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Alien Hand Syndrome

Article #52 • Written by Alan Bellows

In 1908, the German neurologist and psychiatrist Dr Kurt Goldstein was bewildered by the strange behaviors manifest in one of his patients. The fifty-seven year old woman reported that her left hand had a "will of its own," and indeed it seemed to possess its own sinister agenda. The rogue limb moved around involuntarily, and its searching fingers tended to fiddle with the various objects that they chanced upon. If she didn't keep an eye on her arm, she couldn’t quite be sure what it was up to. Even more alarmingly, her conjoined tormentor occasionally wrapped its fingers tightly around her throat, forcing her to defend herself with her more obedient arm. The eminent neurologist was at a loss for how to treat this unsettling abnormality.

Although Dr Goldstein was the first to officially record the phenomenon, his patient wasn't the first to be afflicted with this rare and astonishing malady, nor would she be the last. It was not until 1972, however, that it was officially recognized as a legitimate disease. It came to be known as Alien Hand Syndrome (AHS).

This neurological disorder is now known to be the result of specific kinds of brain damage. The majority of recorded cases are a side effect of a brain operation called a corpus callosotomy; a surgery which helps to relieve extreme cases of epilepsy by severing the bundle of nerve fibers that carry information between the two hemispheres of the brain. On occasion, a hand can also become alienated due to head trauma, stroke, aneurysm, or tumor, or due to certain degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The specific symptoms and severity of Alien Hand Syndrome depend on which sectors of the brain have been compromised. Although patients typically retain sensation in the alien hand, they feel strongly that the rebel limb does not belong to them. They will often dissociate themselves from the hand by personifying it--sometimes assigning it a name--and attribute its inexplicable movements to ghosts or gods. Some sufferers only experience a few isolated episodes, but in most cases the alien arm is active whenever its owner is conscious.

The mildest form of the syndrome is caused by damage to the brain's parietal and/or occipital lobe, causing a hand to unconsciously avoid contact with objects by "levitating" with its fingers extended. When damage occurs to the corpus callosum--the data link between the brain's two hemispheres--the non-dominant hand can develop what seems to be an independent sense of purpose, groping around its environment and manipulating the objects it finds. Sometimes the sufferer is completely unaware of what the hand is doing until it is brought to his attention, or until he happens to notice the shenanigans. Alien hands have been implicated in a variety of misdeeds, such as unbuttoning one's own shirt, adjusting a thermostat, or involuntarily stuffing food in the mouth. In some cases it will grasp onto an object and hold on stubbornly, requiring the patient to peel back the fingers in order to let go. Such incorrigible behavior prompts many AHS sufferers to speak to the unruly arm in an attempt to reason with it, some becoming so frustrated that they try to modify its behavior through punishment. Others simply use their obedient hand to restrain the strangeness.

In a report published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, Dr Ramón Leiguarda and his colleagues recorded several first-hand accounts from AHS sufferers. A sixty-five year old man reported the following:

While I was travelling on a bus I noticed that a hand was approaching me on the right from behind, trying to catch me. After grasping my trouser leg, the hand did not release it. First, I thought somebody was assaulting me, but then I realised that it was my own right hand, although I did not feel it belonged to me. Thereafter, the fingers developed creeping movements, and repetitive jerks involving the whole arm soon followed. I was unable to control my right hand and I had to grasp and hold it with my left hand. My right arm felt heavy and awkward. I was very anguished, anxious, and frightened, and had palpitations...

The researchers also recounted the experience of a fifty year old woman who developed AHS following a brain hematoma:

Suddenly I had a strange feeling on my left side; later I could not recognise the left arm as my own; I felt it belonged to someone else and wanted to hurt me because it moved towards me; I saw it quite big and distorted like a monster; I was terrified.

When the arm approached the woman's face during a session with one of the authors, she begged for him to stop the 'monster', pleading, "Look, it's coming... please help me." A quick injection of Valium put her at ease.

One particularly unorthodox subtype of Alien Hand Syndrome can arise due to lesions on the corpus callosum, producing a phenomenon called intermanual conflict. For these frustrated few, the alien hand constantly meddles in the affairs of the obedient hand. For instance, one particular patient had difficulty operating a TV remote because the wayward hand would snatch it away as soon as he picked it up with his good hand. In another case, a sufferer experienced difficulty getting dressed because the alien hand would unhook the buttons on her blouse immediately after she buttoned them. Yet another AHS sufferer was unable to smoke because her rogue hand would pluck the cigarette from her lips and toss it away before she could light it, leading the woman to surmise that 'he' didn't want her to smoke just then.

