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Hemineglect, Attention, and Culture
May 14, 2022
by William P. Meyers

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Understanding Hemineglect to See Cultural Blind Spots

Human hemineglect is one of the favorite phenomena for those studying human neurology, psychology, consciousness, and the mind-body problem. It is a rare condition usually caused by damage to parts of the right-hand side of the brain (sometimes it follows damage to the left side of the head). A person with hemineglect acts as if the (usually) left side of their world does not exist. Their left arm works, but they neglect to use it, or be aware when it is in use. They act as if they don't see objects to the left of their line of sight. Even when something is on a piece of paper near them, so that we know they are able to see the left side of the page out of their right eye, they will only process lines or drawings on the right of the page. If you compare their behavior to people who are blind in their left eye, there is a lot of difference. A half-blind person does not act as if the left side of their world does not exist. A person with hemineglect acts as if the left side of their world does not exist. Turn them to the left and while they can suddenly process what they had been neglectful of a second before, they still have a sector, now further to the left, that they ignore.

Rather than discuss the phenomena itself or its philosophical implications, in this essay I want to use it as a guide to the more general phenomena of mental neglect. For more on hemineglect see Cognitive Neuroscience by Banich and Compton; for philosophical implications, see Neurophilosophy by Patrician Smith Churchland.

Mental neglect and mental attention serve as two poles for the mind. The brain can only pay so much attention at any one time; it must prioritize. Mental neglect has different sources and modes. To pay close attention to one thing we must tune out distractions. The ability to concentrate on a textbook is crucial to academic learning. That concentration, in turn, requires neglecting other sensory information. Neglect is a choice, so if a person is not exposed to something, that is not neglect. But if someone chooses to not pay attention to something they know exists, that is a form of neglect. So mental neglect can be voluntary or involuntary.

Suppose rather than brain damage, we have forms of brain disuse. These can result from life experience, including culture. Parents and others often let children know what is important to pay attention to, and what is not. One family might focus on supporting a local sports team, or sports in general, while another favors children focusing on school work. Usually, though, there is some balance, so the result is more of a preference than the kind of extreme seen with hemineglect. Before about 1965, in the United States, gender culture was often a creator of sex-role related neglect. Women were discouraged from preparing for professional careers, for instance. Men were discouraged from paying attention to what was needed to maintain a household or to raise children.

Societies have often substituted paying attention to religion for paying attention to the realities of the world. Praying for some god to cause some effect was substituted for getting the job done. Critical facilities were turned off when religious explanations were available. Again, this was and is a complex social phenomena. Too much ignoring reality tends to end in death, which would be the end to a religion, so religions often also extort people to work, to obey authority, or have attitudes that are helpful to society.

Now consider the fundamental problem of hemineglect, and other extreme forms of mental neglect: the sufferer does not know they have the condition. If you have thoroughly tuned something out, whether because of brain damage, disuse of mental facilities, or learned cultural standards, you do not know what you do not know. Something from that unknown sphere could intrude upon your attention once in a while, but the easiest way to fit it into your mental picture of the world would be to ignore it or mis-assign it to something more familiar.

Thus the Fundamentalist Christian can ignore all evidence of Evolution. The Buddhist can ignore evidence that the world is not just a spiritual illusion. The racist can ignore evidence that people of different skin color can be highly talented. Many people have trained themselves to be unable to consider that the world is overpopulated with humans, or that the environment is rapidly deteriorating from that combined with fossil fuel use.

Selection bias is a related but separate mental practice. In selection bias you have an existing belief. When you notice anything related to that, you count it when it reinforces the belief, and reject it when it contradicts the belief. We have seen this on grand display during the recent Covid pandemic. Those who believe the vaccines are dangerous collect stories of people who took the vaccine and either had a bad side effect, or caught Covid despite the vaccination. Those who believe in the value of vaccines overlook the side effects and the cases when the therapy is not effective. Medical statisticians can compile the actual data, but there is some support for both sides. Beyond that there are people who make up false stories that support their view, such as conspiracy promoters.

Christians (of the evangelical sort) might argue that people who ignore Jesus are the ones suffering from mental neglect. They believe his voice is everywhere. When a person hears that voice and converts, they believe they are finally in contact with the reality of God, heaven, the Bible, etc. So there is a connection between Delusions and the attention v. neglect operation of the brain. Arguments of the normal sort do not usually work with someone caught up in a delusion. The delusion creates its own data; the feedback loop excludes contrary input.

Denial is another related human trait. In denial a person is aware of data, they just dismiss it, with purpose. Denying the environment is being destroyed, and that will have consequences, is easy for those who have a stake in economic growth. Denying the world is overpopulated is easy for people who like to have children (perhaps because their religion encourages it). At another level you have environmentalists who deny that human overpopulation is the root problem. They usually do that because they know they may be accused of racism just for pointing out the fact.

I am going to do more thinking about mental neglect. There are likely things that are important that I am neglecting. It is easy to fall into a sensory pit in our modern society, like the people (mostly youngish males) who spend as much time as possible playing video games. They could open the doors to their rooms and go out and engage in the real world, but that is too scary. So fear can be a driver of mental and cultural neglect. Fear of death is the main basis of religion.

In a later essay I will try to give my own view of hemineglect and the mind-body problem; the question of how we are conscious. But I need to do some more thinking first.

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