Phantom Limbs are Real

Published: October 25, 2023

Who would you put up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded and down by a run? Would you deploy the player who is eager for the chance or the teammate who fears pressure? Expectations influence outcomes. If you think your project is likely to fail, the chances of failure increase. Likewise, if you expect success, your odds go up. Why is this true?

Our brains are predictive instruments. They accrue historical data and send out messages that anticipate outcomes just ahead of the outcomes. This helps us cope. Most of the time, life plays out exactly as our brains predicted it would – just like the time before that and the time before that. We tend to get what we expect – not due to luck – but because we’ve been trained by our past to know our future.

A friend recently endured a medical procedure that required him to wear a bandage exactly where his pair of glasses would sit on his cheek bone. Without adorning eyeglasses, he described the sensation of an apparatus on the bridge of his nose, along his temples, and behind his ears. Phantom sensation.

There were no eyeglasses. It was simply the expectation of glasses activated by the cheekbone sensation and downward peripheral vision that generated the realistic experience of wearing glasses. Yet, there were no glasses.

Phantom limbs are real. Both pain and pleasure can be experienced in locations that don’t really exist. More than 80% of amputees report ‘vivid perception’ in body parts that are no longer present. The brain predicts sensation, and the body responds by causing a feeling.

You get the point. We create our own realities. As soon as you telegraph confidence, the likelihood of reaching your goal rises. The moment you anticipate a bad outcome, discouragement follows and subtracts from your performance.

When Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon in 2014, he described a moment near the 23rd mile where a building blocked the view past a corner when, with a brief sprint, he could gain enough distance between he and his competitors to discourage them. When his opponents turned the corner, Meb had gained sufficient distance that they resigned themselves to not being able to catch him. Discouragement, caused by Meb, shaped the outcome. With three miles to go, his competitors stopped trying to win.

The brain is a powerful organ. Some of us allow our bodies to control our minds. Others permit their minds to create symptoms in their bodies. Mind and body are one if you allow them to work together.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.