I just finished The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Dr. R.E. Cytowic, about synesthesia. He raised some extremely interesting topics. Although the primary focus of the book is about synesthesia, he mentions the importance of the ‘emotional brain’ – physically embodied by the limbic system – in all aspects of human life and experience. One particular statement that got me thinking was the following:
“The more universal articulation of [the expression of synesthesia[‘s]… dependen[ce] on the limbic system] sees consciousness, language, and higher mental functions as the consequences of our ability to express emotion. [emphasis in original] Emotion is fundamental to mind and what we call consciousness.”
Surely this isn’t true. There are conscious, articulate, intellectually gifted people who do not seem to have the ability to express emotion, or whose ability to recognize emotion is a difficult intellectual activity. An example of one such person is Dr. Temple Grandin, who is famously portrayed in the movie about her life, as well as in the essay An Anthropologist on Mars by Dr. Oliver Sacks. She succeeded in thriving in a world, which she experienced differently from everyone around her.
I am hoping to get a better understanding of what happens in the brain of a ‘limbically impaired’ person by reading Mind Blindness by Simon Baron-Cohen. Mental blindness is a concept that was mentioned by William James in Principles of Psychology in 1890. He refers to it as a cortical disorder describing it as an inability to understand visual stimuli. Oliver Sacks noted this phenomenon, also known as visual agnosia in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.
Although I only have read a few pages of Mind Blindness it already seems to touch on an agnosia different than the visual kind. He speaks of unconscious ‘mind reading’ that most people do when they anticipate the actions or intentions of others. He describes people who are unable to do this as ‘mind blind’. I am looking forward to reading further because it certainly seems that this may be part of the autistic condition. Hopefully he will address the participation of the limbic brain.