Contemplation: Unknown Unknowns (pt. 3): Denial, Anosognosia, and Contagion

Hello friends!  I continue today with my parallel (perhaps response driven) blogging that is following Errol Morris Op-Ed pieces entitled ““The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is” (here is part 1, and part 2, and today’s part 3).

In part three of the five-part piece Mr. Morris looks at the presidency of Woodrow Wilson following a traumatic stroke in 1919 and especially considers the implication of the President’s likely anosognosia, as well as a kind of denial (or possible anosognosia itself) of those around the President, especially his wife Edith Bolling Galt  Wilson.  The question that is raised especially in Mr. Morris’s part three is where the difference between denial and anosognosia lies.

I best interpret it as this:  Denial occurs when we know something to be true, but desire it not to be true, and thus refuse to affirm its truth, regardless of any affirming knowledge of our own or otherwise available.  The condition of anosognosia on the other hand, if the perfectly diagnosed condition of an “unknown unknown.”  The knowledge of anything, specifically a medical condition or illness, is completely oblivious to the afflicted, so that they continue to act as if they were not bestowed upon by any ailment.  There seems to be a factor of choice, wherein denial is a chosen action, while anosognosia is merely a symptom and occurence beyond control.

But I think that this risks simplifying things too much.  Is denial always a chosen condition?  I think that we have often been trained to treat denial with a degree of contempt, with a perception that people need to accept “the truth” of matters and thus get beyond the state of denial.  But is denial really all that simple?  And is it possible that at times a denial is so deep that the one denying is unaware of the state (essentially being anosognosic)?

This brings us back to the problem of the individual subjective mind.  I can know, or at least think I know, my thoughts, ideas, feeling, emotions, etc. considerably well.  But to what degree can I really know what is going on in another persons mind?  With a lack of certainty, I am unable to discern if a person in denial is actually just trying to avoid the truth of a matter, or whether they actually do not believe the truth, that they suffer anosognosia to their condition and the reality at hand.  The personal degree of unknowing other’s degrees of either knowing or unknowing, causes a discomfort, that can breed a sense of contempt, frustration, sadness, and so on and so forth.

And perhaps, as Mr. Morris seems to suggest, it can go as far as being a kind of contagiousness.  That if somebody truly believes his or her denial, to the point that it has gone beyond denial and become an anosognisia, perhaps we may find ourself creating our own denials. we could call these denial ripple effects, in which a strong denial or anosognosia in effect create states of denial in others.  Mr. Morris extends this thought, through the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, to suggest that it could possibly extend to a point of social denial, wherein society itself is in denial of a condition that ills it. 

What implications could come from a societal anosognosia?  I would suggest that we need not look much further than Nazi Germany to get an idea.  A society pushed to a brink of desperation and despair may, in their very denial of the cruelty they are breeding, allow atrocities to be committed.  In a sense this is suggestive of any type of mob mentality, that the masses act with a general anosognosic unknowing of their very actions.  In hindsight they may look back, with dawning realization, at what they have done, and feel the pang of remorse and guilt, but in the moment they may truly be oblivious to the entirety of their being.

If we are to become anosognosic of our state of being, unknowing of the conditions which afflict us, to what degree can we actually be said to be being at all?  I do not mean this in the metaphysical sense of “do we actually exist,” but instead ask it as a means of continuing to contemplate the self.  If our affliction is an “unknown unknown” to us, then we are not actually in full capacity of knowing ourselves.  Certainly we’d think that we knew ourselves, that is the nature of anosognosia, but from an outside observer it would be apparent that we did not actually know ourselves in full.  To that degree we would then rely upon the outside to either provide us with awareness, or to accept our set affliction.  and are any consequences of that affliction, to the outside world, really our fault, if the affliction is truly an “unknown unknown” to us?  To what degree can we be held responsible for something that we do not even know we don’t know?

Our being, as individuals, as societies, becomes more fluid when it is put through the gauntlet of possible “unknown unknowns.”  That we may be in a condition that we do not know about, and are entirely unaware to our unknowing, suggests that we are causing unforeseen impacts on others and our very world.  I think of the rise of environmentalism, and the decades of neglectful pollution that occurred prior to it.  We can look back in disgust at the rise of the industrial age and say “how horrid and destructive of the environment they were!”  But were they even aware?  it is easy for us to scoff and say “they could have figured it out!”  But they didn’t!  And so how far can we really know?

I am not suggesting that we look back at history (society’s or our own) and offer full forgiveness on the assumption that people were acting with their effects being pure “unknown unknowns.”  We learn from history by seeing where past destructive consequences occur.  What I do suggest though is that we temper our judgements to, in the very least, wonder what capacity of knowing occurred.

Of course we can not know ourselves beyond what others tell us.  It is then up to the moment of determination and a kind of faith to declare what is or isn’t “truth.”  Perhaps what we should really be asking ourselves, is whether or not we think we are worthy of declaring that “truth.”  If there is any doubt, progression could be hazardous.

Till next time.

~ by Nathaniel on June 23, 2010.

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