo theory credence.

The program cites the example of being in the woods and encountering a bear. The first sign of fear would be muscle tension, then changes in breathing and the onset of sweating followed by the rush of adrenalin. Now the brain recognizes those physical changes and creates fear in the brain. The program states that according to James and like-minded researchers a person paralyzed from the neck down would not feel these physical symptoms, thus would not feel fear. “Fear comes from the physical sensation" according to James. The RadioLab hosts simply accepted this as fact and moved on with their program.

They further justify this premise by discussing the physical feelings of grief; the heaviness in the body, the dull ache, the cold empty feeling. “Sorrow is rooted in the flesh" we're told as the hosts move on again without a challenge to this preposterous theory.

I believe the researchers and commentators confuse lack of emotion with a more highly evolved sense of emotional intelligence. Nicole and I have both heard from many of our fellow wheelers that they feel more deeply but also have a more finely tuned sense of emotional discernment. One friend (who asked not to have an identifier) stated “after nearly dying, I have a strong sense of what is important and what is an old hook. I don't waste my precious time and energy on drama. I feel more connected to those whom I've identified as important to me."

In conversation Nicole shared “I can tear up just watching other people cry! When I've felt really sad I have felt the heaviness that the reporters described. I do have dull sensation so I'm not quite the type that they're describing, but somewhat."

I know from personal experience that although I am a T4 complete, I have felt that jump in my legs and the tension in a moment of great fear. I promise, in that moment, I FELT fear even if I cannot sweat below my injury level or get goosebumps.

I know that I too am much closer to my emotions than I was prior to my injury. I love deeper and more freely. I find that my sense of empathy is more engaged. I find I exercise more honest engagement on an emotional level. The difference is that I no longer care at all about what I deem needless. I no longer have time or energy to waste. I also find that the mental discipline sometimes required for the day-to-day existence of a paralysed body means I exercise greater control on my emotional range.

So, while I believe that this area of study is complete and utter BS and even pseudo-science (none of us have been able to find these unnamed researchers and their studies) I see this as another example that we, as people living with paralysis, are being pushed further into the “other."

We don't have physical feeling thus we don't have emotional feeling either.

Legitimize this theory and we are further marginalized. “We" are not like “them." How can we relate? It's easier to create policies and procedures that further dehumanize us once you strip us of our human connectedness because we don't feel – on any level.

So I welcome you to listen to the program, it starts around the 3:00 mark and come back to share your comments. As a complete aside, I was intrigued by the other accompanying vignettes. At the 39:00ish mark, the piece about Bradford Brooks, a British man who lost all sense of proprioception (the ability to sense the relative position of your body to itself and neighboring objects) is fascinating. I can imagine that treatments for paralysis that restored motor function without concomitant gains in sensation would create a scenario similar to Brooks' experiences.

Agree or disagree, this 2009 RadioLab program provides ample food for thought to the wheeler community. I hope you will listen to the program and come back here to discuss.


© 2013 Jennifer Longdon | Like Jennifer on Facebook | Follow Jennifer on Twitter | Read her personal blog.
Posted by JenLongdon on Dec 1, 2013 1:17 AM America/New_York