The power of trust

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go in a team.” ~ African Proverb

Melbourne … rain.  It’s so cliché, but here I am in Melbourne, staring out at the dismal misty greyness enveloping the city, displacing all warmth and joy.

Perhaps it was the dreariness combined with the light stupor that comes from being in a meeting all day, but as I was watching the incessant drizzling, I drifted into a contemplative trance, pondering the power of water.

By itself, one drop of water can do very little.  No one notices the effect of one drop of rain.  Though with more and more drops comes more and more change.  Wet ground grows puddles, then tiny rivulets, then streams of water which, when they combine, can form a raging torrent strong enough to change entire landscapes in a day.

And then I wondered, what allows something so individually weak to be so forceful en masse?  I don’t want to sound like a B-grade motivational speaker, but I think this is so important for any single person or organisation that wants to achieve anything of significance.

There are two properties that give a stream of water its power.
* A common direction
* A strong bond

As the sheer might of a violent surge so aptly demonstrates, there is immense power when small drops all combine to move together in one direction.  Yet the former property is only possible because of the latter.  Without the strong molecular bonds between them, water molecules would simply dissipate, along with all of their power.

So how can we apply this analogy to an organisation?  Well, if an organisation wants to be successful in achieving whatever plans it has, each part of that organisation needs to be moving together in the same direction.

Ok, that’s rather trite, but bear with me, because my cathartic discourse isn’t about the power of common direction, but about the bonds that confer the power to the forward momentum.

The molecular bond of any powerful organisation is trust.

Stephen Covey wrote that, “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

Peg Streep, writing in Psychology Today, wrote, “Trust is the foundation of all human connections, from chance encounters to friendships and intimate relationships. It governs all the interactions we have with each other. No one would drive a car or walk down a sidewalk, or board a train or an airplane, if we didn’t ‘trust’ that other people took their responsibilities seriously, and would obey whatever rules applied to the endeavour at hand. We trust that other drivers will stay in their lanes, that conductors and pilots will be sober and alert. And that people will generally do their best to discharge their obligations toward us. Culture, civilization, and community all depend on such trust.”

Trust means that we have confidence in the intentions and motives of others.  For example, patients trust doctors because they have confidence that the doctor knows what they’re doing and has the patient’s best interest at heart.  A recent meta-analysis showed that patients were more likely to have more beneficial health behaviours, less symptoms, higher satisfaction with treatment and a higher quality of life when they had higher trust in their doctor.  Trust enables positive progress.

Trust brings cohesiveness organizationally as well as socially.  If employees don’t trust each other or their managers then all sorts of problems start to arise: collaboration and communication stagnates, innovation ceases, employee engagement declines, productivity falls, and in general the workplace becomes unsuitable to be around.

Paul J. Zak is a neuroscientist that has studied the neuroscience and value of trust in the employees of Fortune 500 companies and in mountain tribesman.  His data shows that employees who feel trusted perform better at work, stay with employers longer, and are significantly more innovative.

In order to foster trust, organisations have to build confidence in the intentions and motives of others – between workers and managers and between the workers themselves.  When you have the confidence that your co-workers are going to pull their weight and do their jobs, it makes it easier to get on with yours.  When you know management aren’t going to make arbitrary, selfish or irrational decisions, it’s much easier to follow their lead.

So how do you build trust within a relationship or an organisation?  There are many ways to inspire confidence, but conflict resolution expert, Dr Aldo Civico suggests five different strategies:

  1. Trust generously – or in other words, trust first.
  2. Be patient and flexible. Trust is built over time.
  3. Be dependable and be reliable. Take your own words very seriously. Don’t make up excuses, take responsibility for mistakes.  Don’t be afraid to apologise.
  4. Be consistent.
  5. Be open and transparent in your communication. Don’t undermine or backstab.

The rain has stopped here, now it’s just cold!  I hope that you can grow trust in within your organisation so that you and your team can move forward with strength and purpose.

