The metaphor you want is “color blindness,” not “blind spot.”
It’s genuinely possible that the title is all you need; I was tempted to write nothing further. Feel free to take ten seconds and see if it’s already clicked. If not, read on.
When something is in your literal blind spot, it’s invisible to you, but your brain stitches together everything else around it to make you think that you’re seeing a complete picture.
We often use “blind spot” as a metaphor to gesture toward things we are unaware of, while also being at least somewhat unaware of our unawareness—we know that something fishy is going on, but we can’t quite get our eyes on it.
e.g. “I think I might have a blind spot when it comes to status dynamics.”
The thing about status dynamics, though, is that they aren’t in one spot. There isn’t a whole world that is being fully and accurately perceived, except for one blank space that’s being glossed over.
Instead, what’s usually going on (at least in my experience) is that the person can see everything, but there’s some crucial component of the picture that they are unable to process or comprehend.
What this looks like, in practice, is an inability to distinguish two things which are very, very different, à la red-green color blindness:
“Look,” says Alexis. “Look at the beautiful contrast.”
Blake hesitates. ”...you mean between the trees and the sky?”
Being (metaphorically) color-blind to something can be deeply frustrating. You keep pushing the X button, and very different things keep happening.
e.g. you are learning to play a Formula 1 racing simulator, and it feels like you did exactly the same thing on exactly the same curve both times, but one time you spun out and crashed and the other time you smoothly navigated right through.
e.g. you are repeating back to the native French speaker exactly the sounds she said to you, and sometimes getting nods and smiles and other times getting sympathetic winces.
e.g. you asked your romantic partner what you should have said, instead, to avoid this huge disagreement, and the words they wished you’d said are literally equivalent in meaning, that’s the exact same sentiment, what the hell is going on, here?
It’s straightforwardly analogous to being literally color-blind, where you might try on one t-shirt, and hear snickers and giggles and see people trying not to laugh, but then you swap it out for a t-shirt that is almost exactly the same shade, you can barely even tell them apart, and suddenly everybody’s all encouragement and compliments.
They’re the exact same shirt! They’re practically indistinguishable!
Yes—to you. But other people make distinctions you do not. Whether because they’ve got slightly different physical or mental structures, or because they’ve spent a lot of time focusing on a domain and developed substantial sensitivity to it, or because they came from a subculture where those distinctions were obvious and omnipresent.
(And you make distinctions that are invisible to them, most likely! That seem to them capricious and arbitrary, if not entirely made up!)
Trigger: Notice that someone is being weirdly intense about a meaningless distinction.
Action: Ask “if they were perceiving some facet of reality that I am insensitive to (rather than just making mountains out of molehills), what might it be?”
Trigger: Notice that someone (including you) just used the term “blind spot.”
Action: Ask what the thing allegedly “in” the “blind spot” is, and whether it is local, or distributed/omnipresent.
Trigger: Notice that someone is continually ignoring your gestures toward an Extremely Important Thing™, or that they keep failing to successfully extrapolate even though you’ve laid out a bunch of individual examples and the trend should be obvious by now.
Action: Imagine that they are color-blind to this property, and consider what other proxies or algorithms you might hand them, that are not dependent on directly perceiving the Extremely Important Thing™.
For calibration: mostly-replacing my mental category of “blind spot” with “color-blind” has been one of the ten most useful shifts of my last three years, by virtue of a) giving me a much better starting point for navigating inferential gaps, and b) somehow causing me to be more empathetic? …I suppose because if the problem is a blind spot, then if they just shift their focus a little, they should see the thing, dammit, whereas if I model them as simply lacking the ability to perceive (even if only because they haven’t practiced enough in this domain yet) it suddenly seems much less their-fault if merely shifting their focus doesn’t fix it.
YMMV, but at the risk of being too clever by half: there really is a useful distinction, here.
I think I don’t get it.
