Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Phantom Penises In Transsexuals

In an article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Ramachandran and McGeoch offer evidence of an innate gender-specific body image in the brain:
How the brain constructs one’s inner sense of gender identity is poorly understood. On the other hand, the phenomenon of phantom sensations — the feeling of still having a body-part after amputation — has been much studied. Around 60% of men experience a phantom penis post-penectomy. As transsexuals report a mismatch between their inner gender identity and that of their body, we wondered what could be learned from this regarding innate gender-specific body image. We surveyed male-to-female transsexuals regarding the incidence of phantoms post-gender reassignment surgery. Additionally, we asked female-to-male transsexuals if they had ever had the sensation of having a penis when there was not one physically there. In post-operative male-to-female transsexuals the incidence of phantom penises was significantly reduced at 30%. Remarkably, over 60% of female-to-male transsexuals also reported phantom penises. We explain the absence/presence of phantoms here by postulating a mismatch between the brain’s hardwired gender-specific body image and the external somatic gender. Further studies along these lines may provide penetrating insights into the question of how nature and nurture interact to produce our brain-based body image.
Simon LeVay, an expert on human sexuality, does make the point that Ramachandran is comparing those who are extremely pleased with getting rid of their penis to others who are distressed and think about their penis all the time. It would appear that Ramachandran has largely left out emotions, and also the question of wishful thinking.

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