Although the alien hand's actions are seldom threatening, there are a few recorded cases where the dissident limb seems to wish harm upon its host body. The hand can occasionally grab and tear its owner's clothes, attempt to strangle the sufferer, punch the patient in the face, or grab a steering wheel and turn the vehicle unpredictably. The out-of-control hand can also be a source of profound embarrassment, such as the case of a right-handed man who developed AHS in the aftermath of a stroke. His left hand would involuntarily grasp at objects and cause considerable mischief, and on occasion it would unfasten its owner's trousers and “gratify” him without regard for his surroundings. Needless to say, the stroke victim was frustrated and dismayed when he discovered the hand doing so in public.

The nature of the brain malfunction that leads to Alien Hand Syndrome is not yet known to science. Under ordinary circumstances, intentional movements of the arm and hand are driven by a combination of signals from several regions of the brain: the parietal lobe provides the body's position in space, the temporal lobe provides data about past motion strategies, and so on. All of this information is then processed by the frontal lobe into a specific plan of action, and the instructions are relayed to the brain's motor strip for execution.

Evidence suggests that the brain's dominant hemisphere--the half that controls an individual's dominant hand--maintains some indirect control over the subordinate hand in carrying out motion; so when the corpus callosum is damaged, the hemispheres' data link is lost, and the subordinate hand is deprived of guidance. Doctors conducting fMRI scans of Alien Hand Syndrome patients found that the liberated limbs seem to be driven by the motor strip directly, neither receiving orders from the frontal lobe nor sending a signal to inform the host that the movement is occurring. The actual source of these motor strip signals remains a mystery. When AHS is triggered by lesions to the frontal lobe itself, the involuntary movements are most likely caused by corruption in the brain's motor instructions.

Since its discovery in 1908, only fifty or so cases of Alien Hand Syndrome have been confirmed. It is believed, however, that many other instances have gone undiagnosed, written off as part of a psychiatric disorder.

There is no known treatment to restore control over the estranged limbs, however some patients will gradually reacquire voluntary use of the arm as the brain mends its delicate pathways. For the others, the disease can be disarmed for a time by satisfying its primitive tactile urges, and giving the fidgety fingers an object to grasp and grope.

A version of this article appeared in our actual, physical, paper book. You should buy a copy.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 19 November 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

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41 Comments
markpitzner
Posted 19 November 2005 at 06:17 pm

I am just waiting for this particular ailment to be used in court by some saivy lawyer to defend his client.

mark pitzner seattle washington


Josh Harding
Posted 21 November 2005 at 11:13 am

It takes me back to the Far Side cartoon where the left hand is writing how much it hates the right hand while the right hand is juggling.


cyril
Posted 30 November 2005 at 05:02 am

I am unfortuanate enough to suffer from this awful disease. Recently i strangled myself while attempting to tie my shoe, but fortunately my other hand could fight my alien hand off.

I'd just like to tell people about this awful condition and my hellish nightmare.

From Cyril aged 73


affnan
Posted 30 November 2005 at 03:39 pm

Cyril, I have a hard time believing you. But to be on the safe side best to start lifting weights with your 'other' hand, build up some strength for any future attacks!


cyril
Posted 04 December 2005 at 12:54 pm

It is absolutly true believe me, I wish it was all a dream but I have suffered with this condition for at least 53 years, as a small boy I accosted my grandmother twice and also tried to strangle the dog.

As a result I was put into an asylum for at least 12 years before the doctors realised this was a true condition. Even then I reoffended by choking my self in my sleep.

If this doesnt help you it will be a warning to others who suffer from my hellish nightmare...

all the best, Cyril.


closet philosopher
Posted 20 December 2005 at 07:32 am

The good Doctor Strangelove (IMDB link) seems to have been afflicted with this particular malady.


Adam
Posted 18 March 2006 at 01:30 pm

Okay, I'm the first one to reply here in months, but I'm going to do it anyway. This article doesn’t explain why this syndrome occurs, and I might have some insight.

I saw a special about this disorder on the Discovery Channel some years ago, though I believe they called it by another name. The show was obviously memorable; it was so bizarre!

According to the show, those who suffered from (if I recall correctly) seizures were given brain surgery that would partially separate the communication between the two halves of the brain (though not completely, of course). The procedure generally worked to cure the seizures, but then a number of the patients experienced AHS. I’m not sure what percentage (it was probably very small), but one of the hands would act like it had a mind of its own and sometimes even try to strangle the person.

