How Alien Hand Syndrome Works

How Alien-hand Syndrome Works

When a person has alien hand syndrome, his or her hand can move involuntarily, and seemingly of its own volition. Tune in and learn more about this misunderstood syndrome in this podcast from

Female Speaker: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know, from

Josh: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. This creepy, creepy podcast. It's not even Halloween.

Chuck: Welkommen.

Josh: I'm josh, that's chuck. This is Stuff You Should Know. How ya doing?

Chuck: I am well, sir.

Josh: Good. Chuck, it's going to sound like a bad edit to you. Sorry to our producer, Jerry, for that one. It was just weird. Chuck, I think I speak for everybody when I say I want to hear about one of your favorite movies, one called Dr. Strangelove, subtitled or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Chuck: Great film. Do you love this one as well?

Josh: I've only seen parts of it here and there. I've never seen the whole thing.

Chuck: Oh Josh, you continually disappointment cinematically.

Josh: I can't help it. It's all I ever do, Chuck.

Chuck: Yeah, that was I think in 1964. Stanley Kubrick's awesome, awesome, awesome movie.

Josh: I did like Eyes Wide Shut. I made my entire family go to the theater to see it for my birthday.

Chuck: You're kidding?

Josh: There was a row of uncomfortable people seated on either side of me. It was hilarious.

Chuck: Wow. I like that movie too, but I can't imagine taking my mother. Anyway, getting back to Kubrick, yeah, 1964, Dr. Strangelove starred Peter Sellers in three different roles as Dr. Strangelove, as an Army officer in England, and as President of the United States.

Josh: That sounds familiar.

Chuck: Yeah. Tour de force performance. It was awesome.

Josh: It was the parts he was born to play.

Chuck: But I know why you're bringing this up, because Dr. Strangelove, the character of DR. Strangelove was a Nazi who -

Josh: You know, the U.S. liked to use to poach Nazi scientists after the war.

Chuck: True. Well, and that's exactly what happened in the movie, and he has a condition, even though they don't speak of it in the film, it's pretty clear once you know something about it. It's Alien Hand Syndrome is what is going on there, and he loses control of his arm and he does the sieg heil and beats his arm into submission, and it's really, really funny.

Josh: He had some real trouble with it I remember.

Chuck: He does.

Josh: I think that's very appropriate that we just talked about that movie, Chuck, because this very podcast is about Alien Hand Syndrome. How nuts is that?

Chuck: I know. It's almost as if we planned it.

Josh: Yeah, kind of. So Chuck, this one's yours. I'd like everybody to go ahead and read this by my - it's called How Alien Hand Syndrome Works. It was written by my colleague, and love of my life, Charles W. Bryant.

Chuck: Go on.

Josh: Who I could never do without.

Chuck: Go on.

Josh: And basically Alien Hand Syndrome was first recognized in 1909 I understand. It was first described by the Germans, right? And it wasn't until 1972 that it really became part of the medical Lexicon, or accepted by the medical establishment, am I correct?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: So since 1909 when it was first noticed, there's been 50 cases or less documented.

Chuck: Yeah, that's the definition of extremely rare.

Josh: So what is it? Are these people just crazy? What's the deal?

Chuck: I should point out though that there are possibly a lot of other cases that have never been officially diagnosed but it's still really rare.

Josh: Is it because they were mistaken for crazy?

Chuck: Maybe. I would say so because what happens when you have Alien Hand Syndrome is your hand - one of your hands will involuntarily start doing something, and you don't know it's happening until you look down and see your hand - if you're asleep, you might not even know it's happening - and we're talking -

Josh: Wait, I'm sorry. I'm very sorry. I wasn't aware of this. This can go on while you're sleeping?

Chuck: Oh yeah.

Josh: I did not know that.

Chuck: Yeah, it can go on while you're asleep. So what happens is your hand just starts doing things, and it's all purpose-oriented, which is one of the most fascinating parts of it. Your hand will grab the remote control and change the channel, or tear at your shirt or unbutton your shirt. It seems like something out of a movie, but it's real. It's crazy. But there some science behind it which I know you're in to.

Josh: First of all, what I understand, there's four main hallmarks to this disease or disorder?

Chuck: Disorder, yeah.

Josh: One is that the offending limb feels like it's foreign.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: Another hallmarks is that when you're not looking at it -

Chuck: Or alien.

Josh: Yes, that's an even better way to put it. When you're not looking at it, it doesn't feel like it's a part of your body, that it's attached maybe, and that people who suffer from Alien Hand Syndrome have trouble distinguishing between what's voluntary movement, like, "I want to grab that cup of coffee," and what the alien hand is doing. It doesn't seem to them that it's coming from the same place, although it is, which I know we'll get to in a second, right?

