When it comes to human experiences, is ‘following the science’ always the right way to act?

For just over a year now, the world has been focused on ‘following the science’. And no doubt rightly so in many instances. Science is brilliant, in too many ways to list here. But… when it comes to human experience, its tools are often blunt, clunky or inadequate.

Sometimes, science lags behind human instinct or common sense. Sometimes, its microscopic focus loses sight of the macroscopic whole. Objective rationale overrides simple solutions seen by subjective understanding. Symptoms may be treated in isolation rather than as part of a highly intelligent organism. Other times, a phenomenon is too mind-boggling to be explained by logical process; love, death, black holes… That’s where art or religion, with their different toolset, have a go with varying degrees of success.

My recent TEDx talk – you can watch it here if you haven’t seen it yet – presents my experience of the transgenerational transmission of trauma or guilt. It’s an example of subjective experience gradually making its way to objective explanation. It is not a new idea. Way back, in Exodus Chapter 20, the bible talked of “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.” In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Launcelot says, “Yes, truly; for, look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” And over the past fifty years or so, symptoms of inherited trauma/guilt have been documented in descendents of a wide range of people exposed to traumatic events. However… because science doesn’t have the ability to prove it happens – not yet at least – some dismiss examples of such transmissions as being impossible, coincidental, imagined, nonsense.

But does that mean that it doesn’t happen? Is science right… or simply behind?

Take Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example. Traumatic incidents have always been part of the human experience. And no doubt people all over the world have displayed symptoms of PTSD long before it was given a name. Yet the term ‘trauma’ only started to be explored at the end of the nineteenth century when Freud and his fellow pioneers of neurology and psychology considered it a diagnosis worthy of specialised treatment. When thousands of men returned from First World War fronts with psychological symptoms and medical conditions that had never been seen before, let alone explained, the British came up with the diagnosis of “shell shock.” Those who suffered from it were entitled to treatment – often hypnosis – and a disability pension. The sheer numbers, however, led the British General Staff to forbid the use of the term. Instead, “NYDN” (Not Yet Diagnosed, Nervous) was to be used and the afflicted were deemed undisciplined and lacking moral fibre. It wouldn’t be until 1941 with the publication of The traumatic neuroses of war by Abram Kardiner that it was recognised that any man could be affected by the atrocities of war and that traumatic symptoms were a normal response to an unbearable situation.

During the Second World War, psychiatrists continued to use hypnosis as treatment for trauma and veterans were offered improved practical and economic support. Psychological scars, however, were left unrecognised and untreated. From 1947, traumatic neuroses all but disappeared from official psychiatric language. 

The interest in trauma reignited in the seventies with the return of Vietnam war veterans who had such incapacitating symptoms that they were incapable of coping and functioning in civilian life. Many behaved violently towards their partners or became homeless and unemployable. But their symptoms continued to be labelled separately: alcoholism, substance misuse, depression, mood disorder or schizophrenia and treated accordingly, frequently without success. It was only when clinicians and mental health professionals working with Holocaust survivors, battered women, abused children and victims of accidents or rape collated their reports and discovered overwhelming similarities in their traumatised clients, that the range of behavioural, emotional and cognitive symptoms were combined into one psychological trauma diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1980, after several rejections, this term would finally be included in the bible of psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (third edition; DSM-III). 

For us today, it probably feels obvious that exposing men and women to abuse, war or anything that evokes extreme fear and helplessness would leave traumatic markers. And to a large degree science can now explain the mechanisms behind the process. That sense of ‘obviousness’ is how I have come to feel about the possibility of unresolved trauma or wrongdoing being passed onto the next generations, even though we don’t know how it happens. As I suggest in my TEDx talk, “our roots don’t just run backwards to our ancestors, but forwards to our children and those who come after. And if those roots are damaged or severed, what we hand on will also be impaired.

