Flashback Friday: How Blindness Might Help Your Mental Health

When preparing for this post I had one of those moments when you look back at a lesson you learned years ago and realize that you were being taught something far more broadly applicable and fundamental to life in general than what you thought at the time. Today I hope I can share with you more clearly and succinctly that which I wasn’t able to grasp back then.

Really, there are two significant concepts I’d like to share with you from this old blog post. First is a basic tenet of the dog-guide/handler relationship. Secondly, I’d like to demonstrate how that relationship can develop mindfulness skills.

#1; The Pool of Shared Meaning

In the famous business communication book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High the authors coin the phrase “the pool of shared meaning” to describe mutually understood language, concepts, and facts that people can use to nurture their relationships. One can contribute to the Shared Pool of Meaning when they communicate clearly and in such a way that doesn’t trigger distracting internal defenses in the listener.

The cover of Crucial Conversations, link goes to the book’s page on Amazon.com, where it is available in hard copy, Kindle, and Audible formats.

This pool is also limited by each party’s ability to comprehend what is contributed to the pool. If a Ph. D student starts talking to me about electro-magnetic spectrographs and how to interpret the reports using language she gleaned from her textbook or someone else’s journal article she is not contributing to the Shared Pool of Meaning because what she’s sharing has no meaning for me. She would need to translate her technical expertise into layman’s terms in order for us to share meaning.

There is a Shared Pool of Meaning between dogs and humans, too. I will focus on that which is shared between dog guides and handlers, but it exists between every human and every animal that human encounters. If you want more communication theory, tell me in the comments. Otherwise, let’s focus on working teams and their Shared Pool of Meaning.

A dog guide contributes information to the Pool by executing commands that have established meanings. Stopping indicates an obstacle. Pointing with the nose indicates a door handle, or a suggested direction. The dog is taught this meaning; it is not innate to the dog. They receive this meaning from their trainers in their own Pool.

I as the handler also contribute to this meaning. I use gestures the dog has learned to associate with direction, or a desire to move forward. But I can communicate unconsciously, too. Slowing down might tell the dog I feel uncertain about something. A harder pull on the harness communicates disapproval but without clear direction. And, of course, petting and treats, when timed properly, tell the dog I’m pleased with something the dog has just done.

However, as with any Pool, it is possible to taint it with bad information. This is where the Flashback comes in.

Original Post Date: 6/2/2021

Today Brian, our trainer, told me he wasn’t quite satisfied with how Prada and I were progressing. He was kind enough to make it clear that it wasn’t us, it was a limitation in his ability to communicate what he wanted us to do. He was, after all, an apprentice trainer. He was near the end of his training, but even an experienced apprentice lacks the sheer volume of experience that a veteran trainer has accumulated. So he called upon a specialist to help him out.

When I wasn’t wearing the occlusion glasses I initiated more avoidance maneuvers because I could see some of the obstacles but not all of them. Prada had no way of knowing that I could see a large decorative tree planted in the sidewalk but not a narrow pole or a metal bike rack that blended into the pavement. But with the glasses on, I let her steer the way I was supposed to. She no longer had to try to guess which obstacles I would notice, and which ones she needed to take care of for me.

I described occlusion in This post, and it was the occlusion specialist who came to Brian’s aid. The occlusion specialist asked me to wear the occlusion glasses every other block on our training run so he and Brian could observe the difference between how I worked with and without the glasses, with and without my meager scrap of functional vision. There was a noticeable difference, and there shouldn’t be.

I was tainting the pool of meaning I shared with Prada by providing inconsistent data. Dogs can’t comprehend blindness unless they are blind themselves. Even then, I’m not sure they understand that other beings around them AREN’T blind. Basically, dogs lack the ability to imagine that someone else’s experience is different than theirs. This also means they can’t imagine that one’s experience might change depending on conditions.

Prada couldn’t understand that I could see better in daylight than at night, or that the sharp contrast between shade and bright sun diminished my vision. She lacked the capacity to intuit how conditions impacted what I did and did not need her to do. For her to truly share the meaning of our work together, I needed to give her information about her tasks (what to do when) that was absolutely consistent.

I had to learn to behave all the time like I was wearing occlusion glasses, as if I were totally blind.

I had a hard time with this concept back then. I had gone through some unfortunate experiences in the blind community (read This post) that included people telling me I ought to always behave as if I were totally blind because someday I might be. I rejected the idea that I should live in fear, which is what I thought they were asking me to do. It is possible they were artlessly trying to tell me I should improve my low-vision functional skills. But regardless, I didn’t like the idea until Brian explained it from Prada’s perspective.

It’s not about my vision, or lack thereof. It’s about what she understands. What dogs understand and crave is consistency. That is the condition in which they thrive and perform at their best.

I had all sorts of grand plans for making my own occlusion glasses and practicing with them regularly when I left training. But, like most busy college students, I never got around to it. It wasn’t until 3-4 years ago I made my own occlusion glasses, and I still don’t use them much. Someday…

Sighted friends of the blind, these paragraphs are for you. You can play a critical role in protecting, or destroying, the training of your friend’s service dog. It is unhelpful, rude, and dangerous to grab the arm of a blind person working a dog in order to stop them from encountering an obstacle, or pull them around one. Your instinct comes from a good place, the desire to spare a fellow human pain. But just like any friend who wants to be a peer, not a parent, you have to let go of that protective instinct.

