Monday, May 02, 2011

May We Believe Our Thoughts? Part VI

I spoke about anosognosia today for ten minutes or so with a colleague, with specific reference to our patients, then more tentatively, about some previous department members who were known for ridiculously overvaluing their skills, and displaying no insight into even mild criticism. She took the point and understood immediately, and as I related it to a larger context, she started dropping in political comments. It was standard issue liberal boilerplate, about how people believed Sarah Palin even though that was obviously ridiculous - not specifics, of course - and people asking for Obama's birth certificate insisting he was born in Kenya - perhaps not seeing that one might ask on general principle. I let these pass, and several other stock items as well, but when she mentioned that legislators were so stupid not to address the revenue side and pass a sales or income tax (that's liberal boilerplate in NH), I ventured to mention that I thought in the long run that would lose money.

I didn't get to complete a sentence from there on in, and was trying to answer a barrage of strawmen, false choices, and rewording what I was trying to say into things she preferred to answer. I was quite subdued in what I actually said, but I could tell the mere challenge was ringing bells.

I will note, because it is key, that this is A) an intelligent, highly competent person and B) a person who immediately understood the general idea of extreme unawareness and worked with the concept independently after I had brought it up. I have little doubt that if forced to make a coherent, positive case for liberal ideas without resort to cliches, she could, on her own time, produce it. At least, I have little doubt that she was capable of this at one time. We may lose that if we rely on the conventional wisdom too long. But in the moment, it was a stunning non-understanding, driven primarily by unwillingness to hear the ideas out.

Now, I've done that myself before. I dare say there are subjects where I do it often, though I hope I self-monitor well-enough that I retain some ability to question my conclusions, even at my worst. But the point is that unawareness is not a general inability to be disagreed with, but can be specific to single areas. We might be open-minded on some things and closed-minded on others. That would suggest that unawareness cannot be a single brain area that is broken, and seems to drive us back to mind-explanations rather than brain-explanations.

I just noticed how apt that open and closed metaphor is for this discussion, though it is not a recent phrasing.

I propose a modification - I doubt I am the first to think of it, though I have not seen it before - that there is a brain mechanism nonetheless, and at a threshold point, unawareness becomes absolute. If we take the analogy of eyes and focus, it is actually a good thing for the two eyes to see things just a bit differently. It gives the brain more information, such as depth. But as data from the two eyes gets farther and farther apart, the brain is confused and striving to achieving a coherent vision, progressively disregards the data from one eye, until it may ignore it altogether.

The data from the remaining eye is now all-conquering. A marginal improvement in the bad eye may have no effect, or no immediate effect.

Thus, the more conflict between visions, the more certainty that the brain will resolve this with an unmovable view. Play that out in terms of a dominant culture of belief - media, social group, opinions of educators - providing one set of explanations, and the brain's rejection of the possibility that the strong eye could misperceive, and univision is not only possible, but the most likely possibility.

History seems to bear this out, that the dominant culture of anything is going to have significant blind spots that will not be moved. That's not just Arts & Humanities tribe members, but any group. The prevailing view of evangelicals, however right it might be in a dozen places, will have at minimum a place or two where they are not only wrong, but wildly wrong and unable to perceive that. (Insert mainstreamers, liturgical churches, whatever, in that slot.)

It holds for science in any field, as we can never see at the time but can always see in retrospect, wondering how supposedly data-driven people can miss the obvious. It holds for military strategists, stock investors, NFL scouts. The most likely scenario is a large blind spot.

Which sucks, of course, because that naturally means any and all of us.


Related: I was browsing rather aimlessly through the New Testament, looking for examples of Jesus or Paul speaking of people who no longer having the ability to choose the right, but are in darkness because hey, they're in darkness and that's what happens. (First John 1-2 have a lot of that.) I still plan to relate that to this topic, but I got caught in this similar idea, and decided to try on applying it to the Gospel of Matthew. Pretty surprising stuff. If you hold that idea in your head, that if one is able to admit weakness, admit sin, admit wrongness at all, then one just might still be able to hear the Good News, but those who can't, just can't, because they are too far gone of their own previous choices, new shadings on a lot of scripture emerge. I'm going to push this idea further and see if it holds up under pressure.


