For a while now, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the subjects of cognitive dysfunction and cognitive dissonance, as well as the connections between them, and how all of this relates to being on a boat. It’s going to take a little time to get around to the boat part, but perhaps some folks will be interested in the various bits.
This starts with an event from years ago, when a friend of mine used to go to a support group that was related to dealing with health issues and resulting cognitive dysfunction. Out of that group came the catchphrase “cog dys,” which generated sentences like, “Oh, are you experiencing cog dys too?” Nowadays, this friend no longer remembers the group, but the phrase has stayed with me, particularly as one or another form of cognitive dysfunction has been on my mind.
Meanwhile, with exactly the same shorthand as far as pronunciation, and with a minor spelling adjustment, one could have “cog dis,” for the term “cognitive dissonance.” In an example of cognitive dysfunction, in my more tired moments I have a hard time remembering which is which. Recently someone pointed out to me that they are in fact related. (Thank you, Lori!)
Cognitive dysfunction is pretty much what it sounds like: decreased or incorrect functioning of one’s thinking abilities.
Cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, is not so quick and simple to explain. “Cog dis” is the confusion resulting from a mismatch between stated reality and perceived reality, sometimes arising from simple lack of understanding, or from internally conflicting beliefs. It can also be intentionally constructed by individuals (or systems) that have a goal of keeping other people confused, and controlled. When actively perpetrated, and successful, those upon whom cognitive dissonance is foisted are likely to perceive themselves as cognitively dysfunctional. This is like a tongue twister for one’s brain, trying to keep track of all this.
An example of manipulation intended to create this kind of confusion is shown in the movie from the 1940s, “Gaslight,” from which we get the term “gaslighting.” In this movie, in an old house with gas fixtures for lighting, a man wants to convince a woman that she’s crazy, so that he can get away with having killed somebody, and get that person’s hidden jewels. (It’s a crazy and convoluted story.) He tells the woman that the lights are not flickering, though they are, and she clearly sees the flicker. Through a gradual, insistent process on the part of the man, the woman becomes ready to abandon her perception, and to accept the explanation that the man is presenting, which comes down to that she is crazy (cognitively dysfunctional) and therefore should be institutionalized so that he can carry on with finding the jewels. A friendly detective saves the day, validating for the woman that there is indeed flickering in the gas lights, and bonus, catching the creepy man.
I can’t even watch this movie; witnessing the intentional undermining of someone’s reality is too painful to bear. But the concept so clearly illustrated is enormously useful.
A real world example of gaslighting/setting up cognitive dissonance in order to control people would be all those situations where the differences between stated reality and practiced reality are at the same time glaringly and invisibly real. Feminism (with thanks to the writings of Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly, Sarah Lucia Hoagland, and so many others) provides a specific example: we live in a culture where systematic abuse of women and children is practiced daily; the police/court system says that this is illegal, but many legislators, police officers, and judges (those who create and uphold the legal/cultural system) are perpetrators of this abuse themselves. The subtleties of the system reflect this dual reality.
The stated cultural values are that abuse of women and children – and vulnerable men – is wrong. However, a significant number of people, while explicitly stating that violence, sexual abuse, and everything on up to torture are wrong, are at the very same time allowing and/or participating in these terribly harmful practices.
It’s this kind of conflict between stated reality and experienced reality that can make a person feel really crazy. Or cognitively dysfunctional, unable to think, with one’s mind wrapped into a tangle on the unresolvable conflicts of perception.
So for the folks who are still reading this, wondering how this is ever going to relate to sailboats on water, thanks for sticking with it. It’s a wide-ranging process, this, working to explain the ongoing, daily interconnections between the unresolved past and the present, gradually making sense of both, in a whole, integrated picture.
For me, my time on the water has been an important, and very rich, part of this process of resolution. However, this year on the water was more challenging than last…
While I was sailing this season, my biggest struggle was with cognitive dysfunction, and it worried me quite a bit. At times my thinking was cloudy, and slow-moving. I was aware that when presented with a number of bits of information, I was not always processing them fully, nor putting them together thoroughly into a well-developed, full understanding of the situation at hand. This kind of diminished thinking ability is a normal result of fatigue, but just like before leaving home in the spring, on the boat it was coming up more than I felt like it should. In response, I increased my vigilance around safety issues and navigation, and kept observing, and thinking about, the overall situation. And I continued to sail, almost always by myself.
I like sailing alone for many reasons, but a big one is that I don’t have to worry so much about responsibility for anybody else ending up in a bad spot. If I make a catastrophic mistake, generally I am the only one who will suffer the consequences. It helps, in this, to sail a small boat, rather than a big one. You have to be really careful around kayaks and dinghies, but for the most part if there is an unfortunate meeting of boats including yours, most of the damage will be on your side, not theirs. And of course rocks are not the least bit worried about the boats that run into them. Not that I want any of this to happen at all, and I have continued to take enormous precautions to limit the possibilities, but if something serious were to go amiss, it would generally be just me, in this boat, with the really big problem.
This year’s round of sailing pushed the limits of my comfort zone for being out, as captain, even by myself, never mind with responsibility for others. If the cognitive dysfunction situation were to get much worse, I would have to seriously consider only going on the water with other sailors whose competence is both substantial, and reliable, and with the well-being of the boat in their hands, rather than mine. It would be time to refrain from sailing by myself for anything other than short jaunts, only going out alone during the generally shorter periods when I feel cognitively sharp and up to the task. As folks can likely imagine, this is not a happy thought!