Bibliography

Streep, P., (2014) “The Trouble With Trust”, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tech-support/201403/the-trouble-trust

Birkhäuer J, Gaab J, Kossowsky J, Hasler S, Krummenacher P, et al. (2017) “Trust in the health care professional and health outcome: A meta-analysis”, PLOS ONE 12(2): e0170988. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0170988

Smallwood, A., (2017) “This neuroscientist says work culture can’t thrive without trust”, Collective Hub. https://collectivehub.com/2017/06/this-neuroscientist-says-work-culture-cant-thrive-without-trust/

Civico, A., (2014) “5 Strategies to Build Trust and Increase Confidence”, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/turning-point/201404/5-strategies-build-trust-and-increase-confidence

 

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Kintsukuroi Christians

When I was a kid growing up, there wasn’t much that my father couldn’t repair.

Dad was extremely gifted with his hands, a talent that I certainly didn’t inherit. He was able to take a problem, come up with a practical solution in his mind’s eye, then build it out of whatever scraps of wood, metal or plastic he could lay his hands on. It was the ultimate expression of frugality and recycling that comes from a limited income and four growing children.

Dad was also able to resurrect nearly everything that broke in our house. Plates, cups, teapots, toys, tools … it seemed there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed by the careful application of Araldite.

Araldite, for those unfamiliar with it, is some sort of epoxy resin that, in the right hands, possesses mystical properties of adhesion. It would stick anything to anything.

Dad’s gift for repairing things with Araldite meant that a lot of our things were patched up. Some of our most loved possessions were the most cracked. Despite being glued together several times, each item was still functional. Maybe not as pretty as it may have once been, but still useful, and more importantly, still treasured. Each time the Araldite came out, it taught me that whilst all things have the capacity to be broken, they also have the capacity for redemption.

There’s an ancient Japanese tradition that shares the same principles. For more than 400 years, the Japanese people have practiced kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi (pronounced ‘kint soo koo ree’) is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer, and the deep understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

The edges of the broken fragments are coated with the glue made from Japanese lacquer resin and are bonded back into place. The joints are rubbed with an adhesive until the surface is perfectly smooth again. After drying, more lacquer is applied. This process is repeated many times, and gold dust is also applied. In kintsukuroi, the gold lacquer accentuates the fracture lines, and the breakage is honoured as part of that piece’s history.
Mental illness is a mystery to most people, shrouded by mythology, stigma, gossip or Hollywood hype. It’s all around us, affecting a quarter of the population every year, but so often those with mental illness hide in plain sight. Mental illness doesn’t give you a limp, a lump, or a lag. It affects feelings and thoughts, our most latent personal inner world, the iceberg underneath the waters.

On the front line of medicine, I see people with mental health problems every day, but mental health problems don’t limit themselves to the doctor’s office. They’re spread throughout our everyday lives. If one in four people have a mental health problem of one form or another, then one in four Christians have a mental health problem of one form or another. If your church experience is anything like mine, you would shake hands with at least ten people from the front door to your seat. Statistically speaking, two or three of them will have a mental illness. Could you tell?

It’s a fair bet that most people wouldn’t know if someone in their church had a mental illness. Christians battling with mental illness learn to present a happy façade, or face the judgment if they don’t), so they either hide their inner pain, or just avoid church altogether.
Experiencing a mental illness also makes people feel permanently broken. They feel like they’re never going to be whole again, or good enough, or useful, or loved. They’re often treated that way by well-meaning but ill-informed church members whose idea’s and opinions on mental illness is out-of-date.

The truth is that Christians who have experienced mental ill-health are like a kintsukuroi pot.

Mental illness may break them, sure. But they don’t stay broken. The dark and difficult times, and their recovery from their illness is simply God putting lacquer on their broken pieces, putting them back together, and rubbing gold dust into their cracks.
We are all kintsukuroi Christians – we’re more beautiful and more honoured than we were before, because of our brokenness, and our recovery.

I’m pleased to announce that my book, Kintsukuroi Christians, is now available. I’ve written this book to try and bring together the best of the medical and spiritual.
Unfortunately, good scientific information often bypasses the church. The church is typically misled by Christian ‘experts’ that preach a view of mental health based on a skewed or outdated understanding of mental illness and cognitive neuroscience. I want to present a guide to mental illness and recovery that’s easy for Christians to digest, adopting the best spiritual AND scientific perspective.

