Conceptual Blindness

The lack of necessary concepts and the language to describe them, hypocognition, might explain so many of the problems and conflicts in our society. It might at least partly explain why people are ignorant of their ignorance, why people simultaneously know and don’t know so much that seems obvious once you see it.

So many can’t see the racism, the environmental destruction, the cronyism, all the problems all around us. They can’t see because they don’t know how to see, how to think about, understand, and put into words what they see and yet can’t see. Color blind ideology leads to a blindness of concepts and perception. We lose the capacity to speak about suffering, to give voice to injustice.

But, once you see something, really see it with both the body’s eye and the mind’s eye, it can be hard to not see it everywhere. You wonder how you didn’t see it before. A personal framework of understanding begins to form, the seeds of hypercognition planted.

A picture of patterned squiggly lines suddenly becomes a 3D image. Nothing changed in external reality. It was your perception that shifted. Now, any time you come across a similar pattern of squiggly lines, you remember how to make that shift and so see what is revealed, no matter what is the specific image.

However, with many things, we are already perceiving what is there before our consciousness recognizes it, if our consciousness ever recognizes it. Researchers have found that some color blind people aren’t actually color blind. Their eyes take in the information of color, their brains process and perceive the color, but it somehow doesn’t get translated into consciousness. That is similar to how racial color blindness operates in our society.

The signal gets interrupted when the pathways of communication are broken or blocked, dysfunctional or ineffective. Signaling is a concept often used in economics. A signal only works if there is a functioning system in place, and that requires an infrastructure.

We need an infrastructure of an actual ‘free’ market. The signal has to be freed and so communication of information has to be freed. This requires not just the physical infrastructure of roads, but also the conceptual infrastructure and media infrastructure. All of this is dependent on the infrastructure of natural resources, especially air and water, and the infrastructure of a healthy biosphere and ecosystems.

We need the infrastructure for the signal to pass through the system. And we need signaling to give us information about the infrastructure itself. What results when signaling fails or is intentionally disrupted is the externalization of costs such as pollution and poverty along with moral hazards such as cronyism and corporatism.

As social animals, the most important infrastructure is the social infrastructure and that is dependent on social capital. Ultimately, social capital is about human relationships, human connections. In a human system, it is only through humans that a signal can pass, that a signal can be communicated and comprehended. Hypocognition is not just a lack of concepts, but a lack of the social capital that those concepts represent.

The Case of the Missing Concepts

Hypocognition, in cognitive linguistics, means missing and being unable to communicate cognitive and linguistic representations because there are no words for particular concepts.”

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The enthusiasm for evidence-based medicine (EBM) has not been accompanied by the same success in bridging the gap between theory and practice. This paper advances the hypothesis that the phenomenon psychologists call hypocognition may hinder the development of EBM. People tend to respond to frames rather than to facts. To be accepted, a theory, however robust, must fit into a person’s mental framework. The absence of a simple, consolidated framework is referred to as hypocognition. Hypocognition might limit the application of EBM in three ways. First, it fails to provide an analytical framework by which to orient the physician in the direction of continuous medical development and variability in individual people’s responses. Second, little emphasis is placed on teaching clinical reasoning. Third, there is an imbalance between the enormous mass of available information and the practical possibilities. Possible solutions are described. We not only need more evidence to help clinicians make better decisions, but also need more research on why some clinicians make better decisions than others, how to teach clinical reasoning, and whether computerised supports can promote a higher quality of individualised care.”

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Americans, especially, suffer from what linguists call hypocognition: the lack of a core concept we need in order to thrive. The missing concept is of democracy as a way of life; democracy not as a set system–something done to us, for us, finished and done–but as a set of system values that usefully apply in all arenas of life. In the dominant, failing idea of democracy, society is a subset of economic life. To make the needed planetary turn to life, we must envision the opposite: economic life re-embedded in society guided by shared human values, including fairness, inclusion, and mutual accountability.”

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Frances Moore Lappe (Hope’s Edge, 2002) makes the case that often politicians and corporations use terms that leave us suffering from “hypocognition.” Hypocognition results when a term is used to conjure up all-positive images to prevent us from understanding what is really going on. For example, hypocognition makes it hard for the public to believe there can be anything wrong with “globalism” or “free trade,” which sound like the apple pie and motherhood of the 21st century. It is easy for the press to portray those who protest against “free trade” as fringe lunatics.

“Ms. Lappe coined the term “primitive marketism” as a more appropriate name for what has become the accepted standard of world trade over the last 20 years — that the single principle of highest return to existing wealth is the sole driver of the world-wide system of production and exchange. That leaves cultural integrity, human rights, environmental protection, and even the ability of people to feed themselves as inconsequential to multinational corporations reaching around the world for opportunities for the highest return to existing wealth.

“As much as the term “primitive marketism” helps identify problems inherent to the way global trade is structured today, it takes a bit of bending of the mind and tongue to use it. It seems to me that a term that more immediately and clearly identifies where we are headed with world trade — a term which leaves no room for hypocognition — is “corporate colonialism.””

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This perspective on reason matters to the discussion in this forum about global warming, because many people engaged in environmentalism still have the old, false view of reason and language. Folks trained in public policy, science, economics, and law are often given the old, false view. As a result, they may believe that if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion. What actually happens is that the facts must make sense in terms of their system of frames, or they will be ignored. The facts, to be communicated, must be framed properly. Furthermore, to understand something complex, a person must have a system of frames in place that can make sense of the facts. In the case of global warming, all too many people do not have such a system of frames in the conceptual systems in their brains. Such frame systems have to be built up over a period of time. This has not been done.” (pp. 72-73)

“Have you ever wondered why conservatives can communicate easily in a few words, while liberals take paragraphs? The reason is that conservatives have spent decades, day after day building up frames in people’s brains, and building a better communication system to get their ideas out in public. Progressives have not done that.” (p. 73)

“The right language is absolutely necessary for communicating ‘‘the real crisis.’’(p. 74)

“‘Hypocognition’ is the lack of ideas we need. We are suffering from massive hypocognition in the case of the environment.” (p. 76)

“An important frame is in throes of being born: The Regulated Commons – the idea of common, non-transferable ownership of aspects of the natural world, such as the atmosphere, the airwaves, the waterways, the oceans, and so on.” (p. 78)

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Not all corrections to hypocognition have to be heavy stuff, like grief and scientific advancement. One of my favorite authors tried to give everything a word. Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, put out a book with John Lloyd called, The Meaning of Liff. It started as a slightly-drunken party game, during which Adams and his friends picked out the names of English towns and pretended the names were words that they had to define. As they were coming up with different definitions, they realized that, as humans, they all shared common experiences that don’t have names.

“My favorite word of the book is “shoeburyness,” which is defined as “the vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else’s bottom.” Everyone has felt that. One author I read went to a strict college at which men were forbidden to sit in a seat directly after a woman vacated it, because he would feel her residual body heat and the dean of women considered that too sexual. But no one came up with a word for it. Once there is a word for it, people can begin to refer to it. What concept do you think needs a word? I nominate “splincing” — when you’re completely in the wrong, and hate it, and you daydream about someone wronging you so you can feel righteously aggrieved about something.”