J.K. Rowling and the Phantoms in the Brain

BrainsAs best I can recall, brains only came up once in the Harry Potter series. There was a “Brain Room” in the Department of Mysteries in Order of the Phoenix, that contained a tank with green liquid and a number of “pearly white” brains floating in it. When a mentally-addled Ron foolishly Accio-ed one out, it flew through the air, attacked him with tentacles that “looked like ribbons of moving images” and left scars on Ron’s arms that even Madame Pomfrey was hard-pressed to remove. But the message is clear: in the wizarding world the study of the brain, and, by extension, the mind, is relegated to the Unspeakables, and considered an area of scholarship too dangerous to be shared with the general public, putting it in the same realm as other mysterious forces of the universe such as love, space, death and time. Thoughts, according to Madam Pomfrey, “leave deeper scarring that almost anything else.”

career_of_evilIn the Cormoran Strike series, Rowling moves the study of the human mind into the scientific realm, by making its female protagonist, Robin Ellacott, an ex-psychology student, intent on a career in forensic psychology before a sexual assault interrupted her university studies. As a professor of psychology and neuroscience, I have already documented through Harry Potter that Rowling seems familiar with the diagnostic criteria of multiple Muggle psychiatric conditions.  She also seems to have provided a realistic account of Robin’s mental breakdown after her assault and the way she overcame it.

VSRamachandran_zps47ada994As we know, Rowling does not write anything without doing a “ridiculous amount” of research, so it is hardly likely that she would write an entire series of novels about an amputee without educating herself about the medical facts regarding such an injury. After reading the first three books of the series, I am now convinced she consulted one of my favorite neuroscience writers, Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, author of Phantoms in the Brain (1998), A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness (2004) and The Tell-Tale Brain (2011). Ramachandran’s books present fascinating case studies about people with seemingly bizarre neurological conditions. So far, three of the conditions he describes have turned up in the Comoran Strike series.

phantoms2_2In the mid-1990’s, Ramachandran presented evidence that phantom limb sensations, long dismissed by Freudians as a subconscious desire to have the limb back, or attributed to irritation of sensory nerve endings in the stump by scar tissue, could instead be explained by plasticity in the brain itself: specifically, reorganization by the somatosensory cortex that was no longer getting input from the lost limb. In Phantoms in the Brain, Ramachandran spins a fascinating tale about how he made his discovery, and describes the “phantom” experiences of amputees in great detail. In addition to feeling as if the limbs are still there, some amputees have the uncanny sensation that they can voluntarily move their phantoms limbs, for instance, waving with a phantom hand, or counting on phantom fingers. At the end of part one of The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike describes a similar sensation from his missing leg: “He could still feel the missing foot, ripped from his leg two and a half years before. It was there, under the sleeping bag; he could flex the vanished toes if he wanted to.”

Capgras-syndromeAnother syndrome Ramachandran describes in both Phantoms in the Brain and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness is Capgras delusion, a rare condition where people come to believe that close relatives and friends are not their loved ones, but identical imposters. Ramachandran hypothesizes that Capgras syndrome also has a neurological explanation: a disconnect between the temporal lobe structures that recognize faces with certain emotional centers of the limbic system. A female Capgras patient apparently contacts Strike after his rise to fame. On page 200 of The Silkworm, Robin describes receiving a “twelve-page letter from a secure psychiatric unit, begging Strike to help her prove that everyone in her family had been spirited away and replaced with identical imposters.”