Many people have written to say my talk has resonated with their own experience of their forebears. But none of us can prove anything. And science will need time to develop the tools that can. Which probably means that the legacies of past familial, societal or historical traumas will not be taken into consideration when helping those afflicted by the often debilitating symptoms of depression, addiction, mental health… 

I think we need to be careful that this new emphasis on ‘following the science’ doesn’t pervade all areas of life. Even if we don’t yet understand the many complex ways in which transmission can occur, let’s give credence to the insights of people who have an innate or formally trained capacity to feel into a situation and ‘know‘ what’s right in the same way maternal instinct so often does. We have two sides to our brains for good reason. Currently the sceptical-until-proven logic of the left side largely prevails. But the non-verbal, intuitive right side has an equally valuable place, especially when it comes to imparting knowledge about our shared humanity. That’s an area where science often trails far behind.

I’d be interested to hear whether or not you think the experiences and insights I reveal in my TEDx talkFacing the past to liberate the future – need science to prove they are ‘real’?  

Related links:

The legacy of trauma: An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come

Understanding and healing collective trauma – Thomas Hübl

Dr Gabor Maté: Transgenerational trauma, stressed environment and child’s diagnosis

Who’d have thought 18 minutes standing on a red dot could unleash such terror?

The news that I had been selected to speak at TEDxStroud came on what can only be called a day from hell. It was August 2020. The brick gable end of my mother’s old garage had just collapsed in a storm leaving live electricity cables strewn across the driveway. She was unadvisedly trying to tidy them away while sinking into a diabetic low when we received the news that my brother-in-law’s father had died of Covid. In the flurry of activity and phone calls that followed, the email plopped into my inbox: CONGRATULATIONS! You are one of nine people selected from 84 applicants to deliver a TEDx talk on the theme of Emergence…  

I had totally forgotten I had even applied and my heart simultaneously raced and sank as I realised this was another gauntlet I had to take up. TED is the mecca of public speaking platforms. The iconic red spot on the floor has hosted some of the world’s very best speakers and lured over 3,600 people with a good idea to share. There are strict criteria: No more than 18 minutes per talk. No selling or promotion of a product or business. No profit or pay to speakers or organisers… just a good idea that is worth spreading. 

Tickets and further information can be found here

Over the following months, Covid threw curveballs at the original visions for a live event with an audience of 400, sending each one flying like skittles in an alley. Lockdown even forced a postponement from November’20 to March’21. The organising team were undeterred in their commitment. With each new restriction, they adapted, delivering changes of plan with supportive sensitivity and unwaning optimism. Meanwhile, we speakers met in Zoom rooms hosted by other talented volunteers where we would listen and feed back to each other while witnessing amorphous blobs of chosen subjects being honed to their essence. Not ‘just a minute‘ without ‘hesitation, deviation or repetition’ as on BBC Radio 4, but 18 minutes! 

Sounds easy? It’s not. The techniques to memorise our talks ranged from falling asleep to a recording of your own voice droning its way into your memory, (nothing has ever sent me to sleep faster, all insomniacs click here if you’d like a copy!) to delivering it in a silly Texan accent. We had to practice talking to the barrel of a camera lens while smiling at some imaginary audience member sitting beyond it. We even had to choose proper clothes to wear as opposed to our baggy lockdown jumpers and leggings. 

Practicing…

Kind friends tried to assuage the terror that gained momentum over the final two months until it clenched my chest in a vice and froze my brain. “But you speak so well… it’s no different from the talks you already give… you can do this with your eyes shut.” But a TEDx talk isn’t the same at all. It will be uploaded to YouTube and made available to a global audience… potentially forever. You have no slides or prompts to jog the memory. And what’s more, my ‘great’ Tedx idea isn’t an easy one to talk about, let alone sell as a ‘gift’! Because I am basically asking people to get really uncomfortable; to follow me on a journey that descends into the dark underbelly of human experience, where prisoners, Nazis, unspeakable atrocities or war experiences fester like wounds marinated in silence, pain and shame. 

I sometimes feel I should apologise for bringing such things into the light of awareness. But I won’t, because the rewards are too great to ignore. And because it has become clear, not just to me but to neuroscientists, geneticists and psychologists, that we have to go there if we want to break the cycle by which toxic, unresolved past traumas and wrongdoings persistently disrupt the present. Now more than ever, it is important to recognise the link between the past and so many of today’s symptoms of violence, division, discrimination, inequality, addictions, injustices, racism… 

It is not easy to face unacknowledged past harm, not least because it will have been buried for a reason, often a good reason such as protection or avoidance of pain. But I promise you, it is ultimately easier than schlepping it around with us, patching it up and handing it on to the next generation to deal with. 

