Kintsukuroi Christmas

Have you ever opened a Christmas present to find it wasn’t quite what you expected?

I confess, I hate Secret Santa. I’ve been scarred more than once. One time a group of my friends decided it would be good to do a Secret Santa. I spend an hour or two making sure that I found a present for my secret santa that was good quality, something small but meaningful. After all, no one wants to get some dud present. In the end I bought this person a small sampler of some good quality chocolates – something discreet, tasteful and universally enjoyed.

In return, I got a tin of cat food … and not even good quality cat food, but the cheapest generic cat food from the worst supermarket chain.

Stunned, I remember stammering, “But … I don’t have a cat …” (For the record, my friends were very unsympathetic and thought it was extremely hilarious).

Another time for a workplace Secret Santa, I had to buy for one of my receptionists. Again, I thought about something that would be discreet, tasteful and universally enjoyed, and I tracked down a small gift box from the Body Shop.

In return, I got batteries, and again, not good batteries, but the cheap variety that have lost half their charge before you even take them from the packet. To rub salt into that particular wound, my secret santa revealed himself as one of the other doctors in the practice, who proudly said, “You’ve got kids, so I thought batteries would be a great present for all of the toys they’re going to get.”

Dude, I’ve got Asperger’s, and even I know that was a sucky present! So, uh, thanks?

Ever since the first Christmas more than two thousand years ago, Christmas is a time of giving gifts. In the description of the first Christmas in the Bible, the three magi (or wise men) brought the baby Jesus three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Interestingly, history suggests that these gifts were extraordinarily precious which in ancient times made them standard gifts to honour a king or deity. Gold as we know is a precious metal. Frankincense was used as perfume or incense and myrrh was used as an anointing oil. These same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E.

Christmas presents have come a long way since then, and even more so in the last century. My father was born in a poor part of northern England at the end of the great depression, the youngest child of a family of ten children. He would tell me of his Christmases growing up and how his brothers and sisters looked forward to getting an apple, an orange and some nuts in their Christmas stockings. When I was a pre-teen in the 80’s, I got books and clothes, cricket gear and matchbox cars (hey, they were cool back in the day). This Christmas, all my tween and teen children want is electronic consoles (my son has his heart set on a Wii Switch). I don’t dare think what my grandchildren will be asking for at Christmas time in twenty or thirty years’ time.

Whether you get presents fit for a king or you end up with the booby prize of generic cat food, we at least expect our presents to work. No one wants a broken present after all. So imagine if when you opened your Christmas present, it was cracked, or chipped, or broken. What would you do? Would you keep it, or hope that the person who gave it to you kept the receipt?

There’s an ancient Japanese tradition that would not only keep things which were broken, in repairing them, would make them even more precious. 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 a 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.

In the practice of kintsukuroi, we see the principle that whilst all things have the capacity to be broken, they also have the capacity for redemption.

Sometimes I feel very, very broken … hopeless, useless, like I’m just a broken present. Sometimes I wish I could be returned, but I didn’t come with a receipt and sometimes I feel like no one would want me back anyway. Sometimes I feel like I’m good for nothing but the scrapheap.

Whether it’s mental illness, family stress, financial hardship or just the daily grind wearing us down, we can all find ourselves feeling a bit broken at times.

Christmas reminds us of the gift of redemption. Jesus’ life was one of fixing that which was broken, of giving people a second chance. The gospels tell story after story of how Jesus helped people back on to their feet; forgiving, healing and restoring hope. Even his life before his ministry was that of a carpenter, creating new things and fixing that which was broken.

It’s easy to feel broken in this broken world, but remember, whilst all things have the capacity to be broken, they also have the capacity for redemption. No one is beyond repair. Like objects fixed with kintsukuroi, being broken isn’t the end, but we can become even better – more beautiful and more honoured for having been broken.

I hope that this Christmas, you can find hope and redemption, and that you get some good gifts worthy of a king, not worthy of a cat.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone. See you in 2019.

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The lost art of joy – The freedom of now

How do drive your car?

We all have our own particular styles – cautious, sedate, zippy, or kamikazi. There are some drivers that drive like a tortoise on tranquillisers. I always seem to get stuck behind them at traffic lights. I would describe my driving style as ‘confident’, though when I quickly nip around them at the lights, I’m sure they would think I’m in too much of a hurry.