In the book, I look at some scientific basics. Our mental world is based on the physical world. Our mind is a function of the brain, just like breathing is a function of our lungs. Just as we can’t properly understand our breathing without understanding our lungs, so it is that if we’re going to understand our thinking and our minds, we are going to have to understand the way our brain works. So the first part of this book will be an unpacking of the neurobiology of thought.

We’ll also look at what promotes good mental health. Then we’ll look at what causes mental illness, specifically looking at the most common mental health disorders. I will only look at some of the most common disorders to demonstrate some general principles of psychiatric illnesses and treatments. This book won’t be an encyclopaedia, and it doesn’t need to be. I hope to provide a framework so that common and uncommon mental health disorders can be better understood. I also discuss suicide, which is sadly more common than most people realise, and is rarely discussed.

I know mental illness is difficult, and we often look at ourselves or others as though the brokenness is abhorrent, ugly and deforming.
My hope is that through Kintsukuroi Christians, you’ll see the broken pieces are mended with gold, and realise that having or recovering from a mental illness doesn’t render someone useless or broken, but that God turns our mental brokenness into beauty.

Kintsukuroi Christians is available to purchase from good Christian bookstores around the world including:

Kooyong = https://www.koorong.com/search/product/kintsukuroi-christians-christopher-pitt/9780994596895.jhtml

Amazon US = https://www.amazon.com/Kintsukuroi-Christians-TURNING-MENTAL-BROKENNESS/dp/0994596898/

Amazon UK = https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kintsukuroi-Christians-TURNING-MENTAL-BROKENNESS/dp/0994596898/

Smashwords = https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/720425

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Mental illness can be challenging. Sometimes learning about mental illness can bring up difficult feelings or emotions, either things that you’ve been through yourself, or because you develop a better understanding of what a loved one is going through or has been through. Sometimes old issues that have been suppressed or not properly dealt with can bubble up to the surface. If at any point you feel distressed, I strongly encourage you to talk to your local doctor, psychologist, or pastor. If the feelings are so overwhelming that you need to talk to someone quickly, then please don’t delay, but reach out to a crisis service in your country

In Australia
Lifeline 13 11 14, or
BeyondBlue
Call 1300 22 4636
Daily web chat (between 3pm–12am) and email (with a response provided within 24 hours)  https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us.

USA = National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

New Zealand = Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline 0800 543 354

UK = Samaritans (24 hour help line) 116 123

For other countries, Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Mental Monopoly Myth

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What’s more important to a person’s health and well being?

Is it their physical attributes – their genes, their fitness, their diet? Is it their psychological state – their mind, their emotional balance? Is it their social context – how they relate and contribute to the communities that they’re a part of? Or is it their spirituality – the depth of their connections to faith and the supernatural?

According to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, it’s the mind that dominates. This is a common theme of her books [1: especially chapter 1] and her social media memes.

Take today’s gem: “Mind action is the predominant element in well being and mental health.”

In other words, it doesn’t really matter what your genes are, where you were born or the depth of your acceptance in your community. It doesn’t matter whether you have a deep faith either. The psychological dominates the physical, the social and the spiritual. As she said in her books,

“Thoughts influence every decision, word, action and physical reaction we make.” [2: p13]
“Our mind is designed to control the body, of which the brain is a part, not the other way around. Matter does not control us; we control matter through our thinking and choosing.” [1: p33]
“Research shows that 75 to 98 percent of mental, physical, and behavioural illness comes from ones thought life.” [1: p33]

Dr Leaf’s philosophy of our wellbeing can be pictured like a pyramid, with our ‘mind action’ (read, ‘choices’) dominating every other facet of our lives.

Leaf Mental Monopoly Model

The problem with this philosophy is that it doesn’t fit with science, scripture, or even common sense.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognise that Dr Leaf’s assertion doesn’t fit with every day experience. Where you were born and raised, and where you live, significantly impact a persons overall wellbeing, independent of their thoughts and choices.

