Phantom Limbic Effect

Every stomach ache or sneeze. The rise and fall of each orgasm, every burst of laughter. Physical sensations leave their mark without our conscious awareness. As with bodies of water—the flow of past currents etched in a riverbed—we retain a trace of what’s washed over us.

Particularly painful memories have a way of reemerging when we least expect it. The original moment has passed but we’re in the middle of it again, searching for an exit. I call this phenomenon the phantom limbic effect.

We’re familiar with cases of amputees who feel their missing limbs long after surgery. In what I’m describing the trauma is “missing,” that is to say, not happening right now, but the sufferer still endures its terrible weight, unable to dismiss it. An outsider might call this phantom pain, but for the victim it’s the closest thing to a flesh-and-blood terrorist.

The limbic system is the area of the brain that deals with emotions and long-term memory. In this case the body and limbic system together recall the trauma, with the body serving as the site of reenactment. It’s not just how you feel about a memory then, but how it feels about you, on and underneath the skin.

Of course, this works for the liberating effects of pleasure. But it’s hard to seize the day when old traumas hold us hostage.

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