It's time to admit my shameful secret: I have cactus blindness.
Cactus blindness is one of a number of widespread horticultural learning deficiencies (HLD), resembling (and often overlapping with) other HLDs like fern blindness, shrub blindness (I am also considerably shrub-blind, by the way), and palm blindness. Afflicted individuals are easily able to learn and recall names of different cactus species, but are unable to visually distinguish cacti well enough to apply the names accurately to plant specimens.
Many causes have been proposed for HLDs, ranging from the socioeconomic (lack of exposure to, or accurate identification of, enough plant species in childhood) to the organic (HLDs sometimes occur following stroke or brain injury in previously unaffected individuals). Though below-average intelligence and sensory impairment may also lead to the inability to distinguish cactus species from one another, persons with these conditions are specifically excluded from the DSM-IV definition of cactus blindness, as they lead to much broader difficulties.
Cactus blindness is also distinct from the condition called cactus alexia: in the latter, species are easily distinguished, but the patient experiences great difficulty in learning the names that go with the plants.
I bring this up first of all because of Karen715's brave admission a couple weeks ago that she, too, suffers from cactus blindness. Her courage has given me the strength to admit that I, too, find it extremely difficult to identify many of the specimens I encounter. (It is my hope that we can start a support group or something.)
Secondly, I recently went back to my former workplace and photographed a few cacti there (bought a couple, too, alas), thinking I could identify them easily and then use the photos for yearbook pictures, and I think I even actually did, with great difficulty and the assistance of the photos at cactiguide.com, identify a couple of them. However, some of them continued to stump me, either because none of the 1257 species represented at cactiguide.com looked like the plant in question, or because far too many of them did for me to be able to pick one. (Some of the more questionable photos I took are decorating this post; I welcome any ID verifications or suggestions anybody wants to throw at me.)
Treatment of cactus blindness typically falls into one of three types. In conventional cactus blindness therapy (CCBT), CB sufferers are encouraged, with the aid of worksheets, photographs, and (when possible) actual cactus specimens, to describe plants in minute detail, with the aim of training the individual to notice the small distinctions between species. This is essentially the training of afflicted individuals to become cactus taxonomists, and while it has a high success rate (about 80% of subjects will become able to identify at least 100 cactus species with at least 70% accuracy), it also takes a considerable amount of time, and requires the assistance of a qualified trainer at all times. Consequently, it is very expensive, and CCBT-certified trainers may not be found in all areas, though cases are known of people who have taught themselves to overcome cactus blindness through informal CCBT-like methods.
The other treatment approach is known as wholistic cactus blindness therapy, or WCBT. WCBT de-emphasizes verbalization of the distinctions between species and instead focuses its efforts on the subconscious: subjects are presented, repeatedly, with randomized pairs of photos or specimens of cacti, and asked to identify whether they are the same species or different species. This, it is said, trains the mind to identify the relevant details which distinguish one species from another, without the tedious completion of worksheets as in CCBT. WCBT is also easily adapted to computer software, making it considerably more affordable and accessible than other therapies. Critics of WCBT point out that it does little to link the image of a particular cactus species to a species name, and is therefore not particularly useful in fostering cactus-related communication. Many WCBT trainers have responded to this charge by adding an additional four-week program to the end of a course of WCBT specifically for the purpose of linking names to the now-mentally-distinct species in the subject's mind.
Incremental cactus blindness therapy (ICBT), the newest of the CB therapies to gain acceptance, focuses on learning the distinguishing characteristics of only the most commonly-sold or -observed cacti, and those with the most distinctive appearances (e.g. Astrophytum myriostigma, which is fairly hard to confuse with anything else), slowly expanding the pool of one's knowledge only once the initial easy group have been mastered. Its largest advantage over the other methods is that it is more immediately useful than either CCBT or WCBT, enabling the subject to identify several commonly-encountered cactus species after the very first therapeutic session. ICBT is also somewhat adaptable to computer software and requires considerably less of a therapist than CCBT, making it less expensive and easily available. The main disadvantage of ICBT is that accidental exposure to unknown cactus species can result in the mental assignment of mistaken identities, which are frequently difficult to unlearn later on. ICBT also has a rather steep learning curve, which subjects often find discouraging, leading to a dropout rate more than double that of CCBT or WCBT.
To the best of my knowledge, the above therapies have not been attempted with other varieties of HLDs.
Personally, I'm working a combination of CCBT and ICBT, on my own, with only the internet to guide me, and if I manage to learn anything I'll let you know. Meanwhile, perhaps we should be looking for some available church basements, or setting up a dedicated CB blog, or something. Who's in?
UPDATE: Enormous thanks to Daiv Freeman, Peter Breslin, erin, and CelticRose, for their help and suggestions on the NOIDs in this post, and confirmations on the ones I thought I had right.
Totally skippable political correctness disclaimer and commentary:
I'm not trying to imply that actual learning disabilities aren't real or shouldn't be taken seriously. They of course are, and should. The targets of ridicule here are more the non-disabled people who patronizingly claim every little obstacle's defeat as being inspiring and courageous than for the people who actually have the disabilities, people who try to make unchosen conditions into something shameful, and my own very real difficulty in distinguishing cacti from one another.
Sometimes overcoming disability / adversity / tragedy actually is courageous, of course, but sometimes one never really gets a choice about whether or not to overcome, and in any case it's kind of a weird thing to take someone who has an unusual life situation and single them out as being even more unusual by waxing poetic about their courage and whatever.
As far as it goes, I also don't mean to suggest that the blind are more disabled than others, by using the word "blindness" as part of the term for my made-up condition. It seemed like a better metaphor than, say, deafness, because people generally look at cacti a lot more than they listen to them.
As I have alluded to before, I don't want PATSP to be accidentally offensive to anybody, of whatever age, gender identity, sexual orientation, degree of disability, country of origin or residence, race, mental illness, etc. I want as much of the offensiveness as possible to be on purpose. At the same time, pretty much any reference to certain of these topics is going to be offensive to somebody, however it's phrased, because minority communities don't ever necessarily agree unanimously on PC language, reclaiming slurs, etc. (There's not even total agreement on whether "the disabled" exist as a group, or, if they do, exactly who belongs in it.) So I figure my choices are to never mention these people at all, effectively "disappearing" minority groups into nonexistence, or mention and try to make clear that I'm doing the best I can not to piss people off through my own privilege as a white, able-bodied, cisgendered, American male. (I've been noticing lately that I tend to assume my readers are U.S. or Canadian residents, in a way which probably marginalizes readers from other countries, and have been trying to think of ways to make that happen less often.) I do actually try to think about these things. Sometimes I don't think hard enough.
If I have expressed myself in a particularly inelegant or ignorant way on the matter, please let me know.