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: Then the fourth one is that the limb is often personified. It has its own personality. Maybe you call it Roger.

Chuck: A lot of people do name the limb.

Josh: Is Roger a popular name?

Chuck: I bet it's number one.

Josh: I bet that too.

Chuck: Roger the hand.

Josh: So those are the four hallmarks, Chuck?

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: All right, but let's talk about the brain, the aspects of the brain that are thought to be responsible for this.

Chuck: Yeah, we've learned a lot about the brain ourselves from doing this podcast. It's pretty amazing.

Josh: The number one thing that I've learned is that we know almost nothing about the brain.

Chuck: I know. We can put man on the moon, which happened.

Josh: Supposedly.

Chuck: Supposedly. And we still don't even know exactly what's going on with brain function. They do know that there are certain things like two hemispheres, four lobes.

Josh: Lateralization of brain function.

Chuck: Which we've talked about. Explain that real quick.

Josh: Lateralization of brain function is say the left side of the brain being more detail-oriented while the right-side of the brain evaluates the big picture.

Chuck: Very nice.

Josh: The brain functions are lateralized; one side's responsible for one thing and the other is responsible for the other.

Chuck: You did such a good job there I'm going to ask you to explain Alien Hand Syndrome with the brain.

Josh: Okay. Actually I have to tell you I went behind your back and I did a little additional research, and I came up with a couple of other things too. Will you forgive me?

Chuck: I can take it.

Josh: All right, so there's one really clear way that Alien Hand Syndrome is created, and that is usually a lesion on the corpus callosum, which as you so aptly put it in the article is like the brain's email server. It's a bundle of nerves that are important in communication between the hemispheres in different regions of the brain.

Chuck: Right, you need the key to the brain and that's to have the lobs and hemispheres working together, and that happens thanks to the corpus callosum.

Josh: Right. So when that doesn't happen, and the regions of the brain aren't communicating with each other, specifically say the frontal lobe, which is included in planning and organizing action, when that happens, say it can't send a message to the motor strip, which actually carries out those movements. When that happens, the motor strip isn't dead; it's still functioning, so it may just be sending random messages to your arm to say grasp that shirt and pull at it. It's your shirt, but do it anyway. That kind of thing. So whenever there's a malfunction, again, usually caused by a legion, on the corpus callosum where the frontal lobe and the motor strip are engaged in telling each other what's going on, and there is this purposeless motion which is Alien Hand Syndrome. Really if you think about it, purposeless motion is basically just a motor activity out of context. There's no context to it. So all of a sudden, your hand is grabbing a coffee mug, but it seems foreign and weird because you don't understand why - you didn't form the thought that said, "I need that coffee cup," which I guess makes the whole thing kind of chilling.

Chuck: It is, indeed.

Josh: And even worse, Chuck, there's no cure, is there?

Chuck: No, there is no cure. They've done some studies as recently as 2007, but one of the reasons they haven't done that many studies over the years is because it's so rare. Let's just say that. It's not - I guess you could say it's not dangerous; it's more of a nuisance than anything. There have been really, really rare cases when someone's like, choked themselves.

Josh: To death?

Chuck: No, no, no, not to death. But they found their hand creeping up around their throat, which is really creepy. But since it's not that - since it's so rare, and since it doesn't do any real damage to your body, they haven't really been interested in studying it that much. But they did in 2007 a bit, and put people in an FMRI machine and they found - they basically said what you just said which is the motor strip has been singled out as the center of activity, even though they don't know what triggers it.

Josh: It's still shooting messages, but it's not taking orders any longer?

Chuck: No.

Josh: For that one side of the body, that one limb?

Chuck: Exactly.

Josh: From the frontal lobe?

Chuck: Exactly.

Josh: Also there's another thing that's kind of a variation on Alien Hand Syndrome, which by the way is also called Anarchic Hand.

Chuck: Yes. And Dr. Strangelove Syndrome.

Josh: Is that for real?

Chuck: Yeah, I think that's probably a more casual term that doctors use when they're playing golf and stuff.

Josh: Especially if they're Kubrick fans, right?

Chuck: Right.

Josh: So it's kind of a variation on it, and it's caused by damage to the parietal lobe, and usually what it results in is basically a levitation of the hand, and it's - I can't tell if it's dominant, the dominant hand, or like with corpus callosum damage, corpus callosum damage? Usually that is the non-dominant hand. So if you're right-handed, your left hand is going to be Alien Hand. If you have actual damage to the frontal lobe, that usually results in the dominant hand, if you're right-handed, your right hand would have Alien Hand Syndrom. Damage to the parietal lobe doesn't go one way or the other necessarily, but what happens is especially when you close your eyes, the hand will start to levitate because they're no longer in sync, and it makes dressing kind of difficult, that sort of things. So parietal lobe damage, since the parietal lobe is responsible for sensation and sensory input, when you close your eyes, your hand just kind of goes a little wacky because like you said in the article, visual cues are very important in associating your hand with your body when it's disassociated like this.