Recording my TEDx talk on Thursday 11th March

So, may I invite you to join us this SUNDAY 21st MARCH 2021 from 2pm, not just to hear my TEDx talk Facing the past to liberate the present, but the talks of seven other amazing speakers, each of whom has been on an equally intense journey to deliver a wonderful idea as a gift to you and our world. Tickets and further information can be found here.

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Being inspired to be a ‘light in the darkness’ feels a powerful way to honour Holocaust Memorial Day

When it comes to Remembrance, I cannot think of a more important day to take time to reflect than today – Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army in 1945. Eighty or so years lie between us and the horrors that started in Germany and then spread beyond. Most of the survivors of those times are no longer able to bear witness to them. And yet, for many descendents, that past will still be alive shaping their present. It is primarily for them, and all that they carry in their hearts, that I pay such attention to this day.

As readers of my blogs will know, any day of remembrance raises questions in me: what to remember, how to remember it and to what end? I’m always particularly interested in the editing process of our personal, collective and national memories. Which selection of people, events and actions we choose to remember and honour. And which get left out.

Edits of history come about for all sorts of reasons, not least because some memories are too painful… or shameful to re-visit. But what happens to things that happened, but aren’t included in the stories we tell about ourselves? What happens to those awkward truths or people that disrupt more favoured version of events? Obviously politics plays a big role in shaping a country’s historical narrative to support left, right or centre agendas. But I still ask, what happens to the inconvenient truths that get suppressed, denied or banished to the footnotes?

Plans for a Holocaust memorial next to Parliament

I found this recent article by Richard Evans in the New Statesman fascinating: How should we remember the Holocaust? It describes some of the multiple points of view in the on-going debate about the appropriate form, location, size, message and so much more of the proposed Holocaust Memorial and learning centre in the heart of Westminster. It’s complicated. This is exactly the kind of debate Germany has been engaged in almost incessantly since the eighties and that lies behind their extensive culture of ‘counter memorials.’ At one point it was even suggested that perpetual debate on the form of a memorial was possibly the best way to keep the memories alive.

I have many thoughts (obviously!) on what is said in the article, but I will spare you of them here (except one!) in favour of inviting you, on this day, to think about where you stand in relation to Holocaust remembrance. My ‘one’ opinion echoes that of Raphael Wallfisch, a leading international concert cellist whose mother was forced by the SS to play in the infamous women’s orchestra at Auschwitz. He insists that the proposed ‘British Values Learning Centre’ “must reflect clearly and truthfully, the complete and unvarnished truth of Britain’s role before, during and after the Jewish Holocaust…” This request for a fuller picture is echoed by many others in the Jewish community and beyond.

We are witnessing all around the world not only a rise in anti-Semitism, but also eruptions of rage as suppressed, uncomfortable truths surface. Covid-19 is giving us an opportunity to re-think how, what and why we remember. The Britain of today needs to rise to this challenge, now more than ever before. Of course, remembering and hearing the stories of the victims is paramount. But if we primarily focus on what Germany did and how the British triumphed over evil, we are missing a vital lesson. Britain also needs to look at, and learn from, what we as a nation didn’t do… but could have done.

 Statue of Sir Nicholas Winton, the “British Schindler” at Maidenhead railway station

This man, Sir Nicholas Winton, could never be accused of not having done enough. Against all odds, he smuggled 669 boys and girls, destined for concentration camps, out of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Celebrating his unbelievable bravery and life-saving initiative with candles feels a truly fitting way to mark this day. We can all join in for households across the country are being invited to light a candle at 8pm this evening, as an encouragement to us all to “be the light in the darkness.”

A few more things here:

This 4-minute film is a deeply moving testament: Story of Nicholas Winton, BBC That’s life – Short version

Holocaust Memorial Day: Sir Nicholas Winton’s statue lit up: Article about the above lit-up statue

Article in The Conversation: Plans for UK Holocaust Memorial looked promising, but now debate has stalled

BBC 2: Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel

The time to remember that ‘to the world he was a soldier, to us he was the world’

‘Tis the season to remember… and yet, this year, for the first time, I forgot. Remembrance Sunday was almost over before I suddenly remembered to remember. 

