Are We Blind to Feelings?

This is the story of how we still do not see or understand or accurately label feelings. It is the story of how our society focuses on behavior rather than on the feelings which cause the behavior.

It is the story of how feelings motivate behavior, and how we still have not genuinely grasped that. It is about our struggle to understand the working of feelings in our close relationships and in general human interactions.

An Example from the Past: Germ Theory

Now we switch scenes dramatically. We go back to the late 1600s. A man from the Netherlands has developed a technique to create magnifying lenses and has made primitive microscopes: his name is Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). He could see protozoa, bacteria, blood cells, even wriggling spermatozoa. He called the live little creatures “animalcules” (Lehrer, 1979).

Much earlier, in 1546, a man named Girolamo Fracastoro of Verona wrote a book called De Contagione in which he suggested that living particles were responsible for some diseases; and in 1658 Athanasius Kircher hypothesized that “small living animals invisible to the naked eye” spread contagious diseases (Nuland, 2003).

“Animalcules” and Disease

However, stunningly, our hero van Leeuwenhoek did not consider that these animalcules might have something to do with human disease processes. The concept of “spontaneous generation” held sway: life forms arose from their surroundings; various aspects of the atmosphere were responsible.

In the 1700s, Lazzara Spallanzani of Italy performed a series of experiments. “The conclusion to be drawn from these experiments was inescapable: Living organisms were necessary for putrefaction. Spontaneous generation was a myth” (Lehrer, p. 113).

In the late 1700s, an Englishman named Jenner began realizing that people who had the illness cowpox tended not to get the much more severe disease smallpox; and he actually began successfully inoculating people with cowpox material in order to prevent their developing smallpox. But, still, the connection between human disease and the animalcules was not made.

Now we fast forward to the 1840s… about how many years since the late 1600s and van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of the animalcules? Can it be over 150 years?! Our focus turns to a specific problem: women dying of childbed fever, or puerperal fever– i.e. events surrounding childbirth.

A Scottish physician, Alexander Gordon, wrote about the contagious nature of this problem in the late 1700s; and, in America, a young physician named Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) was suggesting some form of transmission by medical practitioners.

Ignác Semmelweis

But the major player is an unusual young physician named Ignác Semmelweis (1818-1865), working in Vienna. He began to realize that high mortality rates occurred on wards where doctors and medical students went straight from the autopsy rooms to the birthing rooms.

In 1847, he began insisting the doctors and other medical attendants wash their hands before entering the birthing rooms. The results were dramatic: the death rates dropped significantly! (Shortly afterward in 1854, John Snow, M.D., similarly stopped a cholera epidemic by finding its source in London– thereby creating the modern science of epidemiology.)

The Germ Theory of Disease

However—there is an however—it was not clear why the death rates dropped. Controversy reigned. Semmelweis saved lives—but no one knew why hand-washing worked! Now—let’s not forget our friend Leeuwenhoek, who had observed his animalcules over 150 years before.

Nuland (2003) put it nicely: “Had Ignác Semmelweis so much as once asked the microscopist Joseph Hyrtl to study a drop of pus from one of the dead mothers, he would have found it to be teeming with the same kinds of organisms that Lister later found in his infected wounds. The invisible organic particles would have been shown to be bacteria. The leap of genius that had allowed Semmelweis to reach this astonishing insight was incalculable in its potential implications. But just as incalculable was the power of obstinate blindness that stopped him at that very point … It would remain for others to identify the nature of lethal microorganisms…” (pages 180-1).

These “others” would come on the scene very shortly… and their names would be Pasteur, Lister, and Koch.


How are we to understand this? What is this blindness? Is it simply a question of needing time to develop the scientific viewpoint and technology? Or is there something else about human capacities to learn and conceptualize? Why could people not see and understand for so many years … years after van Leeuwenhoek saw the animalcules?

There is a term in psychiatry: hallucination, or seeing something that is not really there. There is another term as well: negative hallucination, not seeing something that really is there. Or to put it differently: consider looking at an X-ray and having no idea what you are looking at, just black and white and gray … until the radiologist begins pointing out the heart, lungs, ribs, vessels, kidney shadows, and so on. Then you “see”!

This is the story of how we continue to struggle to see and understand feelings. Despite some terrific discoveries over the years – Darwin, Freud, Winnicott, Kohut, Tomkins, Ekman– we are so often still blind to feelings.

References for interested readers:

  • Lehrer S (1979). Explorers of the Body. New York: Doubleday.
  • Nuland SB (2003). The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignác Semmelweis. New York: WW Norton.