With all these concerns stewing around, I’ve spent a good bit of time over the last few months thinking about cog dys, rolling the term around in my mind, and holding it up next to the identically pronounced cog dis. After the relationship between them was pointed out to me, I started thinking more about the ocean, and why, in the face of these issues, it has continued to be so important to me to go out and float around, on tiny protected bays as well as on those long open water runs that were also such a significant part of this past year’s boat time.
For me, the primary reason for going to sea is the blessed stillness, on a broad scale. There is no cognitive dissonance, alone at sea, unless you bring it there yourself. The reality with which you are presented has no underlying conflicting agenda. The tide comes and goes, the wind blows, the waves are fierce or gentle. One’s preparations are thorough, and effective, or maybe not so much. It’s very straightforward, and if there are mistakes, or there is lack of understanding, those failings can be approached directly, and hopefully improved upon. One might become confused, and that kind of disorientation is almost always uncomfortable, but you know that, somewhere in the array of information in front of you, there is indeed an explanation.
I did however have a situation that was, at the time, extremely hard to sort out, and was as a result quite disturbing, providing a lot to think about. This event was described in the post titled “Update,” from August 29, 2013, about passing near Cross Island off of Machias, Maine. The related bit starts about halfway down the post. (https://sailingauklet.com/2013/08/29/update/ )
In that situation, it was both confusing, and unnerving, trying to piece together the effects of the crazy, shifting current, the wind direction, and the options for progress. Fatigue-related cognitive dysfunction did not help, but in retrospect the larger problem was that “things did not add up.” For me, that sensation of things not adding up was deeply alarming.
It was a cosmic gift that it worked out to call my friends, that first time through, for reassurance and outside perspective, as well as for help in developing an appropriate plan. It was also a gift that I got to go back the following day (described in the second post on August 29, “Cutler and Beyond”) with conditions that clearly demonstrated what had been happening. The second visit was enlightening, not only improving my understanding of the currents and whatnot, but also helping with understanding my distress during the initial event.
As a survivor of severe gaslighting – an aspect of childhood abuse that keeps the perpetrators safe, and the survivor deeply confused for a very long time – it was alarming to not understand what the ocean, and the boat, were doing. This would, of course, probably be distressing for most everybody, regardless of personal history. Besides the specific boat considerations, as humans our brains are wired to feel discomfort at things that don’t make sense, making it more likely that problems/dangers will get our attention – and that’s a good thing! But for survivors of gaslighting, distress in that kind of “things don’t add up” situation is likely to be much more layered, with everything from only peripherally related mistrust and fear, to outright flashbacks, triggered by the feeling of disorientation.
Myself, I make a habit of studying quite a bit, about the ocean and boats, and how they can both be expected to behave, as an antidote to this entire issue. It’s calming, in the face of all that human confusion, to rely on the usually straightforward physics of interacting with ocean conditions; it’s really why I go sailing. But you do need your brain working, in order to sort it all out.
Which brings me back to where we started, with the connection between cognitive dysfunction and cognitive dissonance. In my inner work, I have been deep in a process of unraveling the gaslighting (cognitively dissonant) aspects of my old history. In the end, it comes as no surprise that the process of trying to understand the cognitive dissonance of that time has sometimes made tangled spaghetti of my ability to follow a direct thought, including here in the present. Sailing gives me the gift of having important reasons to perceive the cognitive dysfunction, to evaluate my mental capacities, and to make decisions that are appropriate in light of those observations. Further, it provides extra motivation for understanding the source of the problem.
If I wasn’t trying to go sailing, these issues wouldn’t matter so much. Cognitive dysfunction comes and goes, and if I am simply at home sorting out household or community projects, periods of reduced thinking ability are frustrating, but all that’s lost is some time and efficiency. That muddied brain is uncomfortable, but really, so what. By going to sea, that muddied brain becomes a serious liability; it is not to be ignored. And since I care so much about going to sea, I am motivated to look at the entire situation, and the connections.
The sea is utterly comforting in its total lack of cognitive dissonance. At the same time, it is stark in its uncompromising reflection of cognitive dysfunction. It’s a delicate balancing act: if one goes to sea for a respite from the struggle with cognitive dissonance, but suffers from cognitive dysfunction as a result of that struggle with dissonance, will clarity come back in time to avoid sinking the boat! Or is it important to go to sea precisely in order to perceive this struggle, as a piece of the path toward moving through it.
As has probably already occurred to some readers, it’s also altogether possible that my personal experience of cognitive dysfunction is, more than anything, related to health issues, and resulting shifts in abilities. But it doesn’t feel that way. What it feels like, in fact, is that the source of this difficulty with thinking is entirely grounded in the problems of cognitive dissonance. It is, however, a legitimate question.
Oddly enough, in the process of writing this paper, and so specifically naming cognitive dissonance, my thinking has become clearer than I have experienced in a long time. This would, indeed, be consistent with the theory that gaslighting scrambles people’s brains – and that the more one can name, and extricate oneself from, long-term gaslighting, the more room one has for one’s thinking to clear. For now, I’m open to the possibilities. Regardless of how it is achieved, consistently clear thinking would be a delight, both at home and on the water.
This essay has benefited from careful reading and feedback, on earlier drafts, by Dave Zeiger, Anke Wagner, Judy Schultz, and Lori Lorenz. Many thanks to each of you!
Further, I would like to acknowledge the teaching and mentoring that I have received from Lori Lorenz, who has contributed enormously to my understanding of trauma and recovery (as well as to my process of recovery itself). Specifically in this essay, my grasp of the concept of gaslighting, and of the mechanics of human response to “things that don’t add up,” is a direct result of conversations between Lori and myself. More on Lori’s work can be found at http://www.eftandtrauma.com
Any and all goof-ups that remain in this writing are of course my own!