How Alien Hand Syndrome Works

Alien Hand Syndrome in Pop Culture

Peter Sellers' earned an Oscar nomination for his comic take on alien hand syndrome in 1965's Dr. Strangelove
Peter Sellers' earned an Oscar nomination for his comic take on alien hand syndrome in 1965's Dr. Strangelove
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There have only been roughly four dozen reported cases of alien hand syndrome. It's surprising then, that the literary world and Hollywood have long touched on the condition, usually changing the cause from a banal brain injury to the more dramatic, limb-replacement-from-madman-donor scenario. There are nearly as many fictionalized cases of AHS as the real thing. This may have something to do with the fascinating quality of the condition, the mystery surrounding it or perhaps it's simply the sci-fi moniker and spooky nature.

AHS made its first big-screen appearance in 1935 in the film, "Mad Love." The storyline followed an obsessed doctor who replaced the hands of a would-be lover's husband with those of a knife-wielding murderer. Sometimes the hand is not attached to a body at all, such as the murderous hand in Oliver Stone's 1981 schlock horror film, "The Hand." Thing from "The Addams Family" was a vehicle for humor rather than treachery. Ray Bradbury wrote about AHS in his short story, "Fever Dream," as did Clive Barker, in "The Body Politic." It's been portrayed in everything from TV's "Angel" and "The Simpsons" to the home video game "Metal Gear Solid."

Its most famous portrait, however, was undoubtedly in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 masterpiece, "Dr. Strangelove." In this film, a wheelchair-bound Peter Sellers, as Dr. Strangelove, continually loses control of his right arm, which repeatedly attempts to give the Nazi Party salute before being beaten down by his left hand. Sellers' comedic struggle with alien hand syndrome has since become one of the classic moments in cinema history and AHS itself is often referred to as "Dr. Strangelove Syndrome" [source: IMDB].

Regardless of how few cases of alien hand syndrome exist, or how little we know about its cause, the mystery and intrigue of the condition will no doubt continue to inspire writers and filmmakers to explore its horrific and comedic potential.

For more information on how the human brain works and other motor-oriented medical conditions, check out the links below.

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  • Assal, Frederic. Moving with or without will: Functional neural correlates of alien hand syndrome. Annals of Neurology, July 17, 2007.
  • Goldberg, Gary. When Aliens Invade: Multiple Mechanisms for Dissociation Between Will and Action; Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, 2000; 68:7.
  • Kumral; Compulsive Grasping Hand Syndrome: A Variant of Anarchic Hand.
  • The Mayo Clinic.
  • Turkington, Carol; The Encyclopedia of the Brain and Brain Disorders, 2nd edition.