Why would this occur? The surgery used to partially separate the lobes would in theory separate part of the person’s consciousness, effectively giving them another personality trapped in their mind. However, this severed personality would not be able to access the rest of the body and would be a prisoner of the dominant personality. It’s conceivable the severed personality would be literally mentally disabled, not having full access to the faculties of the brain either. The personality would have alone in its control the ‘alien’ hand. That would explain why the alien hand would be capable in intelligent, complex behavior; why it would be independent of the dominant personality; and why it would try to strangle the body.

Creepy, isn’t it? Imagine being a prisoner in a body you have no control over!


DOCTORSHIPPER
Posted 07 April 2006 at 08:21 am

Hello ,im a 65yr retired doctor from nj , i suffered from this and its getting worse everyday.I had thoughts about getting out my old tools and cutting my evil sick hand off, but still havent had the guts to do it.recently it cut my face up with its sharp nails,in which i couldnt cut do to its jerky movement.i have to handcuff it at night to the bed post because im afraid its going to hurt me.if anyone has any ideas to want i can do. i say i might just cut it off. thanks


indi
Posted 31 May 2006 at 01:48 pm

i am only 14 years old and i believe to have alien hand syndrome but nobody believes me. my parents just tell me to stop being stupid. i dont know what to do about it.


WolfManDragon
Posted 29 June 2006 at 11:17 am

Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead 2.


bagpipendude
Posted 03 September 2006 at 12:21 am

Dude, I get the exact same feeling when i'm high. I might be holding something and i'll close my eyes for a minute and open them up again, and i'll just be staring at my hands but have the feeling of being unable to move them. It's really cool, I feel disconnected from my hands when i'm high. It only seems to be my hands though, not legs or anything. It would suck to be a long term condition though.


orc_jr
Posted 15 September 2006 at 09:41 am

sometimes my hand abuses me in public. it is very embarassing.


scamp
Posted 23 October 2006 at 02:49 pm

This AHS is really strange, I just could'nt live with a a alian hand. I mean when your sleeping, it could strangle you. Very frightfull, i may be only 12 but i think most people who write comments on here (example cyril) i couldn't belive you had to "fight it off wit your other hand".

This may sound purely made, but if i had AHS i would have my arm/hand amputated!

I could not live with a hand wit a mind of its own.


fight test
Posted 05 November 2006 at 10:16 pm

strait up. the whole time i read i was thinking that i would do that but i guess that you would have to have your arm amputated also seeing that if you were to chock your self then you would use your arm too


JoJo
Posted 06 January 2007 at 10:23 pm

"And if your hand -even your right hand-offends, cut it off and throw it away. Better that than find yourself in hell. Quote Christ. Matthew 5:30 { Living Bible }


dterry
Posted 07 January 2007 at 03:13 pm

I had a friend with this - after priapism and onanism set in, he only lasted a few days.


austin5
Posted 07 January 2007 at 10:41 pm

its very believable to have this syndrome. I'm currently using this ailment as my major point of research for high school psychology and according to scientist it occurs due to extreme damage to the corpus callosom, the connective tissue between the two hemispheres of the brain, and is described as the person has an attached limb that has a mind of its own. Best example other than Dr.Strangelove is from Futurama Episode: The Devil's Hands are idle play things.

word.


Drakvil
Posted 08 January 2007 at 11:03 pm

Aside from a surigcal or trauma-related severing of the corpus callosum, it may also be caused in lesser forms by brain tumors or aneurysms.


derek
Posted 07 February 2007 at 07:52 pm

For recent information on Alien Hand Syndrome and its relation to laterality of motor control Google: Derakhshan handedness callosum ucmss. Further info may be obtained from http://www.mimickingman.com

Thank you. I. Derakhshan, md, neurologist


Jeffrey93
Posted 09 March 2007 at 05:55 pm

Gives a whole new meaning to "The Stranger" doesn't it? I'm sure there are some guys out there that know what I mean.


pogmog
Posted 13 April 2007 at 07:33 pm

Idle Hands! Anyone seen that movie?


advocate_of_chaos
Posted 17 April 2007 at 01:52 am

"The Stranger"... havent heard that one since high school... God, its almost embarassing to remember :P

Almost.


sroberson
Posted 19 April 2007 at 12:38 pm

Reminded me of the Evil Dead 2 where Bruce Campbell's hand get possessed turns against him until he cuts it off and it still tried to get him. It's pretty funny . :^)


crystalarcand
Posted 01 November 2007 at 12:08 pm

Found this link from this page: http://mahalo.com/Anarchic_Hand_Syndrome It has lots of links about AHS.


