Stretching Awareness

Article by Steve Harvey, Associate Impromptu

I’m currently reading a novel by Lisa Genova called Left Neglected. It is about a highly successful, perpetually busy career and family woman, Sarah Nickerson, whose life is devastated as a result of brain injury sustained in a car accident. In the story, Sarah wakes from a temporary coma to discover that she has developed Left Neglect.

Left Neglect (also known as left sided neglect, hemispatial neglect or unilateral neglect) is a real syndrome, typically a consequence of right side brain trauma or stroke, that leaves the sufferer with no or limited awareness of the left side of their world. It’s a weird condition that is difficult to get one’s head around (pun partially intended) and manifests in a variety of life-affecting ways. Sufferers often bump into left door frames because they can’t see them. They feel underfed or hungry because they don’t notice the food on the left side of their plate.

They will fail to see people, in the room, sitting on their left. They have no awareness of the left side of their body, meaning that they have difficulty walking, or (for men) may shave only the right side of their face. They might wake up in bed, believing there is a stranger next to them, only to find the limbs they have momentarily observed are their own. Following the story in a book becomes almost impossible because the left side of the pages, even the left side of words, are not visible. The hitherto routine and everyday act of crossing a road becomes a life- threatening event because they don’t see traffic on the left. Incredibly, not only is it the case that those afflicted by Left Neglect aren’t aware of the left side of their world, the mind bending fact is that they are unaware of their unawareness of its absence.

The novel, Left Neglected, charts the journey of Sarah’s endeavour to recover from the condition, and to recapture the life she once enjoyed. Genova immerses us in Sarah’s herculean challenge to do everyday things; get dressed, tell the time (for Sarah, the watch on her left wrist simply doesn’t exist), eat a meal, hold a conversation with more than one person in different parts of the room, walk five metres to the toilet, walk in straight line anywhere, copy a line drawing of a cat that includes both eyes, both paws and both sets of whiskers, get milk out of the fridge without falling over and smashing her head (again) on the floor. Sarah stretches and strains to locate the left side of her universe. It is like trying to see the back of her head. Conceptually she knows that it’s there, but it remains inexorably beyond her field of vision.

Reading Left Neglected has got me thinking about the limitations of our own awareness, my own awareness. It’s interesting that Left Neglect syndrome has nothing to do with the sensory circuitry. The eyes still function. The ears still work. Nerve endings remain intact. But the brain simply refuses to recognise or process the signals it receives from the left side. In some ways, it strikes me, something similar is true for all of us. We know that there is too much sensory information for us to deal with, and that our minds take short cuts. We ‘colour in’ in the gaps using pre-existing patterns and mental models. The problem is that we are lazy. We tend to pay attention to the information that conforms to our expectations, assumptions, prejudices, social norms and cultural context. All too often we sit comfortably, even complacently, within our construct, like Sarah, in a way, in ignorance of the data outside our field of reference. We don’t notice it. We deny, to ourselves, that it is there. We choose not to make the effort to access it. We remain oblivious. I wonder if there is something to learn from Sarah’s struggle. I wonder if there is a world at the fringes of my consciousness that I might seek out, that I might access, that I might stretch into. One that is there, that is real, that is known (or at least has the potential to be known) that will enrich me, give me insight, that will expand my awareness and deepen my empathy and compassion. I wonder, can I stretch my awareness, just that little bit more.

“The first step in my recovery is to become aware of my unawareness, to constantly and repeatedly remind myself that my brain thinks it’s paying attention to all of everything, but in fact, it’s only paying attention to the right half of everything and nothing on the left.”

From ‘Left Neglected’, Lisa Genova.