Scars

I’ve spent a lot of time in trees.

When I grew up, there was no such thing as video games. In those days, we were lucky to have a colour TV and four channels, but watching it was a privilege. Instead, I would usually be outside, bare foot and naive, exploring the creek behind my house and the thin ribbon of bushland that guarded it, or climbing the tree in my backyard, or picking up sticks from the ground and using them as weapons so I could fight off pretend villains like the superheroes I aspired to.

Eventually I discovered cricket and learnt to ride my bike, which changed my outdoor pass times. If I wasn’t practising my cricket skills, I would ride for hours on the footpaths and bikeways that criss-crossed my neighbourhood. There were no bike helmets in those days, and still no shoes. It was an innocent time.

My adventurous spirit and lack of protective equipment invariably resulted in injuries. Once when playing with a stick in the front yard, I somehow managed to dig the sharp end into my right leg, gouging a chunk out of my lower thigh. A few years later when riding my bike, the handlebars of my BMX came loose and trapped my legs so I was unable to peddle. It also stopped me from using the footbrake and steering properly, and there was nowhere else for me to go except into a pole next to a low concrete bridge over the creek, and then over the handlebars and onto a causeway which was covered in large rocks and debris. Amongst the injuries sustained was a large graze to my elbow, which my teenage sister helped tend and dress for me. Unfortunately no one had taught her that the dressing needed to go cotton side up, not onto the wound. A few days later, the scab had to be torn off to remove the dressing.

Several decades later, I would also find myself being thrown off a bike, but this time after a man driving a 4-Wheel Drive didn’t notice that I was riding on the footpath and kept coming out of the driveway he was in. Thankfully this time I was wearing shoes and a helmet, though it still didn’t help much when face smacked into the bitumen after bouncing of his windscreen and sprawling five metres through the air. I wasn’t that beautiful to start with, so my bitumen face didn’t matter too much and the scars eventually healed. But three weeks later when I couldn’t move my arm properly, I suspected that there was something wrong and the MRI showed a fracture of the head of my left radius (bone near my elbow).

The common link in each of my war stories was the eventual outcome – scars. I’ve now got a collection of scars ranging from small to obvious, internal and external. Scars are an interesting though rarely considered part of our normal function. Our body faces assault in various forms all the time. Usually we’re able to stop infections before they take hold. Sometimes, an infection or injury will still get the better of us, but our body will be able to heal our tissues completely, fully restoring our function and appearance as if nothing ever happened. Sometimes, there’s just too much damage, and our body has to do the best it can. It has to fill in the gap left by the irreparable tissue to maximise the structure and function of that tissue. To do that, it uses a scar.

Microscopically, scar tissue is made up of collagen, a dense fibrous tissue that’s also found in tendons. When a breach in the tissue occurs, there are three distinct phases that are followed to create a scar: the inflammatory phase, the fibroplastic phase, and the remodelling phase. The boring, intricate scientific details don’t matter for this essay, but essentially the phases are needed for cleaning up the debris, laying the scaffolding, and reinforcing the scar.

What’s more interesting are some other characteristics of scars that we don’t often appreciate. Firstly, scars hurt. Ok, so that sounds obvious … it always hurts when the injury first happens. The inflammatory phase is the time that a wound hurts the most, but in physiological terms, this phase only lasts about 48 hours. As time goes on, the scar hurts less and less, and in most scars, the pain eventually goes away completely. However, there are a few scars that are still sensitive when touched, sometimes for years.

Some people have a tendency to form bigger scars than others. This is called keloid scarring, and is a process of excessive inflammation of the forming scar tissue which causes too much collagen to be laid down. Keloid scars can be large, itchy and painful. Keloid scarring is thought to have a genetic component to it.

Even if you’re lucky to avoid keloid scarring, scars are usually considered ugly and unwanted. Maybe it’s because they’re associated with pain, or they ruin our otherwise perfect skin. Either way, many people don’t like their scars.

Scars are also weaker than normal tissue, though not by much. By the time a wound has completely healed, the scar strength is about 98% of that of the normal tissue.

Sometimes we’re afraid of getting scars, probably for the same reasons I’ve described. Doing things that are risky might lead to getting hurt, and those scars are a permanent reminder of how we not only failed but also how we hurt ourselves in the process.