T-man
Posted 27 February 2008 at 11:45 am

This is a sucky disease. My hand will wander off without me noticing and i'll be touching random people... Not good. I need a half straight jacket or something, or maybe just a really hard high five to knock some sense into my hand.


Davie
Posted 14 August 2008 at 12:25 pm

I'm not sure where you are in your relationship with God, but I do know this: he has the power to heal you of any wrong, whether it is of spiritual or physical origin. Just put your life in Jesus's capable hands, and he'll take care of the rest!
Luke 4:31-41 -- http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke%204:31-44;&version=31
Job 5:15-20 -- http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=job%205:15-20&version=31


BenKinsey
Posted 01 October 2008 at 06:18 am

Davie how ludicrous, you're a real jackass ya know! But your comment was kinda funny, being that you found the cure for the disease over 2,000 years before it ever existed in Job and Luke hahaha what an idiot!!


smartalec
Posted 10 January 2009 at 07:43 pm

does any one know if there is any connection between this syndrome and Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as: Multiple Personality Disorder)? because, I'd Guess that either the hand embodies Your own Id (as in Dr. strangelove); OR, the hand would be a potentially homicidal (or suicidal) Subpersonality, if anyone could shed some light on my query, I would be filled with a varitable conucopia of Joy for the Love of Knowledge.
(maybe a small overexaggeration)


Cyber Rodent
Posted 02 April 2009 at 05:10 pm

Very interesting. We covered this topic in Stage 2 Psych (and it was just as odd and fascinationg then too).

I just wish some of these articles were a bit longer. Seems like I'm just getting into the topic when it ends (A couple of articles - such as the "tongue snatcher" one, are little more than a paragraph - C'mon, that's just teasing... ^_^ ). Still, often other links get provided by other members, which can provide interesting additional material.


alex212
Posted 02 April 2009 at 07:48 pm

These symptoms may be the result of a trivial injury. But a man who reaches higher or ultimate stages of mental and spiritual development will suffer from the similar symptoms. I.e. if we base on Indian Traditional medical school principles, the one to reach such a stage subtends that his Kundalini energy has mounted from lower chakras to the temple. I.e. he has transformed his sexual energy into a more pure one. This, has it's results: the person does not depend on his physical body anymore. He ad verbum lives in his mental body, or one of the "thin" bodies. The positive points are: he does not feel thirst or hunger, for instance. The negative point is the energetic disbalance inside his physical body. The risks of major diseases increase as a result. Malignant swelling risks are high. As the physical body begins to degenerate, In the late stages of this process control of psycho-somatic processes is almost always partly lost. So the same symptoms as listed by Alan are evidenced.
Many Gurus In India have such facts in their biography. Their physical bodies were of no necessary use to them.
The shortest way to such a no-return point is Mahasamadhi. It means a two-week ecstasy and physical death as a result.
Among the Buddhists there is the example of Bodhidharma (he brought the Dharma to China from India ). He lost control over his legs, so his fosterlings had to carry him.
Interesting to me that what is usually the result of a handicap can be a result of a very high level of mental and spiritual development.


Gunerjimbo
Posted 20 May 2009 at 10:16 am

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha, you need to get over yourself. You have complete control over your own body and if you try to tell anyone otherwise, you are ignorant. This means you Cereal or Cyril or wat ever your name is


glamupgunsdown
Posted 12 July 2009 at 06:13 pm

I am 17 years old and ive been suffering from alien hand syndrome for about a year. The problem is ive never had any type of surgery before so i don't know what its from


ndc123
Posted 16 July 2009 at 10:25 am

@glamupgunsdown

"The symptoms are brought on by an injury to the brain, such as head trauma, stroke, tumor, or infection"

I think you should probably get to a doctor.


quite interested
Posted 29 July 2009 at 11:48 am

I feel so bad for people with this illness. If i was unfortunate enough to have this, i can imagine myself talking to my hand T.T


norZwn
Posted 15 August 2009 at 09:05 pm

On amputating an AHS limb:
I've heard that some people have been able to kill a lot of the flesh on the limb by holding it in a vat of dry ice or something similar, forcing doctors to amputate. It's a bit drastic, but at least it gets the professionals involved in the whole thing. I don't think that many American insurance companies would want to cover that, though.