Does Dr Leaf honestly believe that the wellbeing of a ten year old boy living in rural Sedan, with no access to running water and sewerage systems, living on a subsistence diet and drinking contaminated water from the only well in his village, has the same wellbeing as a ten year old in rural Ohio, who has access to clean water, plentiful food, and an education?

Does Dr Leaf think that the wellbeing of a pregnant woman in Afghanistan, with poor nutrition and limited access to meaningful antenatal care or a trained midwife to deliver her baby, is the same as the wellbeing of a pregnant woman in London, who has access to fresh food, vitamin supplements, GP’s, midwives, and specialist obstetricians in big city hospitals?

These are just two simple examples which demonstrate that the action of your mind has very little to do with your overall wellbeing.

But if you want to be more scientific about it, then look no further than the biopsychosocial model. Modern health professionals moved beyond the idea that only one facet of human existence was responsible for all of your wellbeing way back in the 1980’s. The biopsychosocial model proposes that the overall health of a person was equally dependent not just on the physical, but was part of a broader system of the medical, mental and the social [3]. The model recognised that a person’s overall wellbeing was made worse by social disadvantage as well as physical illness or poor coping skills, and so often, the physical, social and psychological would affect each other in loops – physical illness would often reduce a persons ability to mentally cope, which strained their social connections, making them lonely and reduced the care given to them, which then made them sicker.

Most Christian would recognise that one element is still missing, which is the spiritual. Our faith is a realm beyond rational thinking, and isn’t fairly grouped with the mental, although they are both housed in our brain. Still, faith influences our social interactions, our psychology, and our physical health, as much as each mutually influences our faith.

Putting it altogether, we don’t have a pyramid, but a collection of ponds. Our mind action does not dominate our health and our wellbeing, but is simply one part of a much larger whole, with our health and wellbeing at the centre.

Biopsychosocial spiritual coloured

It’s interesting that a woman with as much influence amongst the western Christian church as Dr Leaf would suggest that the mind is more influential to our wellbeing than our faith. This makes her teaching seem more humanist than holy, more secular than spiritual. It may invite questions about the deepest influences of her ministry – is it humanistic philosophy with a garnish of scripture, or does the Bible really promote thinking over faith? Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to examine the evidence for themselves and make up their own mind.

Irrespective of Dr Leaf’s philosophical foundations, I’d suggest that her hypothesis of the mental monopoly falls down at the level of common sense and good science. Medical science moved beyond the idea of the single dominant facet of humanity more than three decades ago.

It’s time for Dr Leaf to do the same.

References

[1]        Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
[2]        Leaf C. Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. Southlake, TX, USA: Inprov, Ltd, 2009.
[3]        Borrell-Carrio F, Suchman AL, Epstein RM. The biopsychosocial model 25 years later: principles, practice, and scientific inquiry. Ann Fam Med 2004 Nov-Dec;2(6):576-82.

Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 2. Be Kind – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health.  Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

2. Be kind

One of the best things you can do for your health and happiness is to be kind to other people. In their review of studies on altruism, Lozada et al (2011) showed that altruism activates rewarding neural networks, essentially the same brain regions as those activated when receiving rewards or experiencing pleasure. They also described studies showing that both hormones and the neurotransmitters in the brain involved in helping behaviour and social bonding can lessen stress levels and anxiety. Also, the immune and autonomous nervous systems are positively affected by the quality and extent of social networks, and increased sociability and concern for others’ wellbeing can improve immune system and stress responses [1].

The Bible has always encouraged us to show other people kindness. In Ephesians 4:31-32, Paul tells the church at Ephesus, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

And that kindness wasn’t just for other people in the church, but to anyone in need (Matthew 25:34-40).

There are infinite ways to show kindness, but the thing that links them together is unselfishness, the “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”, or in less formal language, simply giving with no strings attached.

If you’re looking for some ideas on some new ways to show kindness, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has plenty of them. Check out https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-ideas

References

[1]        Lozada M, D’Adamo P, Fuentes MA. Beneficial effects of human altruism. Journal of theoretical biology 2011 Nov 21;289:12-6.

Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 1. Temet Nosce – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

1. Temet nosce – “Know thyself”

Generally speaking, there are two ways that a person can live their lives, as a boat or as a buoy – those who set out to find life or to let life find them.