Locked down at home, I was definitely silent. But maybe the official 2-minute silence at 11am passed me by because in my talks and blogs I am frequently remembering. In fact, ‘looking back’ has become part of my identity, my expertise even. So much so that I have been selected, as one of nine speakers, to do a Tedx Talk on the subject: Facing the past in order to create a fairer future.’ It’s an exciting opportunity though unfortunately lockdown has forced the proposed date of 29th November to be postponed until the spring. It will happen though… like so many other things in this disorientating Covid world in which we are currently immersed. 

In the meantime, if you haven’t attended my talk on How Germany Remembers and would like to, there’s a chance to hear it online on Friday 13th November at 11.30am. It is being hosted by the National Army Museum in London where I spoke last year. You can read more about it here and you can register for free here.

But back to remembering… or forgetting in my case. Maybe there are some of us who feel a little tired of remembering. Or maybe it’s the national narrative we tell ourselves each year, that is tiring. This is one of the points made in Radio 4’s ‘Our Sacred Story’ in which Alex Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University, suggests that the Second World War is both our modern sacred narrative as well as the shaper of our collective sense of what constitutes good and evil. 

This summer we celebrated the 75thanniversaries of VE and VJ Day. In fact, we’ve done loads of national remembering over the past years. So aside from Remembrance fatigue, I’m wondering if Covid’s restrictive squeeze on lungs, lives and events alike, is also impacting what and how we remember. Lockdown has been turning mindsets inwards, shifting focus and values onto all that is immediately around us – family, gardens, quiet streets or empty skies. Maybe this new way of being is merging effortlessly with the existing sub-stream of thought that strives for essence rather than glitzy, sparkling veneer. 

Looking at the BBC coverage of Remembrance Sunday, it is clear that even our mainstream institutions of commemoration are being forcibly stripped of excess. I salute the efforts of all involved in trying to evoke the all-too familiar rituals, yet nothing could distract from the extraordinary visuals of sparsity. Watching the morning ceremonies at the Cenotaph, one could be forgiven for not knowing where one was. The eerily still Whitehall dotted with a few socially-distanced, poppy- and wreath-bearing dignitaries resembled a set construction of a movie whose budget couldn’t stretch to more actors. And in Westminster Abbey, the Queen, bless her, hatted and masked up in black, couldn’t help but look a little like Darth Vader as she gently touched the white myrtle wreath that was then laid by a masked serviceman upon the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. 

I couldn’t sit through the empty-seated Royal Albert Hall festivities that in the past have both grated and made me cry against my will. Instead, I sought the essence of remembrance in other areas. I soon found it in the podcast, We have ways of making you think. In their Episode 203 on Remembrance, historian James Holland and comedian Al Murray were in conversation with Glyn Prysor, former historian of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Between them they brought to life the history of the ubiquitous white headstones that fill acres and acres of land both here and on the continent. 

Set up in 1917 while World War One was still raging, the process of burying in the region of a million war dead, half of whose remains were missing, demanded a very new way of thinking. In a departure from the Victorian hierarchy of worthiness that extended into death and resulted in the common man just being ‘bunged’ into a mass grave, the Commission made a move towards inclusion. It wanted to evoke the sense that everyone had contributed to the war and everyone was equal in death. The outcome was a uniform design for all headstones that would make no distinction between wealthy and poor. This was of course deeply controversial. Individuality would only be marked through the listing of name, rank, unit, regimental badge and date of death. An appropriate religious symbol could also be added, or not. And a space at the bottom was dedicated to personal messages from family members, some of whom would never be able to travel to the continent to visit the graves of their loved ones. 

Covid has been highlighting the need for a similar leveling process across our hierarchies of wealth, fairness and opportunity. As in war, it is the personal losses and tragedies that will far surpass and long outlive the victories or shenanigans of the politics. In that vein, I found the essence of remembrance in an inscription spotted on a war grave in Bayeux:

Into the mosaic of victory, our most precious piece was laid.

What does ‘British’ mean to you? And are certain ideas of ‘Britishness’ holding us back?