Although, I think we have the wrong ideas about scarring. Sure, sometimes scars can be ugly, or painful, or weak. But scars can also tell us a lot about ourselves if we’re willing to look past the superficial and see what they really represent.

Scars can show our bravery to others, remind us of our courage, help us learn from our mistakes, and remember our successes. They can enable empathy, and remind us of our vulnerability and our humanity. They prove that we’ve overcome adversity. Altogether, they tell us our history.

When I see my scars, I remember how I should be careful with sharp objects, or to dress wounds carefully, or to watch out for 4-Wheel Drives. The caesarean scar on my wife’s abdomen reminds me of the mix of fear and joy at the birth of my two children. My scars help me to remember what others are going through in their journey. They remind me that I’m not invincible. When I ask my patients about their scars, they often tell me of how they overcame desperate illness and survived.

At Easter time, we often focus on the power of the resurrection, and so we should. Through the resurrection, we have the opportunity to embrace eternal life with a loving God, who sacrificed his own son to give us that chance.

But one thing that always intrigued me about the Easter story was that after Jesus was resurrected, in his glorious new body, he still bore the scars of the crucifixion. John gives a clear account in the gospel of John 20:24-27, “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’”

Before I fully understood the significance of this verse, I had assumed that Jesus’s resurrected body was supernaturally perfect. He had just experienced the power of the resurrection after all. It sort of threw me when I realised that Jesus’s supernatural body was still scarred. And if scars are considered ugly, painful and weak, then it doesn’t seem to make sense.

I’ve come to realise that God knew exactly what he was doing. Those scars on Jesus’s hands, feet and side demonstrate that he gave up his deity to embrace humanity. They show his amazing sacrifice by taking our place on the cross. They prove that that he overcame the power of sin and death. They will remind us of his amazing love for us for the rest of eternity.

Yes, our scars seem ugly, painful and weak on the outside, but they are signs of our struggles, our strength, our victories – things that we have learnt from, and things that we can be proud of.

Scars aren’t a sign of weakness, but of our humanity. Scars are evidence that we’ve overcome adversity, that we are strong. Scars are a permanent reminder of the gift of God to man. Scars are nothing to be ashamed of.

Don’t look at your scars as a sign of weakness and shame, but instead, see your strengths through the story of your scars.

Bibliography

Gauglitz, G. G., Korting, H. C., Pavicic, T., Ruzicka, T., & Jeschke, M. G. (2011). Hypertrophic scarring and keloids: pathomechanisms and current and emerging treatment strategies. Mol Med, 17(1-2), 113-125. doi: 10.2119/molmed.2009.00153

Hardy, M. A. (1989). The biology of scar formation. Phys Ther, 69(12), 1014-1024.

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Dr Caroline Leaf – Scientific heresy

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Imagine that this Easter, the guest speaker at your church stands up from the pulpit and calmly mentions during the sermon that Jesus wasn’t really buried in a tomb, but was kept by his disciples in a house until he recovered enough from his wounds to go on his merry way.

What would you think of that speaker? Would you smile and nod, or even shout an ‘amen!’, buy their book, and encourage your pastor that they should be invited back again?

One would hope that there would be a polite but resounding outcry. Even if the rest of the message was perfect, you wouldn’t want someone to come back to your pulpit if they couldn’t get the basics of their subject right, even if they were considered a popular speaker or self-declared expert.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Dr Leaf preaches every day from both physical pulpits all over the globe, and a virtual pulpit through the power of Instagram and Facebook.

Dr Leaf used her position of social media prominence today to share this little jewel, “The brain cannot change itself; you, with your love power and sound mind, change your brain.”

Um … that’s not true … at all … in any way.

For a start, the most prolific period for brain development is actually pre-birth, and then the first year of life. But foetal brains don’t have their own thoughts. It’s not like the movie “Look Who’s Talking” inside the average uterus. The brain of an unborn baby is growing and changing at an exponential rate without any thoughts to guide them [1].