Some people are quite content to be buoys – to stay in the same place and let the social currents and tides bring different elements to them. They’re more passive in their approach, content to just accept that life will just come and go as it will.

Then there are those who don’t want to stay in the one place, but want to chart their own course, discover what life is for themselves. Whose to say what’s best for each individual person? We all have our own choices to make.

For those people who are boats, who want to set their course and discover life, it helps a lot in the journey to know where you’re going.

This may seem obvious enough. In fact, it seems too obvious – we often think we know where we’re going when in reality, we haven’t a clue where we really want to go or how to get there.

For starters, it helps to know where you want to go. Some of us are gifted with an amazing confidence, self-assurance and motivation, and have the ten year plan all mapped out, but those people are the minority. It’s fine if we don’t know where exactly we want to go, but what would help every since person is to at least know the direction you wish to sail in, which are our values.

The word ‘values’ can mean different things to different people, but in the Acceptance and Commitment framework, values refer to “Leading principles that can guide us and motivate us as we move through life”, “Our heart’s deepest desires: how we want to be, what we want to stand for and how we want to relate to the world around us.” [1] Values help define us, and living by our values is an ongoing process that never really reaches an end. Living according to your values is like sailing due west. No matter how far you travel, there is always further west you can go. While travelling west, there will be stops a long the way, stop-overs along our direction of travel like islands or reefs. These are like our goals in life.

The difference between goals and values is important. You could set yourself a whole list of different goals, and achieve every one of them, but not necessarily find meaning or fulfilment in their accomplishment if they’re all against the underlying values that you have. So goals are empty and unfulfilling if they aren’t undergirded by your deeper values.

How can you understand your values? There are a couple of ways. Ask yourself: “What do I find myself really passionate about? What things irk me? If I could do anything I wanted, and money was no object, what would I do?” Is there a recurrent theme running through your answers? I have always found myself irritated by mass-marketing, and more recently by disingenuous social media memes and unscientific health messages. The theme – ‘truth’. I know, it sounds a bit trite, like some second-rate comic book hero, but I’ve mulled over this a lot, and for me, ‘truth’ is one of my deepest values.

There are other ways to discover what your values are. Some people have suggested writing your own eulogy (the speech someone gives about you at your funeral). It sounds a bit morbid, and it’s only a figurative exercise, but it tends to sharply clarify what you want your life to be like. What do you want your legacy to be? Think about the things that you want to be known for at the end of your life, and see if there is a word that best describes those desires.

If that’s a bit too confronting, there are some on-line tools that can also give you an idea. There is only so much a long list of questions can discover about you, but results of the survey can provide a starting point for further thought. There is a couple of free resources that may be helpful (though you will have to register):
* https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu – and click on the drop-down menu in the “Questionnaires” section, and select “Brief strengths test”
* http://www.viacharacter.org/Survey/Account/Register

One final note on the buoys and the boats – whether you’re a buoy or a boat, you’re still going to encounter large waves, strong currents, and wild storms, as well as peaceful weather. As a buoy, those adverse conditions will simply find you where you are. You can’t escape from them. You’re also going to experience those same large waves, strong currents and wild storms as a boat. The difference is that buoys have no choice but to ride out the adverse conditions. Boats, on the other hand, can use the power of the difficult circumstances to power them to their destinations if they can harness them correctly. Boats can’t outrun bad weather all the time. Adversity is inevitable. Happiness, contentment, enlightenment, or whatever you’re seeking, isn’t found in avoiding or controlling our adverse circumstances, but about learning how to follow our values in the midst of the calm weather or the wild.

As Christians, one of our primary values is our love for God and our desire to follow Jesus. Scripture teaches that each of us has our own unique path to follow. Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” ‘Workmanship’ in the Greek is ‘poiema’ from which we get our English word ‘poem’. We are not a meaningless jumble of letters that makes no sense. We are a beautifully crafted blend of rhythm, harmony and meaning. You are a sonnet from the mouth of God. I believe that our individual purpose stems from our common purpose and values, like leaves are dependant on the branches, trunk and roots of the tree. I heard a brilliant summary of the purpose of the Christian life, which was simply “To know Christ, and to make Christ known.” I believe that it’s from this common value, shared by all Christians, that our direction in life stems from.

