In the morning, I carried my coffee upstairs to my office and checked my email. This is almost always a bad idea, but still, hard to resist. I had a message from Meredith, who said she was very much enjoying Machine Man. That wasn’t the cool part. Well, it was. It’s always cool when someone tells you they like something you wrote. It never gets old. But what came next was even cooler: Meredith was a neuroscience major. She wrote:
I’m surprised he doesn’t have any phantom pain, since that’s extremely common; while the prosthetics would help trick the brain for sure, with that many limbs taken off, he would certainly have pain. No one totally understands phantom pain, but the idea is that our perceptions are not totally sensory; they are, in a large part, just our brain’s best guess. So, basically, the brain guesses that the limb is still there, but you can’t control it (unclench the phantom fist, etc.). A very simple technique has just been developed by Dr. Ramachandran at UCSD that is incredibly successful: Using a $5 drugstore mirror to make the arm that’s still there look like the arm that got cut off. This makes the brain think that what your one arm is doing, the phantom arm is doing. So those with phantom pain can get rid of an uncomfortable position.
I knew of phantom pain, of course, but thus far hadn’t thought of anything interesting to do with it. Now, thanks to Meredith, I did. Suddenly phantom pain seemed extremely interesting. So I opened up a blank page and began writing.
Often people email me interesting things about the subject areas in which I write. After Company, for example, I heard a lot of terrific workplace horror stories. Which is great, but I always think, “I wish I’d heard that two years ago.” Because then I could have used it in the book.
Yesterday, I sat at my desk with no idea what I would write for that day’s page, received an email from a neuroscience major, wrote something based on her insights, and published it. Then, to make it even better, the first reader comment (from always-interesting Pev) was: “Nice research on phantom limb pain, Max.”
This is the kind of research I can dig: the kind other people do for me, before I even know enough to ask. It’s not the first time it’s happened with this story. And it’s a totally unexpected side-benefit of the real-time serial format. I’m loving this.