It is far more respectful to assume that they have a means of dealing with errors in the dog’s work. No dog is perfect, and they have bad days or experience distraction like humans. Assuming the blind person knows how to correct and re-train the dog rather than that the blind person needs your saving hand conveys far more love and respect than acting like a helicopter mom.

Communication theorist Paul Watzlawick wrote “one cannot not communicate.” It is vital that I as a dog handler convey consistent expectations to my dogs, and it is equally important that my friends, colleagues, and strangers I meet convey consistent respect to me by not interfering with how I and my dog work together, even if they think they see a disaster about to happen.

One cannot not communicate.

By the way, for those of you who remember from this early post that I was rejected by a dog guide school because I had “too much vision,” let me explain how blindness, particularly partial blindness, is so much more complicated than you think.

What that school’s representative really meant was that they didn’t think they could train me to give a dog consistent information. Either they had never heard of occlusion programs, or I over-sold my usable vision through sheer confidence (a problem I have had many times), or they simply believe in the old myth that you can’t teach a sighted dog blind tricks (hang on…that doesn’t sound quite right!). The Seeing Eye disagreed, had a program in place to solve the problem, and did so.

I can see vague outlines and color contrast changes in bright, consistent lighting. This rules out cloudy days, overly bright days with lots of shadows, dawn, dusk, twilight, night, dim interiors, rooms with matching walls, furniture, and floors, and, well, almost all conditions, really. But I have been living this way for almost 20 years, as have most first-time dog guide users. It is natural that I had come up with lots of ways to compensate, and thus present as if I can see a lot better because we associate confident travel with the ability to see.

Learning with occlusion glasses simply meant learning new means of compensating for my lack of functional vision. And, honestly, it wasn’t hard. It just needed consistent practice, and resulted in a lot of personal growth and some unique skills and self-knowledge, like you’re about to read.

Mindfulness Benefits from Blindness.

I was tempted to write “mindfulness benefits from blind fullness.” Too cheesy? Let me know.

Why do we close our eyes when we pray or meditate? Why do people say “close your eyes” when offering a surprise or asking us to imagine life from someone else’s perspective? It goes far beyond eliminating distractions.

Our eyes have the farthest reaching sensor range of all our sensory organs, and thus they (usually) take in a lot more information. This is why the region of our brains dedicated to processing vision is usually larger than other sensory regions. Neuroscientists interested in the directionality and processing speed of information in the brain have noted that visual stimuli travel extremely quickly between the visual cortex and the amygdala, commonly called the Fear Center of the brain.

This fact seems inconvenient until you remember how quickly you reacted to that idiot who swerved in front of you on the highway yesterday. This is a survival system designed to protect us, and should be appreciated for the billions of lives it has saved throughout history, some lives saved more than once. But like all elements of God’s perfectly ordered creation,it can all too easily fall into disorder.

Clinical anxiety occurs when our survival circuitry gets hijacked and left in the “on” position. Convinced there are threats out there, the brain uses its most efficient organ to search for problems to react to. Our eyes create a fast lane for fear signal processing. But when we close our eyes, or are blind, the path between the visual cortex and the amygdala falls silent.

Reducing traffic between the visual cortex and the amygdala won’t cure, or prevent anxiety. Vision does not cause anxiety, so blindness does not cure or prevent it. I have very little vision to send data to my amygdala and have been in therapy for anxiety for over a year (and making good progress, by the way!). I know plenty of people who are blind and suffer from near-crippling anxiety. But for those whose brains are used to relying on vision as an early-alert system, closing your eyes for a few seconds, or minutes, or hours, can give your brain and body a much-needed break.

When I practice with my occlusion glasses I no longer look out for obstacles or hazards, or more recently, things that might trigger Greta’s own anxiety. When I walk Greta at night (always being sure to turn on the bright clip-on LEDs that came with our fancy new Sport-style harness, of course) I have a similarly relaxing experience.

I have almost no usable vision, but I still find it peaceful to close my eyes when praying and meditating, when savoring the first sip of a lavender mocha, or when my husband wraps his arms around my shoulders. And these pioneers of mental health practices in China have found a brilliant way to integrate this into their therapeutic practices. I will definitely be using this technique in my work as a counselor as well.

The moment of darkness when you close your eyes can become an avenue to peace rather than just a blink in your hectic day. But as you saw above, consistency is king. The more you shut out distractions, the more rest your over-worked survival circuitry gets. It can begin shifting some of its responsibility to other parts of the brain, just as I have delegated avoiding obstacles to my dogs. It’s an act of trust; I must trust Greta, and you must learn to trust yourself. Whatever comes at you, you can handle it.

A pastor I know once defined contentment as knowing we have the resources we need to solve problems. There will always be cars who cut through crosswalks when it’s my turn. There will always be too many things on your to-do list. But taking your moment of darkness to prove regularly to yourself that you can handle life’s travails without being on high alert all. The time can begin to cultivate contentment in your own life.

Until next week your favorite blindfluencer requests that you communicate to yourself that you can trust yourself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: