Blind spots, blindsight and dysfunctional family systems #recovery #mentalpod #mentalhealth

July 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Banaji and Greenwald (2013) wrote Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People to explain the contradiction between what people espouse as laudable value and belief systems and what they do when they unconsciously enact bias in their day to day lives. They describe the physiological phenomena of blind spots and blind sight, and then extrapolate these phenomena into the social and relational dimensions of human interactivity. I have found their theory immensely helpful to understand the dysfunction of my alcoholic family.

Yesterday I wrote about how small day-to-day gestures that might seem insignificant even though they are undermining or invalidating in the moment,  amount to patterns of abuse, abandonment, betrayal, deprivation, and incest over time. However, when I have tried to explain the hurtful composite of these attitudes and behaviours toward me over a lifetime of being a member in this family, I am met with more invalidation, dismissal and rejection. It is so baffling to me. Because no one in my family can actually empathize with my experience, I am left bouncing around like a ping pong ball from one extreme of thought, “I should suck it up and just go to that family event.” to another, “I can’t remember attending a family event where I felt truly welcome or wanted,” to, “My family will be hurt if I don’t attend,” to “No one has shown any interest in me or my life for the past year, why should I expect anything different now?” to, “I miss my family and I want to belong, if I don’t attend I will never belong!” to, “Every family member has done something disrespectful or hurtful toward me and there is no opportunity to address the situation with any one of them, I don’t want to put myself in jeopardy again.”

Banaji and Greenwald (2013) describe how blind spots are literally a region in the retina of the eye that has no light-sensitive cells. No light arriving at that spot in the retina has a visual pathway to the brain. There are moments of vision when things really do disappear from sight. Our brains compensate for this missing information by ‘filling-in’ the gap (Rees & Weil 2009) by drawing on the surrounding colour and pattern. This is a rapid, pre-attentive process that depends on local processes generated at the edge of the blind spot.

Blind sight is a phenomenon that happens when subcortical retina-to-brain pathways are left intact but there is no conscious visual experience of perceiving the object. Patients with this condition can reach out and grasp an object in front of them even as they have no conscious visual experience of the object (Banaji & Greenwald (2013).  Banaji and Greewald write about blindspots and blindsight as a large set of hidden biases that share a feature with visual blind spots – we can be unaware of hidden biases in the same way we are unaware of a lack of light-sensitivity in the retina. Hidden bias also shares a feature with the pathological condition of blindsight. In the same way that a patient can’t ‘see’ an object can still act as if they do, hidden biases are capable of guiding our behaviour without our being aware of their role.

My argument is that the dysfunctional conditions of a distressed family system can also be shown to display phenomena of blindspots and blind sight. Patterns of belief and attitude, unexamined and unconscious, are used to ‘fill-in’ the gaps of psychological perception (of words, emotion, behaviour). Similarly, hidden bias toward certain family members, for good or ill (the favourite, the scapegoat, the black sheep) can be acted on, guiding behaviour without family members being aware of the role these hidden bias are playing.

I can’t blame my family system for being dysfunctional and pathological. I can take steps to protect myself from injury, even as I process the real pain of knowing that my family is not a source of comfort, safety, validation or enjoyment. Eventually, I believe I can become strong enough and self-efficacious to moderating my own hidden bias toward my family – that they are more esteemed than I am – and stand up for myself in new, and loving ways. Through these behaviours I can begin to change the family system from the inside, for the good of all concerned.

Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Delacorte Press.

Rees, G., & Weil, R. (2009) How Does the Brain Fill-in the Visual World? ACNR > VOLUME 9 NUMBER 4 > SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2009


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