Texan99 said...

This makes me think of "The Great Divorce," which I'm sure you've already read, in which human souls are being given a chance to set aside whatever it is that's holding them back, but often they can't even be made to focus on the choice. For me, it often takes a pretty traumatic experience to make me see things from a different perspective, particular if what is called for is empathy for another's point of view, not my forte.

On the other hand, I must have some capacity for viewing things afresh, because I've undergone sea changes in politics and faith and work over the last few decades. I don't think you could say I flit around wildly, but now and then I conclude that I had something completely wrong and that I've got to change my approach altogether.

I've been sourly amused lately in my attempts to persuade some wildly leftist types simply to hear accurately what a typical conservative thinks. Mostly what I get back is a conviction that we only pretend to think those things, being "really" motivated by some nefarious intent or another. We don't think vouchers and competition would improve public schools for the most vulnerable students, for instance; we "really" just want to keep poor people ignorant so they'll be fodder for the non-union factory, that sort of thing. This kind of mental armor means that new ideas and arguments will be not simply rejected but never heard in the first place.

Sam L. said...

I expect you remember a video from the late '70s called "What You Are Is What You Were Then." It used a term "significant emotional experience"--something strong enough to break thru whatever was preventing a person from seeing someone else's point of view, or causing him/her to disregard something that could change his/her view of reality.

Donna B. said...

Texan99 -- I think my perception of what empathy is is taken from an original Star Trek episode, The Empath. (Brought to mind by an Ambiance thread.)

That is that empathy is the ability to actually feel the pain of another and by feeling it, reduce the pain the other feels.

In my experience, that never quite works. It just results in two people feeling pain rather than one. Or... in one person feeling good because they think they are feeling the pain of another.

I am suspicious of empathy :-)

Texan99 said...

Donna, I hear you, and I certainly don't think the value of empathy lies in the fact that even more pain is felt. It's just that I sometimes lack the imagination to see the impact of what I do on others. Only when I experience something similar do I wake up to the meaning of my own actions. If I had a greater natural ability to see things from the point of view of others, I wouldn't need pain as a wake-up call. But I am a somewhat Asperger-ish, socially oblivious person who (apparently) requires strong measures even to notice others.

Oddly, I'm morbidly sensitive to the suffering or imagined suffering of animals, even insects. I seem to identify with them more readily, and I assume that's because I block out the suffering of people. Pain sometimes breaks down the block and makes me more nearly a normal person.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Texan99, I'm not sure I'd leap so quickly to the conclusion that you are blocking human pain. Try some other theories on, since you have an inside seat. Exaggerate in your own mind your ASD and run some comparisons: mammal/reptile, animate inanimate, human/plant, familiar/unfamiliar. What seem to be the activators.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Glenn, your comment came to me but hasn't come up yet. I'll cut and paste it if it doesn't show on its own.

Texan99 said...

I'd like to try your experiment, but I'm not completely sure what you mean. ASD is "autism spectrum disorder," I assume. For me, exaggerating it would mean indulging my preference for solitude rather than facing the struggle that wider social contact often entails. Did the rest of your comment mean to imagine whether my discomfort would be greater if I considered harm to, say, mammals vs. reptiles? Large mammals such as dogs or horses probably are the worst; I might well turn off a movie rather than watch one be injured or abandoned. And yet I have no difficulty watching people injured in a movie. I can easily suspend belief, tell myself it's only a story, or imagine them coping adequately with their own pain. It takes something unusual to pierce my armor. With animals the armor is scarcely there at all.

We're often called out on the volunteer fire department to scenes of sudden death, and they don't upset me unduly. I'm moved by the survivors' distress, of course, and I try to show them the consideration I would like to be shown in those circumstances, but I'm not lastingly disturbed. I was nearly unhinged, though, by a fire a couple of years ago where a little dog died from the smoke before the family could get home to find the house on fire: that little girl screaming in grief. So apparently my capacity for empathy works for very young children as well as for animals. I guess I know what that's about. Orphaned animals, orphaned children, preverbal attachments broken.