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Number of synapses per constant volume of tissue as a function of pre- and postnatal age. (Stiles, J. and Jernigan, T.L., The basics of brain development. Neuropsychol Rev, 2010. 20(4): 327-48 doi: 10.1007/s11065-010-9148-4)

 

In our adult years, our brain still continues to develop. But that development isn’t dependant on our thought life. Significant consolidation of our brain’s neural pathways occur when we’re asleep [2], but our thought life isn’t active during sleep.

Model of sleep stage-specific potentiation and homeostatic scaling. Gronli, J., et al., Sleep and protein synthesis-dependent synaptic plasticity: impacts of sleep loss and stress. Front Behav Neurosci, 2013. 7: 224 doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00224

Model of sleep stage-specific potentiation and homeostatic scaling. (Gronli, J., et al., Sleep and protein synthesis-dependent synaptic plasticity: impacts of sleep loss and stress. Front Behav Neurosci, 2013. 7: 224 doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00224)

Indeed, real cognitive neuroscientists have shown that our stream of thought is simply a tiny fraction of our overall neural activity, a conscious glimpse of the brains overall function [3-5]. So you don’t change your brain at all. “You” can’t, because it’s your brain’s directed activity which causes the growth of new synaptic branches to support it, all of which is subconscious.

Therefore, suggesting that our brain can only change with our conscious control is patently false, and so clearly against the most fundamental principles of neuroscience that such a claim is the neuroscientific equivalent of saying that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, he just swooned.

Dr Leaf has committed scientific heresy.

At this point, supporters of Dr Leaf often suggest that she wasn’t speaking literally, but metaphorically. She didn’t really mean that the brain can’t change itself, just that our choices are really important.

Somehow I doubt that. Dr Leaf wasn’t being metaphorical when she claimed that her patients in her research projects grew their intelligence when they “applied their minds”:
“Now with a traumatic brain injury, basically IQ generally goes down around twenty points because of the kind of damage with traumatic brain injury. Well her IQ was 100 before the accident, it was 120 after the accident. So here with holes in her brain, and brain damage, she changed … she actually increased her intelligence. Now I’m pretty convinced at this stage, cause I’ve been working … besides her I’ve been working with lots and lots of other patients, seeing the same thing, when these students applied their mind, their brain was changing, their academic results were changing.” [6]

Dr Leaf believes that your mind can literally change your brain. It was the subject of her entire TEDx talk in February.

It sounds innocent enough until you consider the broader implications of this way of thinking – those with brain damage haven’t recovered fully because they just haven’t applied their minds enough. The same for those with learning disabilities or autism, ADHD, Downs syndrome, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, or any other neurological disorder … because you only need to “apply your minds” to change your brain. “You have a powerful mind. You have a sound mind. You have a mind that is able to … to achieve what you’re dreams are. You are as intelligent as you want to be.” [6]

Or, in other words, don’t blame it on your brain if you’re intellectually disabled, mentally ill, or vacuous. You simply haven’t applied your brain well enough. Stop sitting around and think better.

As a church, we can, and should, be doing a lot better for those amongst us who suffer from neurological and mental disorders. It starts by being more judicious with who is allowed at that privileged position of the pulpit. We need to be eliminating scientific heresy from the pulpit, not clapping and shouting ‘amen!’

References

  1. Stiles, J. and Jernigan, T.L., The basics of brain development. Neuropsychol Rev, 2010. 20(4): 327-48 doi: 10.1007/s11065-010-9148-4
  2. Gronli, J., et al., Sleep and protein synthesis-dependent synaptic plasticity: impacts of sleep loss and stress. Front Behav Neurosci, 2013. 7: 224 doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00224
  3. Baars, B.J., Global workspace theory of consciousness: toward a cognitive neuroscience of human experience. Progress in brain research, 2005. 150: 45-53
  4. Baars, B.J. and Franklin, S., An architectural model of conscious and unconscious brain functions: Global Workspace Theory and IDA. Neural Netw, 2007. 20(9): 955-61 doi: 10.1016/j.neunet.2007.09.013
  5. Franklin, S., et al., Conceptual Commitments of the LIDA Model of Cognition. Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, 2013. 4(2): 1-22
  6. Leaf, C.M., Ridiculous | TEDx Oaks Christian School | 4 Feb 2015, 2015 TEDx, 20:03. https://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjhANyrKpv8