Being tough, being sensitive – no other option, really?

Source: Flickr

I just listened to BBC Four Thought “Sensitive Souls” (and I have recently read Auf die leise Weise, i.e. the quiet way) and my mind wandered in several directions, like a wild animal walking around a part of forest and exploring it attentively, one corner after the other, following scents and interesting plants.

It seemed to me that the most common behavioural model is a line, with “tough” and “sensitive” at the extremes. That would be OK for me, in theory – but not when these words actually mean “bully” and “bullied”. I therefore tested the following translation, from:

  • “Toughen up! Don’t be so sensitive! You’ll never reach any goal while being sensitive!”


  • “Be the bully sometimes! Don’t always be the bullied one! You’ll never reach your goals if you keep letting others bully you!”

… and I realised that this translation awakened the horror I felt anytime someone urged me to toughen up. I didn’t want to swap sides. I didn’t want to be rude to others, just because these are (or appear to be) the rules of The Game. If these were the rules, I couldn’t force myself to play – even if that meant that I would automatically lose.

I don’t know what people telling me those words actually meant. What I know for myself is that I have been very close to shut down my sensitive side, because it made me hurt a lot and the only choice seemed to move along the line, away from the sensitive corner and right into toughness. I am thankful to my closest friends, that offered me (and still do!) a safe space where I could be as sensitive as I needed, and investigated with me new ways to protect myself without hurting others. They took me away from that line, showed me other paths, that we walk as a group.

I hope that readers who find themselves sensitive can count on such friendships and safe spaces, and can see a way for growth that doesn’t sacrifice any of their skills.

Teaching: building bridges

I have been thinking about the differences between good and ok teachers, and I came to the conclusion that two things are important: showing passion for the topic, and being able to build bridges between known and unknown, for the students to cross. I would like to explain more about this latter point in this post.

Ponte em Paranaguá Raí Nagaoka on Flickr

When I explain something, I need to be aware of what the other person knows, because otherwise I would build a bridge between two unknown topics, that are not connected to anything else. That bridge will therefore be unuseful and will likely deteriorate before any other bridge will be built nearby. A big chunk of information I learned from school stayed, sadly, like cathedrals in the desert, away from my everyday life, precious in theory, but disconnected and quickly forgotten.

It happens that other people find a bridge by themselves, and are enlightened and proud of that new connection. I have learned to avoid judgment on how far-fetched is that connection for me – for example when I introduce a classical composer to some friends, and they connect it to medieval movies they have seen. I could correct them, because the composer has no relation whatsoever with the time and location of those movies; but the main effect is that the bridge is lost. That long bridge is a connection, nevertheless; when a new composer will be presented to these people, they will already know one of that time: so one new bridge could be added to the network, or as an intermediate point on the existing bridge. Condemning bridges is usually a bad move, rarely something positive. Of course if a bridge is misleadingly connecting two things, I point it out; but I try to offer an alternate connection.

That’s why I take extra care in asking other people what they know already, so that I can present the new topic to them, by walking with them on bridges they find meaningful.


The radar – a way of paying attention to others and being focused on your task

I have been visiting a Montessori preschool this week, and had my usual joy in observing without participating. I appreciated how the two teachers had all twenty children in mind, and moved from one to another to attentively guide them in a given exercise, gave ideas for further work, paid attention to all children who asked for a moment of it; and the children were calm and mainly focused on their occupations, called the teachers only seldom and always got an answer – even a “I’m busy now, but I come to you when I am done”. I found that profoundly calming, and a wise economy of communication (and noise. It was a smallish room with 20+ people in it, no way that everyone can talk simultaneously and be heard. Think of how restaurants can become incredibly loud!). If children grow in this two-way attention, they know that each call gets a feedback, so there is no need to call ten times in order to hope to be heard once – or worse, to make sure that the other person hasn’t forgotten you are there (how many children I have seen crying or calling their parents repetitively, without any more hope to be heard, but attempting to get attention by being annoying).

I reflected on that point on my way home. Some time ago I wrote a note about the ways of paying attention to someone else in the background, and be responsive when this person actually starts interacting. I experienced how some friends switch between full attention to me to full focus on something else, and I always felt as a nuisance when I interrupted them with the start of a conversation. There was no concept of background for them, there was no chance to me to pick the good time to chime in.

On the other extreme the radar process could take too much of the foreground space: I could pay attention to everything and get distracted by every new input. I find this exhausting, and disrespectful for the current task, that must pray that nothing pops up while it is being dealt with.

The sweet spot could be hard to reach and it depends much on how the inputs behave (some would like to get attention immediately, others would prefer to never disturb…), but I have seen people doing that with such a mastery that I am totally confident it can be done by everyone, with a bit of practice. My drum teacher can keep an eye on me when we play in the orchestra, such that he invariably spots if I’m lost, and we can debrief the concert afterwards with great accuracy. I strive to reach that ability when I will finally become a kindergarten teacher. I have experienced how relaxing it is to be in someone’s radar and to know you can ask for a moment of attention, so I definitely aspire of being that attentive kind of person for the children.

Doe Pair – by Carl Monopoli

Stereoscopic vision (lack thereof)

I am reading Oliver Sacks’ “The Mind’s Eye” and I first want to say that I am fascinated and soothed by how Sacks talks about some of his patients – with humanity and empathy. It is difficult for me to explain how reassuring it feels to always be treated as a human being, who deserves respect and consideration: physical and mental issues can bend your life in unbearable ways, but the person, the “you”, should remain out of their reach.

(It sounds easy to say, and I feel I am not entitled to talk about it because on so many levels I am healthy and functioning; but as I have experienced how temporary malfunctions have hit me hard, I feel guilty for having been so weak, ungrateful and doubtful about my recovering potential, when others face permanent changes in their bodily abilities and fight so bravely.)

Back to the book. I started Chapter 5 “Stereo Sue” with expectation and curiosity. Sue (Susan R. Barry) grew up stereoblind without relevant difficulties, but at the age of forty her sight process worsened in a way that she seeked professional help, started vision therapy and surprisingly acquired stereo vision at 48 years of age – against all odds, because it was (is still?) commonly considered that stereo vision must be acquired within the first 3 years of life.

I was so touched by her story that I kept reading page after page, speechless, breathless. I cried when she described her old way of seeing the world and her former issues, because I recognised my daily life. Stereo blindness is not a rare condition: many people (5 to 10% of the population, according to Sacks) have grown up without acquiring stereo vision but developed a bunch of alternative ways of estimating depth and distance of the people and objects around them, and most live normal lives.

I am unsure of what to do. I must say that my stereo blindness interferes with several activities (driving a car, playing ball games are extremely difficult for me, among other things) but enhances others (drawing from real life is easier: I see it flat already, and I even guess how hard it is to draw for people who see in 3D!). However, I would hate to see myself as “in need to be fixed” and that stereo vision would bring me “closer to normal”. I am aware that I am missing a piece of functionality that most have, and that most make good use of, but I also feel that it’s not that crucial for me to get it too. I would hate to get stereo vision to get a step closer to how others perceive the world, just because my way of seeing the world couldn’t be understood.

Sacks himself lost stereo vision  after an operation to his right eye, and considered it a net loss of functionality – that his perception of the world was changed for the bad and the false – I understand his conclusions, but they are not mine; I have always functioned differently, and that should have equal dignity. I was grateful to Sacks for his admiration for all the clever workarounds that Sue was putting in place – he admired her ability to use other senses and ways to compensate for an ability that most people give for granted.

I want to let these thoughts simmer for a while. I am for sure excited to discover that it’s possible for me to gain stereo vision, but I want to think well about the motivations that would lead me on that path. In the meanwhile I keep sketching.


Spring morning with squirrel

It was a fresh spring morning, a bit cold, the sun shining over the trees. I arrived at the meeting place half an hour in advance and stood outside the gate in silence, looking around.

At some point a red squirrel approached jumping from tree to tree, saw me, looked more disappointed than scared, then resumed its jumping, climbing and watching around. I followed it with my eyes and ears (it made short scratch noises when its claws grasped the hollow bark of the pines) until it hopped away of my sight.

