I was 19 years old, joyfully cruising my Triumph Bonneville motorcycle down Woodman Avenue in Van Nuys, California one dusky summer evening, when I suddenly smashed straight into a woman coming towards me driving a Chevy Nomad station wagon. She unexpectedly turned left directly into my lane. “I didn’t see you! I didn’t see you!” she screamed hysterically as I hobbled, bloody and broken, to the side of the street. I was blindsided by her blindsight!
How Blindsight Works
Try an experiment. Hold your left index finger directly in front of your face about ten inches from your nose. Close your left eye. Now, keeping your finger stationary, swivel your head to the right until your index finger becomes blocked by your nose and is no longer in view. Now open your left eye with your head still swiveled. With both eyes open now, you should be able to once again see your left index finger, along with everything in the peripheral view to the left of it. As I’m looking to the left of my own index finger, one object that stands out clearly is a 6” five-pointed crystal star that my sister gave me for my last birthday.
Now here’s where things get interesting. The optic nerves in each of my eyes send two signals to my brain through roughly 1,200,000 “wires” for everything they see. One bundle of wires transmits information about the shape and color of what I’m seeing – the clear glass star. That signal gets transmitted first to, and then from the visual cortex to my brain’s temporal lobe.
Another bundle of my vision wiring sends a signal that transmits information about where the star is – on the wall to the left of my office window. That signal ultimately gets delivered to my brain’s parietal lobe.
The What and the Wherefore
If an experimental lesion interrupts the wiring that connects my right temporal lobe and prefrontal cortex, suddenly the star will completely disappear. I won’t be able to consciously report its presence. The wiring delivering the “what” information to my prefrontal cortex allows me to cognitively identify what I’m seeing as a crystal star. Since it has been damaged, my ability to identify and name anything my left eye sees on my left side is compromised (my nose blocks my right eye’s “what” wiring from seeing it). Yet, if you give me a list of words – moon, sun, planet, comet, star, asteroid – and asked me which word feels most familiar, I will overwhelming choose – you guessed it – star. Why? Because my parietal – prefrontal circuitry, which hasn’t been damaged at all is still registering the “where” signal being transmitted from my left eye. It unconsciously knows where the star is, it just doesn’t know what it is. Kind of freaky, right?
If you’ve done the experiment, you now experientially understand the structural brain vulnerability called blindsight.
The Pros Knows
Professional photographers are intimately familiar with the blindsight phenomenon. Besides robbing us of memory, no collection of pictures ever comes back to a professional photographer that doesn’t contain images and details that they simply didn’t see when they mindfully framed the shot.
But here’s the thing – we don’t need to experimentally sever brain circuitry to be adversely impacted by blindsight. Acute stress or high levels of allostatic load or chronic fatigue frequently do it for us. Ever been “so tired you can’t see straight”? Well, you were telling a vulnerable, neurobiological truth.
Also, there are many anecdotal reports from people who’ve been held up at gunpoint. Time stands still and all they remember seeing is the big black hole at the end of the gun barrel. My friend Jana was once accosted at knifepoint. The memory of the shining knife blade and the angry eyes wielding it still lives strongly decades later in her brain’s threat detection circuitry.
Awakening From Zzzz-Town
Add in visual subliminal processing and our eyes’ pattern recognition filters and this vulnerability, as a consequence of stress, trauma or fatigue, often has us sleepwalking through a large part of our lives without ever realizing it. We often don’t see what’s right in front of us. What to do? Rumi had a suggestion that I’ve built a recent teaching “explorinar” around: “A thousand half-loves must be forsaken to take a whole heart home.” To forsake means “to renounce or give up for something better.” What the Explorinar (which currently has a waiting list) essentially invites us to do is begin addressing blindsight and many other neurobiological vulnerabilities. We begin paring away and paying attention to the world around us differently in order to clearly see all the many ways our life might actually truly be unfolding … as a Heroine’s Journey. This journey is generally designed to deeply capture our attention in order to reduce the amount of time we spend unwittingly sleepwalking through it.