Amplitude Magazine and Abled Amputees of America (AAA) are teaming up to share your insights about living with limb loss. Every Saturday, we’re posting a Question of the Week at AAA’s Facebook page. The survey results will appear in Amplitude This Week the following Wednesday. This week’s question: When you dream, how often do you have your missing limb(s) in the dream?
Before we get to the answers, you should know that European scholars have been investigating this very question for nearly a century. In the oldest study, published in 1921 in a German journal under the title “Zur psychologie des amputierten und seiner prothese” (On the Psychology of the Amputee and his Prosthesis), 50 percent of the surveyed amputees predominantly or exclusively had their limbs intact in their dreams, versus 36 percent who usually or always had a missing limb(s). Subsequent inquiries in 1950, 1969, 1976 and 1982 generally arrived at similar conclusions.
In 1989, in the largest study ever conducted up to that point, a pair of scholars at the University of Hannover found that 83 percent of amputees always, or nearly always, had fully intact limbs during their dreams. But in 2008, with an even larger survey sample, the Dutch neuropsychologist Theo Mulder obtained somewhat different results: only 35 percent dreamed mostly with limbs intact, and just 23 percent mostly with limbs amputated, while the lion’s share (42 percent) alternated between dreams with and without limbs. (A summary of all these findings is presented in Peter Brugger, “The Phantom Limb in Dreams,” Consciousness and Cognition 17(4), December 2008).
Abled Amputees and Amplitude Survey Results
We received a total of 59 responses in the inaugural Question of the Week survey—not bad at all for our maiden voyage. We make no claims to scientific accuracy in this sample. In fact, there’s a pretty big anomaly in it: Not a single respondent self-identified as an upper-limb amputee. (A large number reported having a lower-limb amputation, and the rest didn’t specify whether they have an upper- or lower-limb amputation.) All the same, it’s interesting to discover that our results fit the general pattern the scholars established. Indeed, our tallies are almost identical to the ones obtained back in 1921:
|Generally or always have intact limbs during dreams||29 (49%)|
|Generally or always have missing limb(s) during dreams||23 (39%)|
|Alternate between intact and missing limbs, or have experienced changes over time||7 (12%)|
Our favorite individual response comes from Dave Giaimo: “[I have] both natural legs in most dreams, but it doesn’t matter because I’m usually flying in my dreams anyway.”
About half a dozen people reported that although they’re missing their limb in the dream, they can walk normally without a prosthesis—as if they had “a cushion of air” under their residual limb, as Martha Stewart Groeber describes it. Anita Herzog puts it another way: “It’s like I am wearing a prosthesis that fits perfectly but is invisible.” Chris Cherrington adds: “When I dream, I’m missing my limb, but I walk fine. Sometimes I do dream about my prosthesis, but then I have trouble walking.”
For some respondents, dreams of intact limbs have persisted over decades. “After 24 years (I) still dream with two legs, and for some reason run like Chariots of Fire,” Rhonda Bird reports. And Cathy Collins has experienced the same thing for nearly twice as long: “I’ve been a RAKA for 46 years, and I almost never dream that I’ve got a prosthesis. Most of the time I have two legs.”
Two of Amplitude’s favorite YouTubers have addressed this question fairly recently. “I actually wondered about this when I was heading into amputation,” explained Footless Jo in a June 2019 video. “If you’ve looked one way for 27 years, and then something changes overnight, is your subconscious going to recognize that? I kind of assumed that as soon as I was missing a leg that my brain would adjust to that, but it didn’t. I think I’ve only had one dream in which I was missing a leg, but aside from that I’ve been running around and doing stuff with two good legs. Which is weird to me because my body has permanently changed. I obviously know that, but my dreams don’t.”
Johnny Maynard (aka Crew9t) canvassed some of his amputee friends in January of this year and concluded, “It seems like the longer that you had all of your limbs, the more likely it is that you’ll have those limbs in your dreams. I lost my leg at 20 years old. I’ve been an amputee for nine and a half years, . . . . [but] when I dream, I virtually never am missing my leg. And it seems that’s because I went a very substantial amount of time as a non-amputee. But when I spoke to somebody who lost their limb at nine years old, it’s not surprising that in the beginning they dreamed of still having both of their limbs, but now as an amputee of 30 years, they very often dream that they’re still in their wheelchair or wearing a prosthetic.” Johnny noted an exception, however: “If I’m having a lot of phantom pain for a particular stretch of time, that gets carried over into my dreams. For however long the phantom pain seems to last, every dream I have will be about me being an amputee.”
Have an idea for a Question of the Week? Email it to email@example.com.