I quietly stood some more time, watching occasional little chirping birds. At some point Sabine’s car turned around the corner. She waved driving past me, and parked a little further down the street. There was still some time before everyone showed up. Sabine walked towards me and we greeted each other. She said that she drove past Andi walking, but didn’t give him a lift as she knew he prefers to walk. We basked in the light of the sun gently rising and enjoyed the moment of quietness before the start of the meeting.

Few moments after, Andi appeared at the end of the street. We smiled at each other and I watched him getting closer. Few metres from Sabine and me, he stopped square and watched intently up a tree. He mouthed to us: There’s a squirrel! and smiled while watching it hopping and running along branches. Sabine and I, who couldn’t see the squirrel, observed him with a slight smile. His awe and curiosity were so pure that he looked like a child.

When the squirrel jumped away of his sight, Andi turned to us with a big smile and walked towards us. We greeted each other with soft affection, as usual. In these occasions, I feel that we three are special to each other, as we have the same way of looking at the world with deep attention and admiration.

Source: Flickr

(inspired by this Tumblr post)

Comic: my depression as a tiger



I feel I’m living with a tiger.

She controls me when I’m alone. She waits for everyone to leave, then she attacks. That’s why I try to be with friends, but it feels like they are my hostages. When they are there, she lays down in a corner, and I feel almost normal.

But sometimes she attacks them too, and I feel that I put my friends in danger, while trying to protect myself. Therefore I stay alone more often.

When I sleep, she sleeps.

She usually likes listening to music.

Some things that look great to others sometimes annoy her a lot. She’s quite unpredictable. That would be OK if she weren’t so strong and dangerous.

I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to distract her enough to have a few minutes alone.

I don’t want her to be in control.

Winter School of Ethics and Neuroscience – day 2: introduction to ethics

The second day of the winter school was split in two tracks, one focused on philosophical matters, the other on practical applications. I chose to attend the philosophical track, where we talked at first about definitions of ethics, morality, judgment, and so on.

The discussion was not easy, especially for me as a newbie of the field (except for some memories of high school’s philosophy class). In these discussions, words are sharp weapons – I felt that every sentence needed to be composed with care, in order to minimise misunderstanding or ambiguity (the fact that we discussed in English and that it was not the most fluent language for most participants did not help). This reminded me of Quantum Psychology and its aim of making English less dangerous when talking about ethical principles and everyday facts.


Trolley problem


We talked about standard ethics exercises (trolley problems), but the reasoning got quickly overridden by emotions. It is not surprising, as the trolley problem is a way of putting a lot of pressure to make the “right” decision about other people’s lives. I personally could not really get into the mindset of that experiment, because lots of variables were missing or were unrealistic (the people on the tracks were all equal and unknown to me, the trolley could not be stopped in any way, I was the only one able to do something, etc…). That left space to a lot of “moral noise” and to amusingly absurd ideas.


During the session, I thought that it is theoretically possible to separate ethics from emotions, but ethics would become inhumane. I moreover thought that the effectiveness of emotion-aware ethics lies in the ability to emotionally connect with the involved parties in a given situation. Of course a more detailed knowledge of every possible influence of an action would make its outcome mathematically more positive, but it would take longer to compute and it would be dependent of an objective evaluation of everything, that is often impossible.

Nevertheless, I understand the questions raised by philosophers about the nature, origins and utility of ethics. It enables people to understand what is going on within them instead of acting solely on emotional bursts. I still value emotional input as much as reasoning, because I consider that emotions have been fundamental for the survival of our species (and maybe others too, but it’s hard to prove without doubt or bias), by shaping our decisions in conflictual situations. What I see is that modern humans are challenged on problems that are so huge and complex that our emotions, that helped us solve local, small group problems, are sometimes inaccurate or problematic. So I think that studying ethics and morality in theory is a way of better understanding our decision-making processes, and help us make more informed decisions.

More about this in next post! Stay tuned 🙂