Humanity in All of its Blindness

I’ve often written about various kinds of cognitive blindness.

Sometimes it’s an incomprehensibility. We don’t understand something and so to that extent we can’t really see it, not for what it is. The conceptual or cultural framework is lacking. There is no box to put it into or words to describe it. Maybe it wasn’t part of how we were raised.

Other times, there is a simultaneous knowing and not knowing. This relates to willful ignorance, in that we can go to great efforts at not knowing something that otherwise should be obvious. Even dissociation and splitting of consciousness can be involved, and it is probably more common than people think. It could involved suppressed trauma or even just general discomfort.

There is also context-dependent memories. I’ve had experiences that were some strange mix of emotions, almost visceral. When they happen, I recall having experienced them before. But when not experiencing them, I couldn’t for the life of me dredge up the memory of the experience, what it felt like or even figure out what elicited it. I forget all about them, until they pop back up in my experience.

All of these demonstrate how limited is our consciousness. Our perception is extremely narrow and filtered. We never see what is behind us, so to speak. The world is vast and we are puny. The flashlight of consciousness only lights up a few feet directly in front of us.

I was thinking about this because I came across another example of this. I’d heard of it before, but the way someone wrote about it caught my attention. It is from Scott Alexander at the Slate Star Codex blog. The post is: WHAT UNIVERSAL HUMAN EXPERIENCES ARE YOU MISSING WITHOUT REALIZING IT? I recommend checking it out. It’s a short read.

He discusses a number of examples of individuals lacking some common experience and not realizing it. These people even learn to speak about the experience, but they don’t realize that others are speaking literally. They assume it is just a metaphorical way of expressing something else.

This could involve color blindness or smell blindness. The blogger also shares his own experience of a medication that blunted his emotions for five years when he was a teenager, long enough that he forgot what he had lost, until he went off the medication.

I had a thought about how this might apply beyond the individual. I’ve been reading books about ancient societies. One of the challenges is that the best evidence left behind are texts, but that requires translation and interpretation. Many words in other languages simply have no equivalent in English. They might not even have any conceptual equivalent in our thinking. This brings up the question if we even have a psychological equivalent of the experience being described. Translation can end up blinding us to how different were those ancient societies and the people who lived in them.

We are creatures of our cultural upbringing, products of out time and place. After a few generations, events are lost from living memory. Experience dies with those who possessed the memory of them.

It isn’t even necessary to look to ancient societies to realize this. Cultural misunderstandings happen all the time. Modern languages also have words that don’t translate into other modern languages.  Heck, even when we share the same language, we often seem clueless and oblivious to other people’s experience.

That is why I find it bizarre that many people will assume that ancient people must have thought, felt, and perceived the world basically the same as they do. What immense hubris, considering many people struggle trying to understand their own family members and significant others.

The thing about being blind to something is that you are often blind to your blindness, as you are often ignorant to your ignorance. You just don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know that there is something you could or should know. That is how we live our lives until we stub our toe or walk face first into some aspect of reality or human experience we didn’t realize was there. But for most things we can go our entire lives without ever discovering our blindness.

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