Amputation-desire-0222Body image integrity disorder (BIID), also known as apotemnophilia, takes center stage in Career of Evil, as Robin must troll the online support groups for would-be amputees in search of clues into the murder of a young girl. Ramachandran describes this syndrome, and his proposed explanation—that the unwanted limb is congenitally unrepresented in the “body image integration” map of the right parietal lobe—extensively in The Tell-Tale Brain. While this book may have been published too late to have served as a source for Career of Evil, Ramachandran published his model in the scientific literature in 2008  and described brain scan evidence to support it in a 2009 New Yorker article. Robin, and by extension, Rowling, is clearly aware  of Ramachandran’s research. On page 325, Robin tries in vain to explain to Strike, “Well, you know, there’s debate about whether BIID is a mental illness or some kind of brain abnormality. When you scan the brain of someone suffering—” Strike promptly cuts her off, preferring to dismiss Jason and Kelsey as “nutters.” His curiosity, at least, does not extend to brain science.

jk_rowling_c-189x213Perhaps it is wishful thinking on my part that one of my favorite fiction authors would be a fan of one of my favorite non-fiction writers, but if so, it’s a delusion I can live with. For three syndromes described in Ramachandran’s popular works to be specifically referenced in the first three Cormoran Strike novels strikes me as too many to be coincidence. The only question is, will any more of Ramachandran’s favorite topics: agnosonosia,  blindsightsynthesthesia, or mirror therapy, turn up in any of Cormoran’s and Robin’s future adventures? We’ll have to wait and see.


  1. Brett Fish says

    Insightful read! I too would be thrilled to see mirror therapy show up in future Strike novels.

  2. Steve Morrison says

    Speaking of synesthesia, a few years ago at the Hog’s Head we discovered that three of us had color-grapheme synesthesia. (BTW, what happened to the Hog’s Head?)

  3. Beatrice Groves says

    Louise, just read (and enjoyed) this a day after reading this exchange about Capgras Syndrome on Rowling’s Twitter (18 Sept 2108: https://twitter.com/TVSanjeev/status/1041971901122465797)!

    18 Sept 2018 Sanjeev Bhaskar wrote about how someone ‘accepted I was me yet insisted I was pretending to be me’ and Rowling (after talking lightly about conspiracy theories – how people claim she is a collective and not real, which her kids like to tease her with)) came back with ‘Wait, he might have been suffering from Capgras Syndrome. I know all about that because I was going to put it in a book once, but it didn’t work. (This is how I end up with a lot of random knowledge.)’ Sounds precisely as though the v. brief Capgras allusion you mention above was the fruit of research for a bigger plot-line that she did not end up using. More evidence that she’d have done the full research and read Ramachandran. Great catch!

  4. Beatrice Groves says

    I have just read this a day after reading Rowling’s exchange on Twitter about Capgras Syndrome! (18 Sept 2108: https://twitter.com/TVSanjeev/status/1041971901122465797)
    Rowling writes ‘Wait, he might have been suffering from Capgras Syndrome. I know all about that because I was going to put it in a book once, but it didn’t work. (This is how I end up with a lot of random knowledge.)’ It sounds like having done the research, and decided it wouldn’t work for a full plot-line, she slipped in the brief mention you describe above. Great catch Louise!

  5. Louise Freeman says

    Thank you, Beatrice! Another clue from Lethal White:

    The last time he had endured such a long stretch of sleeplessness had been his first week of consciousness after his leg had been borne off by the IED in Afghanistan. Then he had been kept awake by a tormenting itch impossible to scratch, because he felt it on his missing foot.

    In Phantoms in the Brain, one chapter is titled “Knowing where to scratch” and involves an arm amputee whose sensory map is rewired onto his face. When warm water is dribbled down his cheek, he feels like it is running down his phantom arm. This turns out to be handy, as the young man suffers from chronic itching in his phantom hand. But, he discovers he can relieve it by scratching his cheek.

  6. Beatrice Groves says

    Is that rewiring intentional or chance? Can it be done palliatively to give relief to an amputee? – I have a vague memory of once reading about this! If so, maybe Strike will get the procedure done in a later novel…

  7. Louise Freeman says

    There have been some efforts to use the plasticity process therapeutically through mirror therapy (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrqi1B9Xbt0 for a patient very much like Cormoran) It would be interesting to see if mirror therapy shows up later. though, his issues seem not so much phantom pain-related as excess strain on the muscles and tendons of the stump.

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