A recent episode of Radiolab starts with the story of Sharon Roseman, who had something strange happen to her when she was five years old. She and her friends were playing a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, and Sharon was “it.” As you may know, that game calls for the person who is “it” to be blindfolded and spun around. When Sharon’s blindfold was removed, she suddenly had no idea where she was. Although she recognized the people around her, her surroundings were different. This phenomenon, which continues to afflict her as an adult, causes her to become disoriented and lost, even in familiar places. As she describes it, when one of these episodes occurs, her whole world rotates a quarter turn. “Picture where you’re sitting right now,” she tells the Radiolab hosts, “you would still be sitting in that same room, but the wall that you’re looking at right in front of you is now one wall over to the right.” A slight shift, but one that changes the way she sees everything.
We eventually learn that this phenomenon has a name: Developmental Topographical Disorientation (DTD).The Radiolab episode goes on to explain how DTD basically interferes with our ability to make cognitive maps — the method that our brains use to orient us in space so that we don’t get lost (or run headlong into walls). Neuroscientists are just now beginning to understand cognitive mapping, and it sounds fascinating. I, for one, have often been struck by how much trust we place in perfect strangers not to steer their cars head on into our lanes, or to mow us down on the sidewalk. It now sounds as though we’re also relying on the proper functioning of that perfect stranger’s hippocampus. One subconscious hiccup and our whole world is suddenly different.
I wonder whether there’s a metaphysical counterpart to this physical phenomenon. I have come into contact with thoughts and ideas, usually through literature, but not always, that leave me disoriented. I still recognize the world around me, but it’s as if my surroundings have become slightly askew. A notable example of this happened to me in July 2007. I was Protestant at the time, but became intrigued by the ubiquitous media outrage over a papal document that called Protestant churches “ecclesial communities.” As I followed the news coverage, I learned that Pope Benedict XVI had said that my then-church could not be called a “church” in the proper sense at all because it lacked apostolic succession. Although it wasn’t new Church teaching, it was new to me. The Pope put this as a simple fact, so I had to treat it seriously. What opened before me was the possibility that the Pope, of all people, was right. And just this possibility — the mere fact that there might be a fact that could change all the other things I considered facts — set my world on edge. I couldn’t just act as though I had never heard what the Pope said. So, I investigated; I was intrigued. Nine months later, I was Catholic. (Another story lurks beneath, one involving a certain Rob Drapeau giving me the hard sell on the Catholic Church ten years earlier, but that’s for another day.)
I’ve experienced a less-dramatic form of this phenomenon several times. After first reading James Joyce’s short story The Dead, for example, or confronting the shocking grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away. I also felt it upon encountering Plato’s Apology, and when I first listened to “When David Heard.” (And need I mention The Moviegoer again?) Each time this happens, the world suddenly feels a bit off center, as though the experience has overwhelmed it, causing a shift. This is certainly how it felt when I adopted a Catholic worldview (or Catholic Weltanschauung, if you relish the precision of German compound nouns). God was still there, but he just seemed bigger.
If it doesn’t already have one, I think this phenomenon deserves a name. How about Acquired Ontological Disorientation?Share on Facebook