A genuine case of psychogenic blindness, or blindness with a psychological rather than an organic cause, reminds us that we have plenty to learn about the ways in which our minds and brains cope with various types of trauma.
When I give instructional workshops on character disturbance to professionals I almost always open my presentation with a hypothetical case of a young girl who one day inexplicably loses her eyesight. After many doctor visits, lab tests, and various other exams, no physical cause for her blindness can be found. Then, after months of psychoanalysis, a therapist uncovers the truth: the girl felt so guilty for gazing lustfully at a boy she fancied that she unconsciously decided it would be better not to see than to be in a position to entertain such “impure thoughts” again. Naturally, my workshop participants regard this scenario as highly unlikely — almost laughable. In fact, there hasn’t been a case like I described above in decades. And that’s exactly the point I make before introducing the rest of my workshop material. There was a time in our history — a much more repressive time (especially about sexual matters) — when such cases actually occurred. They were never all that common, but they occurred frequently enough that they caught the attention of folks like Sigmund Freud and the other early pioneers of psychology and psychiatry. But they’re virtually nonexistent now. Ours is an era of permissiveness, entitlement, and moral relativism, so as I assert in Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), character-related problems are much more commonplace than cases of extreme “neurosis.” In fact, several years ago a widely known mental health institute steeped in the psychoanalytic tradition and loath to modernize its theoretical orientation claimed to have treated a case of “hysterical blindness” — as though to prove that cases of severe neurosis were still out there — but was later proven to have fabricated the case to keep from closing its doors. I cite these facts in my workshops to make the argument that traditional theories about the workings of the human psyche, which developed primarily to explain phenomena like psychogenic blindness, are not very relevant today. So when I recently came upon a story about a woman in Germany purported to have a bona fide case of psychogenic blindness, I was more than a bit skeptical. But after checking out various sources (see the popular press accounts and the original report) and doing quite a bit of fact-checking, it appears that the case is not only legitimate but also has much to teach us about both the strange nature of this rare condition and the equally mysterious nature of the human brain.
A 37-year-old woman in Germany had not seen in more than a decade. She’d suffered a traumatic injury in childhood that among other things rendered her blind. The doctors believe she suffered cortical damage to her brain’s visual processing centers. Interestingly, the woman also later suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) — another rare disorder that was once formally called and some still refer to as “Multiple Personality Disorder,” or MPD. The woman had gotten used to using a seeing eye dog and coping with blindness in many of the typical ways. But then, the unexpected happened. One of her personalities, a teenage boy who rarely made appearances, was suddenly able to see some things. Slowly, this personality began to see more things. Eventually, with continued treatment for her DID, all but two of the woman’s various personalities recovered sight. Naturally, even the professionals involved in this case had their doubts. DID is a rare enough condition it its own right. But blindness of a psychogenic nature is rarer still. So it would be natural to suspect at least the possibility the woman was faking her symptoms. But tests clearly demonstrated otherwise. Electroencephalograms (EEGs) reliably show certain kinds of brain activity in response to visual stimuli. And when this woman was tested while in the person of one of her non-sighted personalities, no such brain activity was detected. It was only detected when she was in one of her sighted personalities. So it became clear that her earlier diagnosis of cortical blindness was incorrect — a diagnosis which had been conferred after ruling out all the other known likely causes — and the blindness some of her personalities were experiencing was apparently a psychological effect rather than something caused by brain damage.
The human brain is arguably the crowning gem of biological evolution. As such, it is a remarkably complex organ. It contains hundreds of billions of intricate interconnections that allow information to be stored and messages to be communicated from one center to another in ways we’ve only begun to understand. And we’ve only scratched the surface in uncovering the secrets of human consciousness and awareness. We have plenty to learn about the ways in which the brain copes with various types of trauma, too. One of those ways appears to be cutting off certain lines of communication as a protective mechanism. The case of the woman with multiple personalities — most of whom can now see and some of whom are still blind — remains a highly unusual one and one with much to teach us. Something it’s already taught us is that even though time has shown Freud and his theories to be off base on several things, he was indeed right about one thing: trauma can cause our minds to do some pretty unusual things. Next year, when I’m doing my trainings, I’ll probably still open with the scenario I mentioned earlier. But I’m sure someone will be happy to point out that although instances of psychogenic blindness haven’t been seen in years, they’re still a reality that warrants our attention and demands an explanation.
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