In knowing our values, we can know ourselves, and engage in life in it’s fullness.

References

[1]        Harris R. The happiness trap : how to stop struggling and start living. Boston: Trumpeter, 2008.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the matter of mind over genes

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I think I might have to throw away my genetics textbook.

I was always taught that genes were the main driver behind health and disease, and I always thought it was a pretty good theory.

But not according to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, who said on her social media feeds today, “Our health is not controlled by genetics – our health is controlled by our mind.”

Taking her statement at face value, she appears to be saying that genes have nothing to do with our health. Dr Leaf has made some asinine statements in the past, but to suggest that genes are irrelevant to human health seemed so stupid that no one in their right mind would suggest such a thing.

Perhaps I was taking her statement the wrong way? I wanted to make sure I didn’t jump to any rash conclusions about Dr Leaf’s statement, so I pondered it at length. Could she be referring to ‘control’ in the absolute sense? How much control do genes have on our health? What about the mind?

After deliberating for a while, I still came to the conclusion that Dr Leaf’s statement was nonsense.

Unfortunately, Dr Leaf’s statement is, like so many of her previous Facebook memes, so vague as to be misleading. The meaning of ‘health’ and ‘controlled’ could be taken so many ways … which part of our health? How much regulation constitutes ‘control’? What about genetics?

Looking at her statement in more depth, it becomes clear that no matter which way Dr Leaf meant it, it’s still wrong. For example, all of human health is controlled, in part, by genetics. That’s because life itself is controlled by genetics. The human genome provides a blueprint for the construction of all of the proteins in all of the cells in our entire body. The expression of those genes determines exactly how our body will run. If the genes are wrong, if the translation of the gene code into a protein is wrong, or if too much or too little of a protein is made, all determines whether our body is functioning at its optimum level or not.

The stimulus for the expression of our genes is influenced by the environment in which we live. If I go out into the sun a lot, the UV light triggers my skin cells to make the protein melanin, which makes my skin go darker and helps to provide some protection against the damaging effects of the UV light.

While the environment plays a part of the expression of some genes, it’s wrong to say that genetics doesn’t control the process. If I go into the sun too much, I risk developing a melanoma, because the sun damages the genes in some of my skin cells, causing them to grow without control.

Genes are still responsible for the disease itself. Sometimes the trigger is from the environment, sometimes it’s not. There are some people with genes for melanoma who don’t need an environmental trigger, because they develop melanoma on skin that’s exposed to very little UV light, like the genital skin.

So fundamentally, even taking the environment into account, our health is controlled by our genetics.

The other part of Dr Leaf’s meme is also wrong. Our health is not controlled by our mind. Our genes are influenced by “the environment”, which according to the seminal paper by Ottman, “The environmental risk factor can be an exposure, either physical (e.g., radiation, temperature), chemical (e.g., polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), or biological (e.g., a virus); a behavior pattern (e.g., late age at first pregnancy); or a “life event” (e.g., job loss, injury). This is not intended as an exhaustive taxonomy of risk factors, but indicates as broad a definition as possible of environmental exposures.” [1]

Even if one considers the mind as part of the sub classification of “a behavior pattern”, it’s still pretty clear that most of the factors that make up our environment are not related to our mind at all but are related to the external world, of which we have minimal or no control over. Sure, we make choices, but our choices aren’t truly free. They’re constrained by the environment in which we find ourselves. In the same way, our mind may have some tiny influence on our health, but only insofar as our environment and our genes will allow.

When it all boils down, this meme of Dr Leaf’s is rested on her foundational presumption that our mind can control matter, a very strong theme throughout her most recent book [2], but which is still preposterous. Our thoughts are simply a function of our brain, which is in turn determined by the function of our nerve cells, which is in turn a function of our genes and their expression.

Our mind doesn’t control matter. Matter controls our mind.

I can keep my genetics textbooks after all.

