Have you ever experienced a ‘mind-blind’ moment? A moment where conditions were so stressful or confusing, your actions seemed to be the result of temporary autism? If ‘mind-blindness’...

Have you ever experienced a ‘mind-blind’ moment? A moment where conditions were so stressful or confusing, your actions seemed to be the result of temporary autism? If ‘mind-blindness’ occurs at extreme points of arousal, could this explain why people ‘lose their heads’ in the heat of the moment and say something they don’t mean or cheat on spouses etc?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In his discussion of mind-reading and mind-blindness, Malcolm Gladwell, in is study Blink, describes “Peter,” the pseudonym for a colleague’s patient who is incapable of absorbing information that is not verbally communicated.  In other words, “Peter” takes all comments at surface-value without considering mannerisms and facial expressions that might alter the context and meaning of those words. As Gladwell’s colleague describes “Peter”:

“He focuses very much on what I say. The words mean a great deal to him. But he doesn’t focus at all on the way my words are contextualized with facial expressions and nonverbal cues. Everything that goes on inside the mind-that he cannot observe directly-is a problem for him.”

As Gladwell points out, mind-blindness usually occurs under conditions of stress or anxiety, when we are less likely to think clearly.  In one of Gladwell’s more interesting anecdotes, he discusses the failure of the Secret Service detail protecting President Ronald Reagan to identify the president’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley, as a potential threat.  The failure to isolate this one particular face in the crowd, Gladwell argues, was a classic case of mind-blindness on the part of the Secret Service, with the briefness of time the agents had to scan the crown outside the hotel where Reagan was shot a contributing factor.  Hinckley was positioned among the reporters assigned to cover the president and, because the reporters are always positioned very near the person about whom they are covering and photographing, the Secret Service detail lacked the time needed to spot the threat in their midst.  Only after Hinckley began firing shots at the president was the Secret Services aware of his presence.  The president’s bodyguards, Gladwell concludes, were victims of mind-blindness, as are police officers who inappropriately fire their weapons in the heat of the moment because the pressure of the moment adversely affects their mental reasoning.

There is no question that extreme stress can affect one’s ability to process information and rationalize. One of the reasons Special Forces are special is because of their innate ability – enhanced through many hours of training – to function under conditions of extreme stress.  Unfortunately, that level of training is not available to all soldiers, or to all police officers.  It is simply too time-consuming and too expensive to subject all soldiers and police to such extensive training.  For most of us, however, “losing our minds” under the right conditions is simply a fact of life.  We don’t always perceive reality accurately when under stress, and flawed decisions can be the result.

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