Whether we’re on a perpetual Sunday drive or we go like a bat out of hell, there are some commonalities to how we all drive. No one drives the whole journey looking in the rearview mirror and no one crawls along in first gear all the way just in case there might be a red light or a stop sign up ahead. When we’re in control of our car, we drive according to the conditions around us at the time.

In the first two posts of this series, we looked at acceptance and values, or as the Serenity Prayer says, “give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Acceptance and values intersect in the present moment, the ‘now’.

We can’t change what has happened in the past, and we can’t control what is going to happen in our future. We can advance in the direction set by our values and embrace the freedom of living in the now.

Living in the now is just like driving. There’s no point looking in the rearview mirror the whole way. We can’t change the past. Getting lost in the if-only’s of the past means we don’t get to experience what is going on around us, and it effectively stops us moving forward because we’re looking the wrong way. We become stagnant and the lack of lack of forward progress makes it hard for joy to flourish. Neither can we control the future. Sometimes we allow the what-if’s of the inherently uncertain future to slow our progress and hold us back. We don’t know what’s around the bend, and after a while we prefer the familiarity of our rut.

When we move beyond the past and leave the future to our destiny, we can focus on the richness of the present moment. Living in the present moment is both liberating and invigorating – we are no longer being held captive by what has been or what might be, and we can allow our attention to absorb all of the plentiful and pleasing details that are going on all around us, every moment of our lives.

Living in the now is part of the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a skill, and like every other skill, it takes some practice to get good at it. But the practice is worth it, as mindfulness is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, agreeableness, conscientiousness, vitality, self esteem, empathy, sense of autonomy, competence, optimism, and pleasant affect.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but if you’re a novice, then a good place to start is through some apps like Smiling Mind or Headspace.  As you get better at living in the present moment, you will start to enjoy the richness and freedom that comes with it. If you start now, you won’t have to live haunted by the ghosts of Christmas-Past or Christmas-Future, but can have a marry and a mindful Christmas, living in the freedom of now.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Mixed Message Memes

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If you were talking to your doctor, and she said, “Smoking is bad for you”, while lighting a cigarette for herself, would you be confused? Bit of a mixed message, don’t you think?

When I got back to Facebook last night, I found this interesting post from Dr Leaf: “If you have just spoken or done something … It means you have the physical root thought in your brain.” Perhaps not interesting in an I-never-knew-that sort of way … more interesting in a yet-another-mixed-message sort of way.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and a self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist. She has a habit of posting fluffy pseudoscientific memes to her social media feeds, which sound plausible at face value, but look a little closer, and they crumble like a sand castle at high tide.

Her current post is actually a bit sturdier than usual. We do use information we’ve learned to guide our ultimate behaviour, which include our words and our actions. But that’s not the whole story.

Our brain is an amazing organ. It processes a torrent of incoming information, compares it to previous experience stored in memory, and then delivers real-time instructions to the rest of the body, whilst updating the memory systems with the new information received. However, the brain also has a limited amount of energy that it can utilise – the brain only runs on about 40 watts of power [1: p7] (the same as a low power light bulb). In order to use this limited energy efficiently, the brain automates certain actions, like skills or habits, while retaining the flexibility to handle situations or to perform different actions than the skills or habits that we have developed.

The brain achieves this feat of brilliance by having a number of different types of memory [2] – procedural memory, priming, classical conditioning and non-associative learning make up implicit memory (memory not available to conscious awareness). Declarative memory is the fifth type of memory, which has two sub-components: episodic memory, which is the recallable memory of specific events (that you had coffee and eggs for breakfast), which itself is heavily dependent on semantic memory, the recallable memory for concepts (the abstract concepts of coffee, eggs, and breakfast) [3].

The storage of memories within declarative memory is also done piecemeal, by breaking down the information stored into chunks. Byrne notes, “We like to think that memory is similar to taking a photograph and placing that photograph into a filing cabinet drawer to be withdrawn later (recalled) as the ‘memory’ exactly the way it was placed there originally (stored). But memory is more like taking a picture and tearing it up into small pieces and putting the pieces in different drawers. The memory is then recalled by reconstructing the memory from the individual fragments of the memory.” [4] Retrieving the original memory is an inaccurate process, because sometimes pieces of the memory are lost, faded or mixed up with another [5]. What the memory systems lose in accuracy of recall is more than made up for by the flexibility of the information stored in memory to plan current action, and to imagine possible future scenarios.

