STRANGE BUT TRUE: The brain can sense even without functioning senses

Q. What’s the flip side of the brain mutating pain by distracting a patient from nerve damage or other problems?

For example, in a 2010 Super Bowl playoff game, Vikings quarterback Brett Favre seriously injured his ankle and hamstring.  He was taken out of the game briefly but came back and played through the pain, which reclaimed his attention after the game’s end.

A. The brain can also create pain, as it does in people’s experience of “phantom limb sensations,” when it misinterprets the spontaneous central nervous system activity occurring in the absence of normal sensory input, explains David G. Myers in “Psychology:  Tenth Edition.”

Just as the dreamer may “see” with eyes closed, so some 7 in 10 amputees may feel pain or movement in nonexistent limbs.

An amputee may even try to step off a bed onto a phantom limb or lift a cup with a phantom hand.  Sometimes those born without a limb perceive sensations from the missing arm or leg.  As psychologist R. Melzack surmises, the brain comes prepared to anticipate “that it will be getting information from a body that has limbs,” and acts accordingly.

People with hearing loss may experience the sound of silence:  phantom sounds -- a ringing in the ears known as “tinnitus.”  Those who lose vision due to glaucoma, cataracts, diabetes may experience phantom sights -- nonthreatening hallucinations.  Some with nerve damage have had taste phantoms, such as ice water seeming sickeningly sweet, while others have had phantom smells, as of nonexistent rotten food.  As Myers emphasizes, “We feel, see, hear, taste and smell with our brain, which can sense even without functioning senses.”

Q. Of all Earth’s species, which one has visited the moon in greatest numbers?

A. No, it’s not we humans.  Bacteria might stake a claim but also in contention would be an intrepid group of trees, says MacGregor Campbell in “New Scientist” magazine.

In 1971, U.S. Forest Service scientists wanted to see if a journey into space would affect seed growth.  Obligingly, Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa carried 500 pine, sycamore, sweetgum, redwood and Douglas fir seeds to the moon.

Upon return, nearly all of the seeds germinated, then were given as gifts to various U.S. states, as well as to countries such as Switzerland, Brazil, Japan.  But nobody kept track of where they were planted.  So David Williams of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland decided to trace them, locating more than 80-65 of them still living in 22 states and Brazil.  Concludes Campbell:  “One of the remaining forgotten lunar explorers may well be growing in a garden near you.”

Q. What morning email sound-alike might a highly romantic, love-struck woman prefer to receive?

A. Email from an “emale,” says Anu Garg in “The Dord, the Diglot and an Avocado or Two.”  This is what a woman might term her boyfriend in an online relationship.

Q. When is the “hot hand” of pro basketball players actually “the not-so-hot hand”?

A. Stars Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller and Kobe Bryant have all gone on seemingly memorable shooting streaks, but research shows that the so-called “hot hand” is a myth, rooted in our tendency to see patterns even when there aren’t any, says John Matson in “Scientific American” magazine.  One study published in the journal “Nature Communications” used game stats for hundreds of NBA players and concluded they put too much stock on the outcome of their last three-point shot.  If they made one, they were much more likely to try another than if they missed.  The Lakers’ Bryant was a prime example in his MVP season of 2007-2008:  When he made a three-pointer, he shot again from downtown nearly four times as often as following a missed three.  But trying to ride a three-point streak is often bad strategy.  “Players actually tend to shoot a lower percentage after making shots than after missing them--once again sending the idea of the ‘hot hand’ up in smoke.”

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