Blindsight quotes II (the mind’s frailty)

More Blindsight for you! This is a weekly thing: last Monday’s post can be found here. As always: go away if you hate spoilers.

This one’s about the extreme frailty of the human mind. It’s all based on published literature, which is what makes it so mind-blowingly cool; the Notes and References section of the novel covers much the same thing (only with linked references) and I’ve posted about that one previously.

Szpindel had rattled off dementias like raindrops. I went to ConSensus for enlightenment and found a whole other self buried below the limbic system, below the hindbrain, below even the cerebellum. It lived in the brain stem and it was older than the vertebrates themselves. It was self-contained: it heard and saw and felt, independent of all those other parts layered overtop like evolutionary afterthoughts. It dwelt on nothing but its own survival. It had no time for planning or abstract analysis, spared effort for only the most rudimentary sensory processing. But it was fast, and it was dedicated, and it could react to threats in a fraction of the time it took its smarter roommates to even become aware of them.

And even when it couldn’t—when the obstinate, unyielding neocortex refused to let it off the leash—still it tried to pass on what it saw, and Isaac Szpindel experienced an ineffable sense of where to reach. In a way, he had a stripped-down version of the Gang in his head. Everyone did.

I looked further and found God Itself in the meat of the brain, found the static that had sent Bates into rapture and Michelle into convulsions. I tracked Gray Syndrome to its headwaters in the temporal lobe. I heard voices ranting in the brains of schizophrenics. I found cortical infarcts that inspired people to reject their own limbs, imagined the magnetic fields that must have acted in their stead when Cruncher tried to dismember himself. And off in some half-forgotten pesthole of Twentieth-century case studies—filed under Cotard’s Syndrome—I found Amanda Bates and others of her kind, their brains torqued into denial of the very self. “I used to have a heart,” one of them said listlessly from the archives. “Now I have something that beats in its place.” Another demanded to be buried, because his corpse was already stinking.

There was more, a whole catalog of finely-tuned dysfunctions that Rorschach had not yet inflicted on us. Somnambulism. Agnosias. Hemineglect. ConSensus served up a freak show to make any mind reel at its own fragility: a woman dying of thirst within easy reach of water, not because she couldn’t see the faucet but because she couldn’t recognize it. A man for whom the left side of the universe did not exist, who could neither perceive nor conceive of the left side of his body, of a room, of a line of text. A man for whom the very concept of leftness had become literally unthinkable.

Sometimes we could conceive of things and still not see them, although they stood right before us. Skyscrapers appeared out of thin air, the person talking to us changed into someone else during a momentary distraction— and we didn’t notice. It wasn’t magic. It was barely even misdirection. They called it inattentional blindness, and it had been well-known for a century or more: a tendency for the eye to simply not notice things that evolutionary experience classed as unlikely.

I found the opposite of Szpindel’s blindsight, a malady not in which the sighted believe they are blind but one in which the blind insist they can see. The very idea was absurd unto insanity and yet there they were, retinas detached, optic nerves burned away, any possibility of vision denied by the laws of physics: bumping into walls, tripping over furniture, inventing endless ludicrous explanations for their clumsiness. The lights, unexpectedly turned off by some other party. A colorful bird glimpsed through the window, distracting attention from the obstacle ahead. I can see perfectly well, thank you. Nothing wrong with my eyes.

Gauges in the head, Szpindel had called them. But there were other things in there too. There was a model of the world, and we didn’t lookoutward at all; our conscious selves saw only the simulation in our heads, an interpretation of reality, endlessly refreshed by input from the senses. What happens when those senses go dark, but the model—thrown off-kilter by some trauma or tumor—fails to refresh? How long do we stare in at that obsolete rendering, recycling and massaging the same old data in a desperate, subconscious act of utterly honest denial? How long before it dawns on us that the world we see no longer reflects the world we inhabit, that we are blind?

Months sometimes, according to the case files. For one poor woman, a year and more.

Appeals to logic fail utterly. How could you see the bird when there is no window? How do you decide where your seen half-world ends if you can’t see the other half to weigh it against? If you are dead, how can you smell your own corruption? If you do not exist, Amanda, what is talking to us now?

Useless. When you’re in the grip of Cotard’s Syndrome or hemineglect you cannot be swayed by argument. When you’re in thrall to some alien artefact you know that the self is gone, that reality ends at the midline. You know it with the same unshakeable certainty of any man regarding the location of his own limbs, with that hardwired awareness that needs no other confirmation. Against that conviction, what is reason? What is logic?

Inside Rorschach, they had no place at all.

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