Each time the brain decides on an action, it subconsciously performs five different steps to determine the best action to take, although the best way to consider the process is simply to say that “voluntary” action is a flexible and intelligent interaction with the subject’s current and historical context (present situation and past experience) [6].

In a new situation, the brain takes the information from the senses (sight, hearing etc) and compares it with the necessary pieces of information recalled from memory, including previous actions taken in similar situations and their outcome. It then decides on the best course of action, plans what to move, when to move, how to move, and then performs one more final check before proceeding. If the situation is familiar, and the brain has a previous script to follow, like a skill or a habit, it will perform those actions preferentially because it’s more efficient in terms of brain energy used, but if there is no previous script, the brain will plan a novel set of actions appropriate to the situation.

The best example of this is driving a car. I learnt to drive in my parents’ 1970-something, 4-to-the-floor Chrysler Galant. The skills required to handle a manual transmission car with an old clutch was challenging to learn, but once those skills were mastered and road rules learnt, I could drive successfully. But I didn’t need to learn evasive maneuvers. When confronted with an emergency situation for the first time, my brain moved my body very quickly to control the car in ways I’d not practiced, before my conscious mind had a chance to process the incident. So my brain used skills I had learnt in ways that I had not learnt, independent of my conscious will.

Dr Leaf’s underlying assumption is that we are in full control of our thoughts and actions. Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, neuroscience proves that predictable brain activity occurs several seconds before a person is aware of their intention to act [7, 8], which runs counter to her presupposition. To try and patch the enormous hole in her argument, she contends that the brain activity that occurs before we are consciously aware of our intentions is just our non-conscious brain accessing our stored, previously conscious thoughts (see also [9], page 42). The implication is that anything you do is still a choice that you made in either the present, or your past. As she said in the Facebook post, “Everything you say and do is first a thought that you have built in your brain.”

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, cognitive neuroscience disproves her folk-science. It’s way oversimplified to suggest that everything we do is based on our thought life. There are many chunks of our memory that don’t come from a willful, conscious input of information (acquired fear is one example). And the brain can use chunks of memory, often from memory systems not accessible by our conscious awareness, to produce complex actions that are completely new, without needing our conscious input.

Even though cognitive neuroscience disproves her meme, which is embarrassing enough for a woman who calls herself a cognitive neuroscientist, the bigger problem for this meme is that Dr Leaf is again contradicting herself.

About a month ago, Dr Leaf published on her social media feeds, “Don’t blame your physical brain for your decisions and actions. You control your brain!” Now she says that your words and actions are the result of a hardwired “physical root thought”, so your decisions and actions ARE the result of your physical brain. Which is it Dr Leaf? For the sake of her followers, her clarification would be welcome. After all, the more she contradicts herself, the more doubt she casts over the validity of the rest of her writing and teaching. Is she accurately interpreting research, and drawing valid conclusions? Dr Leaf is welcome to comment.

But one thing’s for sure; her mixed message memes are certainly not doing her any favours.

References

  1. Berns, G., Iconoclast : a neuroscientist reveals how to think differently. 2008, Harvard Business School Press, Boston:
  2. Squire, L.R. and Zola, S.M., Structure and function of declarative and nondeclarative memory systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1996. 93(24): 13515-22 http://www.pnas.org/content/93/24/13515.abstract
  3. Binder, J.R. and Desai, R.H., The neurobiology of semantic memory. Trends Cogn Sci, 2011. 15(11): 527-36 doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.10.001
  4. Byrne, J.H. Learning and Memory (Section 4, Chapter 7). Neuroscience Online – an electronic textbook for the neurosciences 2013 [cited 2014, Jan 3]; Available from: http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter07.html.
  5. Bonn, G.B., Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Front Psychol, 2013. 4: 920 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00920
  6. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497
  7. Libet, B., et al., Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 1983. 106 (Pt 3): 623-42 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6640273
  8. Soon, C.S., et al., Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nat Neurosci, 2008. 11(5): 543-5 doi: 10.1038/nn.2112
  9. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:

(PS: And happy Independence Day, USA! #4thofjuly )