My current state is that I plausibly get it enough that I’ll understand and find this useful after a week or three of practice (I plan to come back here to report on that unless things are cleared up by further discussion), but right now I feel… confused. I suspect I can’t name the true source of my confusion yet, because I don’t actually have it in focus yet. (I’m also suddenly all walk-on-eggshells about my usual collection of visual metaphors, apparently.) But if I try to narrow in on an extra bright/sharp confusion place, it’s “local” vs. “distributed/omnipresent”.
I think you’re trying to say something like “the physiological blind spot corresponds to a single point in the field of vision, so things that are temporarily in that spot become visible as soon as you shift your gaze, and this is the sense in which the blind spot is ‘local’”.
But like… I think the point of using “blind spot” as a metaphor isn’t so much that we sometimes fail to be sensitive to distinctions between things, or that we sometimes fail to see things entirely; it’s that we constantly hallucinate things all over the place (globally with respect to external reality, even though locally with respect to the field of vision) and almost never know it.
Maybe the infrequency with which I talk to other people means I just haven’t encountered very often the misuse of the phrase that caused you to write this. (Evidence against that: replacing “blind spot” with “color blind” was really useful for you.) But the way the phrase works in my head is, “Which eyeballs have the blindspot, and which muscles control their gaze?” The point is that while it may only take moving your head to see the thing clearly, it’s not always straightforward to figure out what sort of sensory apparatus is affected or how to control its movements, and in the meantime you’re constantly making up shit that isn’t there and you don’t even know which shit you’re making up when.
So for me there’s a TAP like [notice something fishy is going on with my perception that feels a bit like a combination of not being able to see stuff and making shit up to cover the blindness] --> [engage deliberate perceptual dexterity practices]. Which is a TAP that indeed should not work for color blindness, but I expect I’d be worse at figuring things out if I deleted it and added a color-blindness-appropriate one.
Probably a different topic but I have a feeling it’s related: Why are all of your TAPs about people? (Here literally, and elsewhere exageratedly.) To be clear, although I definitely do want to know the answer and understand, I’m also poking you in the ribs a little bit with this question.
Your three suggestions begin “notice that someone”, as though what happens in social space is the main thing that matters, or the place to start, or something.
I think that the social/person-centric focus is largely an artifact of “blind spots cropping up is (for me) more a social phenomenon” and “LW is a place where I’m trying to provide social tech, within a society.”
Like, the actual head-banging-against-the-wall thing for me, with so-called blind spots (both my own and others’) is where different people see or prioritize different things and are blind to different things.
I agree with what I think is your implicit claim, that blindness between people is a small subset of blindness! Certainly we are blind to far more things than we talk about in conversation, or than are relevant to our interactions with other people, and there is not an intended implicit claim in the essay above that the social/interpersonal set of TAPs is the only important one. Just that it was the most relevant set to “me, a social person, trying to change the way people socially talk about and collectively conceive of, this social dynamic whereby some people see things that others don’t.”
Which I think maybe also loops back to your larger first comment?
This reminds me of your excellent quote “I’m not sure that’s in my vision spot.” (As a replacement for “maybe that’s in my blind spot.”)
But anyways, I think what you’re saying is “the useful thing that I, Logan, get out of the blind spot metaphor is awareness of the fact that my brain is adding information/stitching things together/deceiving me.”
Which makes sense, and I think that’s the place where the blind spot metaphor is useful and apt. I do not want us to switch away from the blind spot metaphor when we’re talking about our brains hypnotizing us into thinking that we understand.
I just think that most of the time I encounter discussions of blind spots, people are emphasizing “can’t see X,” not “my brain has tricked me into thinking that I see what’s in the place where X is.”
I think that the correct metaphor for “can’t see X” is usually color blindness.
I continue to think that the correct metaphor for “I’m hallucinating something in the space where I could plausibly instead be perceiving” is blind spots.
… does that help at all?
I think it likely does help, but I’ll need to wait to find out.
