Sunday, 11 September 2011

Perceptions of truth and deceit ~ and a quote about the mentally disabled

Oliver Sacks, the well known neurologist and writer, speaks eloquently about the special capabilities of some people in distinguishing between truth and falsehoods.  These people are not clairvoyants or spiritual teachers, they are among the mentally disabled.  The following passage can be found in his very readable book “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”.  In this chapter he describes the response of the aphasics as well as an agnosiac to 'the President's speech'.  The chapter opens:
What was going on? A roar of laughter from the aphasia ward, just as the President's speech was coming on, and they had all been so eager to hear the President speaking. ...
There he was, the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal – and [most of] the patients were convulsed with laughter. ...
Thus the feeling I sometimes have – which all of us who work closely with aphasiacs have – that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily. ... And what dogs can do here, aphaisacs do too, and at a human and immeasurably superior level. 'One can lie with the mouth,' Nietzsche writes, 'but with the accompanying grimace one nevertheless tells the truth.' To such a grimace, to any falsity or impropriety in bodily appearance or posture, aphasiacs are preternaturally sensitive. And if they cannot see one – this is especially true of our blind aphasiacs – they have an infallible ear for every vocal nuance, the tone, the rhythm, the cadences, the music, the subtlest modulations, inflections, intonations, which can give – or remove – verisimilitude to or from a man's voice. ...

Among the patients with tonal agnosia on our aphasia ward who also listened to the President's speech was Emily D., ... A former English teacher, and poetess of some repute, with an exceptional feeling for language, and strong powers of analysis and expression, Emily D. was able to articulate the opposite situation – how the Presidents speech sounded to someone with tonal agnosia. Emily D. could no longer tell if a voice was angry, cheerful, sad – whatever. Since voices now lacked expression, she had to look at people's faces, their postures and movements when they talked, and found herself doing so with care, an intensity, she had never shown before... Emily D. also listened, stony faced, so the President's speech, bringing to it a strange mixture of enhanced and defective perceptions – precisely the opposite mixture of those of our aphasiacs. It did not move her – no speech now moved her – and all that was evocative, genuine or false, completely passed her by. Deprived of emotional reaction, was she then (like the rest of us) transported or taken in? By no means. 'He is not cogent,' she said. “He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.' Thus the President's speech did not work for Emily D. either, due to her enhanced sense of formal language use, propriety of prose, any more than it worked for our aphasiacs, with their word-deafness but enhanced sense of tone.

Here then was the paradox of the President's speech. We normals – aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled – were well and truly fooled. ... And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.
This is sobering comment: with reference to my earlier article 'Evaluating teachers and healers ~ spirituality and healing vs delusion and chaos', Bill Hamilton and I both hold the same view: that it can take quite some time to be sure that a teacher, healer or guru type is genuine, that saints and those who masquerade as such can appear virtually indistinguishable, yet we read here that some of those who might be considered far less mentally competent than ourselves get it in one shot.  Have we become so inured to the partial truths we come across in everyday life that we have lost our ability to recognise the truth when it's right under our noses?  It would seem so.  This other view is certainly illuminating, but given the limitations that most of us have, I still hold that taking time to arrive at our own verdicts is the best course.  It does also show how worthwhile it can be to listen to other people's points of view, including those whom you might not expect to have this level of insight. 

This article was originally published in Part Three of 'Rushleigh - The Wasteland Chronicle'.  It is duplicated here for your interest.

Book shop link for interested NZ readers:
"The Man who mistook his wife for a hat" by Oliver Sacks - other edition available
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

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