Chuck: That's right. And like you said, there's no cure.

Josh: I think you said that.

Chuck: I think you said it.

Josh: Either way.

Chuck: You said it. There is no cure. A lot of times people will do things like wear an own mitt or keep their hand occupied by giving it something to hold on to, and some cases it's so severe that they've actually tied their hands behind their back. But Josh, we're not done yet. One of the things I thought was interesting was all the differences that Alien Hand Syndrome has been portrayed in some way or another in books and TV and movies.

Josh: Yeah, I like this point you made about that it's -

Chuck: As many as there have been real cases, or more, there have been - it's been depicted on the silver screen and small screen.

Josh: Yes, and it goes back all the way to?

Chuck: 1935. The film Mad Love followed an obsessed doctor who replaced the hands of a would-be lover's husband with those of a knife-wielding murderer.

Josh: Yeah, I looked this movie up because I hadn't heard of it before, and it was actually - the mad doctor is played by Peter Lori, and he's totally bald - Peter Lori is not creepy looking enough. His head is bald as a baby's butt, and he looks really creepy. Like I'm sure he played the part, very, very well.

Chuck: The Adam's family, Josh?

Josh: Actually, I watched those - I think - well, two of those movies recently. They're actually really good movies.

Chuck: Yeah, my brother worked on the second one. Good stuff. A young Christina Ricci had a crush on him.

Josh: Really?

Chuck: It is true.

Josh: Wow.

Chuck: But she was, you know ...

Josh: You think she remembers him now?

Chuck: I bet she does. She set him Christmas gifts for a couple of years.

Josh: What?

Chuck: And Angelica Houston had the hots for him too.

Josh: What?

Chuck: My brother's a handsome guy.

Josh: I guess so.

Chuck: Off track there, but interesting nonetheless, Adam's family had Thing, which wasn't quite Alien Hand Syndrome, but -

Josh: No, it was like a detached hand.

Chuck: Exactly, but doing its own thing, purposeful things.

Josh: It was also very helpful a lot, too. It drove the getaway care for Fester.

Chuck: True.

Josh: So Chuck, yeah, I find it interesting, too, that Hollywood has this fascinating with it.

Chuck: Well, it's so creepy and cool and unknown.

Josh: It is, but at the same time, apparently modern medicine doesn't have as much of an interest as Hollywood does.

Chuck: This is true.

Josh: It's sad. Get to it, physicians and medical researchers of all stripes. While you're doing that, we're going to do some listener mail.

Chuck: Josh, you know what we're doing? Haiku Theater.

Josh: I'm ready for this Chuck. I've been waiting for this.

Chuck: I know.

Josh: I'm very psyched about this.

Chuck: The Haiku's are rolling in at an unprecedented rate. Veronica, 13. It's hot in winter, all the people start to melt, welcome to Texas. So I'm guessing she's from Texas.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: This one is from Crystal DuPui. I found your podcast, I just could not get enough, told Chuck I love y'all. He sent me a pic, which I added to my shrine, just kidding, not nuts. Keep up the great work, can't wait to hear the next one. Why Chuck love haikus?

Josh: That's an excellent question.

Chuck: It is. Diego Garcia of Philadelphia, city of Brotherly Love. Glasses caked with filth, nanners, yogurt, strawberry. Smoothie aftermath. He must have made one of my smoothies.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Andy, 16, from Idaho says I want to suggest a podcast about Greek myths; that would be so boss. And I love the use of the word boss there.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: We have two more. Sandra Thompson or Irvine, California. I learn neat things when listening on the train, then the song, I'm sad.

Josh: I guess the music that she's talking about is the outro music, the end.

Chuck: Sure, the end of the podcast. Whatever. Then we've got one from BOB! Is how he says his name apparently. He wrote us a limerick but explained that he would do so in the form of a haiku.

Josh: I'm not sure that's possible.

Chuck: He said it ain't a haiku, it's a limerick you see, hope you enjoy it. Now the limerick, the edited version. It's Friday the 13th today, a day for bad luck, so they say. So I'll damn Josh and Chuck, because they have all the luck. Let's keep out of misfortune's way.

Josh: Fantastic.

Chuck: Gosh I love limericks.

Josh: Thank you BOB! And to everybody who wrote in, whether you sent us a haiku or otherwise. And if you have not done so yet, you can send us something. The email is

[End of Audio]

Duration: 16 minutes