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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Agnosia and Related Ilnesses

The man who never notices that while
he and his wife have brown hair,
his son's hair is red.
(Originally posted 2010) My niece Morgan and her husband Luke acquainted me with the neurological concept of agnosia.  As they explained it, this is the inability to respond to sensory-data that has nothing to do with impairment of sensory organs. For example, a woman with agnosia might make up one side of her face looking in a mirror and leave the other side untouched, even though she had no difficulty actually seeing both sides of her face clearly. A man might eat only from the right side of his plate, not taking a bite from the left side, being able to see the food but not to respond to it appropriately.

Morgan and Luke added a new wrinkle with something they term distress agnosia in which people are unable to respond to data that is too distressing to think about.  The man who never notices that while he and his wife have bron hair, his son's hair is red; the folks who never stop to wonder why the neighbor kid gets a new puppy every week; the residents of Buchenwald who never speculate where all those trains are heading or why they suddenly have to spend so much time wiping oily soot off the windows and dining table.  

Who knows what horrible instances of distress agnosia we ourselves may have been prey to?  By definition, we would be incapable of knowing because we would be incapable of thinking about it.  To have seen, perhaps, Satan Incarnate roaring like a lion in the subway, devouring screaming passengers right and left in his slavering maw, but our attention wandering to the more interesting-seeming advertisements for community colleges pasted along the walls.

To distress agnosia I would like to add distress hypergnosia: the inability to stop thinking about things that distress us.  Also, dysgnosia, the irresistible impulse to think about the wrong things -- recalling for example an especially hilarious joke during a close friend's funeral, or suddenly recognizing an anagram of your own  initials in the license plate of the careening log-truck bearing down on you.

It all gets pretty tangled.  Maybe I should think about something else.

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