Related: What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It? (Slate Star Codex)
I liked this post. However, I definitely needed you to say more than just a title!
Color blindness is a blind spot in color space.
This is true, but for it to be true you need to take a maybe-not-obvious view either of what “colour space” is or of what the other space in which we’re thinking about blind spots is. The following may all already have been in Kyle’s head, but it took a minute to get it into mine and I may save someone else some trouble.
So what’s not true is that colour-blindness involves being unable to see colours in some subset of an RGB-like space, in the same sort of way as a blind spot is being unable to see things in a particular subset of (x,y,z) space. Having a blind spot doesn’t cut bits out of your colour-space, it projects it onto a smaller subspace. (Approximately.)
But either of the following perspectives works.
1 Instead of “colour space”, say something like “wavelength space”. Colour-blindness is a bit like being unable to detect light in a particular range of wavelengths. You can think of the task of your visual system as reconstructing something like a function from (x,y,z,wavelength) to amount-of-light, and both blind spots and colour-blindness are something like being made unaware of a particular region of that space.
2 Instead of thinking of physical (x,y,z) space, think of the space of possible sense-data at a given moment. Positions (or, more accurately, directions out from your eye) form the basis for this space, not its elements, and what you see is a function from (x,y,z) to something-like-colour. Having a blind spot means projecting this space down into a smaller subspace (one that ignores the values of that function in certain places), just as being colour-blind means projecting something like (R,G,B) space down into a smaller subspace.
And although those are both a little non-standard, I think either of them is more faithful to how the visual system actually works than making any sort of analogy between (x,y,z) or (r,theta) and anything like (R,G,B).
(Note: Of course our actual colour space is not all that much like (R,G,B) for various reasons, and the physical thing we’re perceiving is more like (r,theta) than (x,y,z) but also we have two eyes, and colour-blindness isn’t just a matter of not detecting light in a particular range of wavelengths; the above is all deliberately sketchy.)
I have always thought of it like a vehicle blind spot not an ocular blind spot. More related to the structure of the situation than the individual.
I think that makes sense/is valid for the standard metaphor, but I want to reiterate that the standard metaphor doesn’t actually apply most of the times people use it.
Like, you can’t rotate your way out of color blindness. You can’t lean and look over your shoulder to solve a color blindness problem.
They feel like different-but-related thing to me. I would say that colorblindness can be simply that you haven’t learned to differentiate some aspects of reality. A blindspot is not just something you can’t see but a way in which you’re actively hiding from yourself the fact that you can’t see it. That’s how I use the term “blindspot”, which is perhaps downstream of Val / Michael Smith’s “Metacognitive Blindspots” presentations (at eg the 2014 alumni reunion iirc, I forget where/when else). “Colorblindness” doesn’t cut it for that meaning, so it’s not the metaphor I want when I reach for “blindspot”.
Having said that, it’s a cool metaphor for this different thing, and I can see the temptation to stretch “blindspot” to cover it. Both look kinda similar from the outside if you try to give someone feedback about the thing they’re not seeing. I’d say that if someone just has a colorblindness and no blindspot, they would tend to respond more curiously and you’d be able to make some headway starting to point out the dimension and how things vary along it. If someone has a blindspot, trying to talk with them about the thing they’re not seeing will feel weird. You’ll keep saying things and the conversation will sort of circle around the thing you’re trying to point at, or it may feel hard to even put the thing into words while trying to translate it into the other person’s frame, or hard to even stay in touch with the thing yourself while talking with the other person.
This is exactly true of the colorblindness thing, though.
Like, I was with you up until the quoted lines; that’s what it’s like to e.g. try to explain “red” to someone who can’t perceive red, and didn’t even realize what red is. You keep pointing at red objects and they nod along, you have a hard time putting redness into words while trying to speak in terms they’ll understand, you find yourself maybe even being like “gosh, what is red, though, geez,” etc.