colfaxgurl
Posted 06 November 2009 at 10:03 am

I am a woman, aged 54. I am speaking of something that happened a few times when I was pre-teen and into early teen years. First just a little background. I come from a old deep south family, and my mother and father were closely related...the families had been related for over a hundred and fifty years in one way or another. Second, my family was violent and my mother was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic by the same doctor who treated the woman in the true story 'Three Faces of Eve'.
Although he had a different name in the movie, his real name was Dr. Thigpen. Third, we were the black sheep tribe in that family--my father set steel on bridges, so we moved plenty and often. I was very socially outcast when we finally settled down enough for me to go to high school, and for my mother to recover from shock treatment. I did not fit in in high school. I would not have fit in during a more normal time, but it was the time that the high school was integrated. I got beaten up often by both black and white kids. Once a big girl, wearing her boyfriend's initial ring, hit me so hard that the impression of a 'D' remained on my cheek until the bruises faded. My father hit us often and not just spankings, but really hit us.
Okay, background over.
I began to wake up, thinking myself under attack. A hand would be grabbing at me...grabbing my hair and tearing my clothes, and grasping to catch hold of my throat and choke me. I never immediately knew that it was my hand. I was busy fighting with my other hand to pull it off me. It was my left hand that attacked. I am right handed. I would be rolled out of bed on the floor and fighting for my life I thought. Eventually, I would be holding on to the wrist of that hand, and I would view it and realize, and say to myself...'that's my hand.' And the attack would stop. The hand would stop trying to hurt me. My mother and father never saw these attacks. They heard me screaming and fighting, but I always had the door locked and barricaded. I was afraid of both my violently insane father and my crazy as a loon mother, who slept with a shotgun under her mattress, no lie. I didn't want to come in when I was asleep. So they thought it was a nightmare. Eventually, they took me to a shrink. I was crazy like a fox. I knew that a psychiatrist had put my mother in an institution. I didn't want to go there too. I told that doctor I had trouble with boys and zits. I didn't even mention being a punching bag at school. I certainly didn't mention that I was choking myself.
To myself there seemed to be 2 explanations. I thought maybe I could be possessed by Satan, but even back then it didn't seem too likely. The explanation that I gave myself and believed is more sad than that: I decided that I was so miserable that I wanted to kill myself, and because I was too chicken to do myself harm while awake, I was trying to kill myself while asleep.
I do not remember how many times this happened. Not over 10, and maybe not as many as 5. But definitely more than once or twice--and enough to make my extremely negligent parents concerned enough to get me to the doctor about those 'bad dreams'. My mother also blamed the daytime soap opera 'Dark Shadows' which featured a vampire called Barnabas Collins.

Needless to say, I married very early, by the end of my 16th year. By then it had stopped happening, but until I was 20 I had periodic episodes of sleep paralysis, the last time being when I was pregnant with my first child at 20, and never again after that. Except for physical abuse I was a healthy child and not sick or hurt, except for a near death experience after a timber-rattler bite.

I told my story through out my life to different people, but never knew about Alien Hand Syndrome until I was watching a episode of 20/20 back in the mid nineties. Then I realized what had happened to me all those years ago, and how fortunate that it was a passing thing. But I have some curiosity left...could it have been caused by all the knocks in the head I got? Could the rattlesnake bite have caused it? Could it have to do with the fact that my grandparents were double first cousins and my parents second cousins? Could I pass this along to my daughter and grand kids? And can it return.
I am now diabetic and some times see things when I wake up at night, but these things are benign, not scary, but I have a niece who thinks she is possessed and often has to be restrained to keep from doing physical damage to herself. Basically, I am okay now, and am a lucky woman really. I just would like some answers, and almost all the websites about AHS are filled with medical jargon that eludes me.


ron6deathorgy
Posted 16 December 2009 at 04:08 am

O.O

Woah.


cythrawl
Posted 06 January 2010 at 06:08 pm

markpitzner is right. Mr. soso didn't kill 35 people. My client's Alien hand did it.


Albpoolshark
Posted 21 December 2010 at 10:27 pm

colfaxgurl said: I had periodic episodes of sleep paralysis

interesting story. not being rude but i have had sleep paralysis and i love it... i never dream of anything bad though because i have a dreamcatcher above my head when i sleep so i have that whole placebo effect... but it happens naturally and i can even trigger it. usually i have really vivid semi-lucid dreams if not fully lucid


Khushi
Posted 13 December 2014 at 08:56 pm

Dear Friends,

My brother is also suffering from this decease. Could you please help me what treatment should he be given to overcome from this decease.

Please,please Advise.

Regards
Khushi


Mary
Posted 03 February 2015 at 04:19 pm

No one had commented in a long time so i feel like i should. This was all true (I would know) very Interesting


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