References

  1. Ottman, R., Gene-environment interaction: definitions and study designs. Prev Med, 1996. 25(6): 764-70 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8936580
  2. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:

‘Vagina’, and other ‘offensive’ medical terms

Back in my university days, I emceed a 21st birthday party for a friend of mine. One of the games I got everyone to play was the peg game.

The premise is simple enough. Everyone gets a clothes peg at the beginning of the party, and whoever had the most pegs at the end of the party was declared the winner. In order to get other people’s pegs, you had to catch them saying certain words that I arbitrarily chose to be forbidden. The words I banned just happened to be “Happy”, “Birthday” and “Craig”, the name of the party boy. It made singing “Happy Birthday” at the end of the night more challenging, but everyone still had a great time.

The peg game on a cultural scale is the modern scourge of political correctness. Terms like ‘manhole’ are replaced by ‘personal access units’ to avoid upsetting women, while ‘baba black sheep’ has been changed to ‘baba rainbow sheep’ in some schools, in case the nursery rhythm could be deemed racist. Meanwhile, ‘brainstorming’ is unacceptable because it may offend epileptics.

Proving that the centuries-old terminology of medicine is not immune from the PC plague, the Journal of Sexual Medicine has published an article in which the authors declare that the term ‘vulvovaginal atrophy’ should no longer be used because the word ‘vagina’ is not publicly acceptable [1].

Perhaps I’m just old and inflexible now, but to me this smacks of puerility and paternalism (sorry … authoritarianism, just in case I offended fathers). Lets face it, lots of medical terms have stigma attached to them, or are in some way publicly unacceptable. Lets rename herpes for a start … how about ‘Blistering of the Reproductive Parts’ or BoRP for short, unless someone is offended by the term ‘reproductive’. Maybe, ‘Blistering of ones bits’ … damn it, that’s shortened to BooB, which is an offensive reference to mammary glands. ‘Blistering of bits’ … but then that’s shortened to BoB which is offensive to people named Robert. I guess we’re stuck with ‘herpes’ then. In the end, it doesn’t matter what term you use, because the connotation or stigma is in the meaning of the word, not the word itself.

And how childish is it to be offended by the word ‘vagina’ in the first place. Half the planet has one for goodness sake. Refer to it by any other word, and no one cares. Va-jay-jay, flower, pussy, muffin, her ‘Downton Abbey’ … there are too many euphemisms to list. To me, they all sound like they belong in either the playground of a kindergarten, or a high school boys locker room (depending on the term, of course). And yet somehow the neutral, anatomical term is apparently less acceptable.

What really worries me is the example this sets for our children. I went to great pains to teach my children the anatomically correct words for their body parts from an early age, and answer their questions about their ‘private parts’ openly without embarrassment. Why? Not just because I’m a doctor, but because they’ll grow up to view their bodies as normal and natural, not shameful or taboo. This is beneficial for their health and for protection from child-sex predators. From The Atlantic magazine, “Teaching children anatomically correct terms, age-appropriately, says Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process.” [2]

What sort of example does it set when, as has happened in the US, a biology teacher was suspended because he said ‘vagina’ in class, or a Michigan State politician was removed from their parliament because she said ‘vagina’ on the floor of the chamber? What sort of example does it set when major medical journals are advocating that neutral, anatomical words are considered offensive? A poor one, I’d wager. All it achieves is to further stigmatise our bodies while impeding good communication, “reinforcing the culture of secrets and silence perpetrators rely on for cover.”

Rather than stop using the word, we just need to get over it. I’m not suggesting that we go around yelling ‘vagina’ at the top of our lungs, or gratuitously slip it into conversation at every opportunity. Lets be mature adults instead. Lets talk about any parts of our body in an appropriate context, without shame or condemnation. That’s how we protect our most vulnerable, and live in a truly progressive society.

References

  1. Portman, D.J., et al., Genitourinary Syndrome of Menopause: New Terminology for Vulvovaginal Atrophy from the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health and The North American Menopause Society. J Sex Med, 2014 doi: 10.1111/jsm.12686
  2. Buni, C., The Case for Teaching Kids ‘Vagina,’ ‘Penis,’ and ‘Vulva’. The Atlantic, 2013, Atlantic Monthly Group, Washington USA