Are Phantom Limbs Real?

July 2, 2021
IONS Fellow Rupert Sheldrake, PhD

Often when people have lost arms or legs, the missing limb feels as if it is still there. A man who had his leg amputated below the knee 20 years ago, told me he is still aware of its presence, especially when it is painful or when his missing foot seems to itch. A woman who lost her left leg because of bone cancer, said it felt so real that about a year after the operation she forgot that it was not there. When she got out of bed she tried to put her weight on her phantom leg and fell over. People who have had an arm amputated often try to reach out and pick up the telephone or other objects.

These non-material limbs are called phantoms. They feel real, but they are invisible and can pass though solid objects. Amputees find they can push their phantom limbs through tables and walls. They are a nuisance when they are painful, as many are, but they can also be very useful. They enable people use a false limb, or prosthesis. Doctors speak of the phantoms “animating” the lifeless false arm or leg. As one doctor put it, “The phantom usually fits the prosthesis as a hand fits a glove.”

Most people can experience a phantom without having an amputation if their arm is anaesthetized. The phantom vanishes when the anesthetic wears off.

Lord Nelson, the famous British admiral, had a phantom arm after losing his limb in a sea battle in 1797. He said that he thought his phantom was proof of the existence of the soul. Perhaps he meant that the whole body can be like a phantom, feeling real from within, but non-material at the same time. This is indeed what happens in an out-of-the-body or near-death experience. The eminent neurologist Ronald Melzack commented that his research on phantom limbs showed that “we don’t need a body to feel a body.”

Phantom limbs raise deep questions about the relationship with the mind and body. The standard theory is that they are all in the brain and are somehow “referred” to where they seem to be. I myself think that phantom limbs may be the inner experience of the morphogenetic fields of the missing structures. If a leg on a newt is amputated, the newt can regenerate a new leg. The field that governs its development is still present. Humans do not, or course, regenerate limbs but the field of the missing limb may still be present, and it may be exactly where the missing limb seems to be from the point of view of the amputee.

Can the fields of missing limbs be detected? I have been investigating this question experimentally in some preliminary tests. The experiments are very simple, and I would be interested to hear from IONS members who carry out some of these tests, which cost almost nothing. First you need to find an amputee, preferably someone with a missing arm. Hospitals are unlikely to be helpful both because of data protection issues, and also because the official medical system is pervaded by a materialist view of body-mind relationships. I recruited subjects through veterans’ organizations who are were much more amenable.

Secondly, you need to find people who practice forms of subtle energy medicine and who feel that they might be able to detect a phantom limb, for example chiropractors or practitioners of therapeutic touch or reiki. Third, you need a room with an opaque door (e.g. a wooden door). You also need a dice.

You mark out six panels on the door numbered from one to six. I do this by attaching six sheets of paper to the door with the numbers written on them. On the other side of the door you place another six sheets of paper with the same numbers, so the numbers of both sides correspond. Then the door is closed, and one experimenter stays with the amputee on one side and throws the dice to select a number at random between one and six. Say the number two comes up. The amputee is then asked to push his or her arm through panel two in the door. Being a phantom, it goes through the door and protrudes out of the door on the other side. Then, on the other side of the door, an experimenter invites a subtle energy practitioner to identify which panel the phantom is sticking through. They can do this by feeling, by dowsing with a pendulum, or by any other method they choose. They then give their answer. If they answer two, they are correct if they answer any other number, they are incorrect. There is a one in six chance of getting the right answer by pure guessing.

If there are several subtle energy practitioners they should wait in another room and be called to be tested one by one, so they do not see what number the person before them guesses, so they can do it blind.

When everyone has had a go, the experimenter with the amputee throws the dice again and runs a new trial with the phantom arm in a new randomly selected position.

The results can be analyzed statistically using standard methods. In my own research, summarized in my book Seven Experiments that Could Change the World, the hit rate has been significantly above chance, suggesting that it is indeed possible to detect the field of the phantom limb. This would be a great experiment to run with trainee groups of chiropractors or other practitioners.

If you are able to take up a project of this kind, please get in touch with me by email.

Rupert Sheldrake, PhDRupert Sheldrake, PhD, is a Fellow of IONS, a biologist, and author of more than 90 technical papers in scientific journals and nine books, including Science Set Free (called The Science Delusion in the UK) and The Sense of Being Stared At and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind. His website is

Rupert Sheldrake would like to know if readers with phantom limbs have found that other people, or pets, ever seem to “feel” their phantom.

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