Mental Blindness

I just finished The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Dr. R.E. Cytowic[1], 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.”[2]

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[3]. 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[4]. Mental blindness is a concept that was mentioned by William James in Principles of Psychology[5] 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.[6]

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.

[1] Cytowic, R.E. The Man Who Tasted Shapes (1999)

[2] Ibid, pg 196

[3] Sacks, O. An Anthropologist on Mars  (1995)

[4] Baron-Cohen, S., Mind Blindness  (1997)

[5] James, W. Principles of Psychology (1890)

[6] Sacks, O. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (1985)

4 thoughts on “Mental Blindness

  1. Your comments and discussion are healing. Please excuse the gardener if he imposes. Send him home politely, if he is inconvenient.

    It seems what you are calling mind blindness is not necessarily. A processing disorder is similar to synesthesia, except in reverse. Visual, auditory, speech, and language processing disorders and other less commonly recognized processing disorders are not the inability of the individual organism to receive sensations. It is the inability of the connections of the brain to process those sensations.

    While many of us bundle these sensations into recognizable and universal forms we are able to communicate, some of us cannot. Regardless of the training, conditioning or education, what we know and see as eyes, nose, mouth and ears are not recognizable configurations of faces. No matter how loud you yell, the words are clicks or squeaks. One could very easily mistake one’s wife for a hat. — The Healing Garden gardener

    • Touché. However, mistaking one’s wife for a hat is different than not having a Theory of Mind – that is not being able to theorize that another person has an autonomous mind. I think this is one of the saddest things. The fact that children at first have a solipsistic way of looking at life, that everyone thinks the same as they do, seems natural. How could it be otherwise? However, never being able to know (not intellectually ‘know’ but to realize) that there are other thinking entities in existence is one of the loneliest things in the world.
      As always, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      • Our dialogue has deep roots in Western scientific, and medical thinking. Our culture. Western scientific medical thinking has demonstrated the bench to bedside medical model, though capable of delivering miracles and wonders, is not complete. We embrace, without quite understanding how to grasp the invisible, the holistic thing. Because the configuration of the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

        Similarly, there are profound and equally viable Eastern origins to thinking on character and development. A precise catalog of the development of this thinking is beyond the gardener’s scope, too. In this regard, we return to speak of the small. This is what we know.

        The grist for polishing the mirror of self is cast down by our capacities to acknowledge the social presence of others. Likely, the only path to ourselves is through our relations with others. This is distinct from the capacity to refine the expression of our own nature. In the practice of the former, we turn outward to turn inward. In the capacity of the latter, we turn inward to turn outward.

        For every organism of some diminished capacity to survive, it must create a niche. Sheltered in this environment a life otherwise considered marginal serves as the fulcrum for a constellation of events. This is great intelligence. Intelligence cannot help but recognize intelligence. Regardless of the ability to communicate. This is the look of your Brother I see, here (

        • Thank you HGg. I am open to Eastern ways of thought, although not conversant in them. My brother seems to do very well in his current environment which, thankfully is much better now than it was 50 years ago. The people at his group home seem to really care about him. This is due in part to disbanding large institutions and replacing with smaller homes. So my brother can adapt to a reasonable environment, as can many others like him.
          Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.
          Best regards,

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