When the personal isn’t that political: what we can learn from the Rubber Hand Illusion about hyper-sensitization in activist communities

Even as a therapist and consultant who specializes in working where trauma and social injustice meet, I have always had some suspicion about how the connection between relational dynamics and systemic oppression is talked about in activist spaces.

My primary concern with this has been about how dominant social justice discourse tends to completely skip over early life development and its impact on behavior. In fact, my work with clients has shown me that in many cases, acts that are interpreted as racist or sexist by others often have a lot to do with repressed emotions from childhood and can’t be understood through a merely systemic lens.

Basically, I’ve always thought the personal is political but it’s not actually that simple in practice. You can’t just brute force apply that maxim and expect to build healthy relationships.

Understanding why requires us to take a deeper look at how flawed and bizarre human perception actually is. Enter the Rubber Hand Illusion, a mentalist trick that shows us how our brain clumsily stitches together sensory stimuli to create our lived experience.

In the Rubber Hand Illusion, a participant is asked to sit down and put their hand on a table, with some kind of device that covers it and blocks their ability to see it. Then a rubber hand is placed parallel to the real hand is hidden. Both the real and rubber hands are stroked with a brush at the same pace at the same location.

After a little while, the participant will start to feel as if their real hand is the rubber hand in front of them. The participant’s internal experience, the sensation of feeling a brush down their hand, becomes coupled with the external sensory input of seeing a hand, even a fake rubber one, being stroked. At the end of the trick, a hammer is brought down on the rubber hand and the participant inevitably freaks out as if it was their actual hand.

The Rubber Hand Illusion brilliantly illustrates the incredibly malleable, and therefore also fallible nature of human perception. For me, as someone whose trade as a somatic practitioner rides on the maxim of ‘trust the wisdom of the body’, learning about the Rubber Hand Illusion was a humbling eye-opener. The body, far from being an oracle of truth, is a slippery trickster, or even worse yet, a complete fool.

Accepting the lessons of the Rubber Hand Illusion brings us the question of how does the incredibly gullible nature of human perception affect our relationships, especially when we are trying to undo injustice within them?

Well, for one thing, it means that a lot of the discourse we stand on in activist communities is actually VERY slippery. Many of our conversations about the connection between the personal and political is about validating our perception of patterns and the bodily responses we have when we think we have encountered them. 

We might see a man who forgets to do the dishes. We might see a white person shut down in conflict.

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These things may trigger and disturb us in intense ways. We’re for n-th time having our lives invaded by toxic masculinity and whiteness, just like that meme that was shared on our friend’s Facebook book wall. Can we ever get a break?

Something we usually gloss over though is that the very nature of how activist form dialogue around issues such as toxic masculinity and whiteness, especially how these macro patterns show up in our personal interactions, can be extremely flawed.

As you can observe from the Rubber Hand Illusion, a big part of the human capacity to notice patterns is connected to more reactive parts of our nervous system that are oriented towards survival. Hence the freakout when a hammer is brought down on an obviously fake rubber hand.

So imagine the kind of emotional reactions we might have when the rubber hand is invisible and made out of bits and pieces from all the articles and conversations we’ve ever been exposed to around phenomena like toxic masculinity and white supremacy as patterned behaviors. If you’re willing to eat humble pie and face the uncertain nature of perception, I think you will start seeing the picture of the hyper-vigilant hell we actually live in.

What happens to many of us as social justice-y folk is that our nervous systems become hyper-sensitized to patterns woven from behaviors that we have categorized together as oppressive. In the long term, this inevitably leads to retraumatization as our nervous systems burn out from feeling constantly threatened.

When we are not self-aware of this, relationships also suffer. Because our sensory perception loves to take shortcuts, especially when threatened, even the smallest trigger can set off unconscious emotional responses that are completely incongruent to the real situation. We end up directing our unexpressed internalized feelings about the injustices we have experienced to targets, our friends, family, colleagues, and partners, that were never really a threat – or at least not the level of threat we perceived them to be.

Painfully, once you get caught in a reactive cycle that is overrun by what are essentially illusions created by the coupling between our perception of patterns and our emotional responses, it is very difficult to get out. Our cognitive bias will lead us to interpret every response from others as confirming the pattern we are seeing. What we commonly refer to as call-out culture or outrage culture, is a product of this.

The tricky part is that even the best of us, people who talk and think about restorative justice on the daily, can easily fall prey to this kind of cyclical violence. Deconstructing the neurobiology of our perception just isn’t something that is an active part of our conversation about social activism. In fact, you might even say it is a taboo subject because it opens the door to fears of gaslighting.

I always say though, we need to build our political movements based on who we are, rather than who we should be. And who we are is extremely fallible.

The reality is that people do project, fabricate, exaggerate, and delude themselves. This tendency intensifies when the patterns we perceive are coupled with intense emotions. This is a fundamental part of our neurology.

The truth is that a lot of social justice culture evolves around unchecked hyper-validation of perceived experiences, to the point of it being a disservice of collective wellbeing. To work with this, we need to expand our conversations around trauma and neurology to include not just care, but also accountable dialogue around the inherent imperfections of human perception.

This means developing new behavioral norms in our community that minimizes hyper-sensitization by decoupling our perception of oppressive patterns from intense emotions.

I hope to write more about this subject in the near future.


Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?

I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.

1 thought on “When the personal isn’t that political: what we can learn from the Rubber Hand Illusion about hyper-sensitization in activist communities

  1. Wow, yes this. As a counsellor-in-training, it’s definitely been tough to try to be self-responsible for my interpretations/perceptions of situations while also acknowledging systemic oppressions at play. I think it’s easy to either dismiss my mental filter of white supremacy or get engrossed in it – “oh, it’s just in my head” or “agh, white supremacy at it again.” And it’s been a challenging practice to hold space for both. Thank you for writing about this.

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