I’m really interested in the question of what ‘British’ means to people now. I am curious which images of Britishness are conjured up by Brexiteers. What British means to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors, NHS workers, army officers, staunch Conservatives and practicing artists alike. And what British means to you, whether you are British or not.

The reason for my interest comes partly from reading Afua Hirsch’s excellent book, BRIT(ish). Born to British and African parents and raised in middle-class Wimbledon, she explores questions of identity on personal, collective and political levels and reveals the on-going challenges and prejudices faced by many black British. It’s shocking, moving and humbling. And it offers potent insights into Britain’s evident desire to be ‘post-racial’ before it has properly confronted the deeply embedded racism derived from old but intractable beliefs in the superiority of whiteness. 

As a person born to parents of differing nationalities, I have often occupied myself with questions of national identity. Now I am fascinated by the concept of ‘British’ more than ever because, from where I’m standing, Britain and Britishness are hurtling towards a potentially exciting cusp of change. I don’t mean the very tangible changes we, along with much of the world, are making as a result of the Covid pandemic. I also don’t mean the changes that will inevitably come about as a result of Brexit and our divorce from the EU. I’m not even referring to the changes the prime minister and government are plotting in order to make Britain ‘the greatest place on earth’. No, all those proposed changes, a bit like HS2 in a post-Covid world, feel slightly old and out of date already. Most have a reactive feel to them, like sticking plasters, firefighting or making-it-up-as-you go-along.  

Change is rarely comfortable. And fundamental change even less so. Many people fear it and tend to hold tightly to the status quo in preference of disruption. But I am keen to understand precisely what qualities of ‘British’ people are wanting to hold on to. Because it seems to me, and I am far from alone in this, that Britain – whatever that means – is holding onto something, or at least desperately trying to hold onto something. Critical words that have been around for decades in smaller circles are suddenly trending in new publications, articles and programmes. Where Britishness may once have conjured up images of fish and chips, rainy queues, Mr Bean and the Royal Family; or diplomacy, reserve, wit and multi-culturalism, the main things now being cited both here and abroad – and not without considerable sadness and dismay by countries that have deeply admired and loved the UK – seem to be largely scathing criticisms. Above all, of prevailing attitudes: British self-importance; self-congratulation; delusions of grandeur; flag-waving patriotism; exceptionalism; self-entitlement; immaturity, isolationism, archaism… it is not a flattering list.

What has happened? It’s long been clear that Britain has never got over winning the war and, though it’s less verbalised, losing its empire. Boris Johnson is busy channelling Churchill and the language used by many of our leaders merely reveals how stuck they are in ruts of victor/loser rhetoric on the one hand, and nostalgia on the other. Both are ossified and now misplaced attitudes that infuse national thinking and hinder their ability to respond to the very specific demands of these unbelievably challenging times with the appropriateness some countries with lower death rates have displayed. And of course, our pride in our victories and apparently benign empire is only partially justified anyway. There are far broader perspectives to explore and embrace that will not only bring honest nuance to our favoured narratives, but also acknowledge the lingering dark shadows we have cast over whole areas and peoples in our past. As Afua Hirsch says, ‘Britain definitely has secrets. They lurk in the language and the brickwork and the patterns of society.’

Why is it important to look at them?  

Why do we need to look behind us before moving ahead? 

Because until we do, many options and possibilities for the future will remain closed to us, not least in relation to the biggest challenge facing the world, climate change. Like a person riddled with festering wounds, Britain cannot move forward with the light optimism it so desires. It can only limp making the wounds more livid. But once we have tended to the hurt, trauma and ethical redress needed to heal our past, we will be able to move forward less hindered. We can then start the process of integrating the fragmented aspects of British society into a healthier, synchronised whole. This more inclusive version of ‘British’ with its stronger, more contemporary identity will restore us to the position of respect and admiration we long for and will then rightly deserve. 

It won’t be comfortable… but it will be deeply healing and liberating in the long run.

In the meantime, while I am aware that English, Welsh and Scottish also have individual identities, please send me the words and qualities that ‘British’ conjures up for you.

A few related links:

Afua Hirsch on BRIT(ish) – a short video

BRIT(ish) Review – what does it mean to be black and British now?

National Geographic: Why Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis