Dreich, dour and crabbit: does the weather explain Scottish negativity? Climate, posture, mood, empathy, mirror neurons, meditation and education.

This essay was born in meditation

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to meditate daily. I simply concentrate on my breathing. Thoughts pop up, and I observe them and let them go.

Talk and articles on the benefits of meditation

Click to learn about the benefits of meditation.

(Here’s an inspiring talk on meditation.   Below it you will find some information on the benefits of meditation.)

Yesterday while I was meditating, this essay popped into my head. I grabbed a notebook (set aside for recording ideas that jump out of the ether when I am meditating) and jotted down a few key points, then returned to meditation.

Join the dots!

Today I feel ready to transcribe it. It amounts to a cross-fertilisation of ideas, the disparate sources of which will become apparent.  I won’t immediately reveal how I have connected them, so you have an opportunity to join the dots yourself.

Please excuse what may appear to be sweeping generalisations.  Of course I recognise there are people of all sorts in every country.  However, I do think that there is such a thing as national character.  (I also think that some individuals triumph because they rebel against the national character – something they almost need to kick against – but that’s another story.)

Source 1:  Clare Galloway’s thoughts on Scottish negativity and Italian self-assurance

Clare Galloway's essay on Scottish negativity

Clare Galloway’s provocative essay on Scottish negativity – one of the seeds of this essay.

Some time ago I read Clare Galloway’s provocative essay on what, for want of a better phrase, I would describe as Scottish negativity, which she describes as ‘this sense of something pressing down on [us], stopping [us] from growing’, and illustrates with the phrase, ‘…you don’t want to go and do that!’

A key passage is this one:

‘Two years ago, I decided to quit my country (again), and head for the sun, the positivity, the relative freedom of southern Europe, where people are not bound by this sense of something pressing down on them, stopping them from growing. Yes- the warmth, the good food, the family-oriented culture, and affordability of comfort, these are things which come from being closer to the sun, simple as that… but there is something essential to this bountiful freedom; an inherent need which is lacking in my own country’s psyche: confidence.’

Clare Galloway in Guardia Sanframondi

Clare Galloway in Guardia Sanframondi, Campania, Italy.  She made some interesting observations on the way people hold and conduct themselves in Italy, borne out by what I witnessed myself.

I think this must have lodged in my subconscious, to lie there quietly, waiting for some companion thoughts to bring it to life.  Well, I visited Clare in gorgeous Guardia Sanframondi in September last year, staying in her charming Arthouse Guardia, and she made some observations that added to the mix.

She said (and I paraphrase) that people in Guardia Sanframondi generally held and conducted themselves with much more self-assurance than people did in Scotland.  There was none of the cringing, self-abnegating, deferential, apologetic-ness that we see in Scotland.  Put charitably, this Scottish meekness could be described as humility or modesty, but it can also be associated with the slow drip of ineffectual moaning and the outright nastiness of put-downs such as ‘Ah kent his faither’ (‘I knew his father [so who the hell does he think he is?]’) – in other words, don’t get above your station/tall poppies should be pruned.  More strongly:  ‘There’s no point trying to make things better, and if you do try we’ll shoot you down.’

I had an opportunity to see what she meant about the Italian character when I attended a public meeting in Guardia Sanframondi’s municipal building (to discuss how the town could capitalise on the international interest triggered by Clare’s appearance in an episode of House Hunters International).  Without exception, people stood up, radiating confidence in the way they held themselves, and took their time to set out their thoughts, speaking directly and unapologetically as they expressed views that were not necessarily shared by others (as far as I could make out).

Source 2: Daniel Goleman, mirror neurons and empathy

Mirror neurons

Mirror neurons play a key role in empathy. By preparing the body to mimic another’s movements, we can get to feel what they feel.

A while ago I read Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence. In it, he talks about mirror neurons, and the role they play in empathy. (Coincidentally, much of the research he refers to took place in Italy.) What this boils down to is that if you observe an action or an expression, your mirror neurons prepare your brain to mimic the observed activity, and this, to some extent, puts you in the mind of the observed individual. In other words, they play an important role in empathy.

Source 3:  Amy Cuddy’s TED talk:  Your body language shapes who you are.

I chanced upon this TED talk the other day.  In it, Amy Cuddy echoes some of what I gleaned from Daniel Goleman’s book, and goes on to provide evidence that, by changing your posture etc., you can not only change how others perceive you but, more importantly, how you feel, behave and perform yourself.  The effects are reflected in levels of testosterone and cortisol.  You must watch this!

Putting it together

Are you thinking what I am thinking?  Is it mere coincidence that we have such descriptive Scots words as dreich (for the weather), and dour and crabbit for personalities?

R. Eric Swanepoel in Inverleith Park

Myself in Inverleith Park, a place where I often go walking. I generally have to wrap up warmly!  The pond was frozen over when I went there on 17 January 2013.

I took a break from writing this essay and went for a walk.  It was cold but not nearly as dreich as it has been of late.  Even so, many people were visibly braced against the weather, shoulders hunched and heads down, hands in pockets or arms folded.  It’s not hard to imagine, if Amy Cuddy is right, how this might affect mood and, with chronic exposure, personality!

…And if mirror neurons affect our mood by merely preparing for us to mimic another’s actions, how much more powerful an effect on our emotions will actually adopting certain postures have?  Does this add something to the understanding of a mechanism for Amy Cuddy’s thesis?

OK, I hear you say, let’s assume that the hunched-against-the-world, negative posture caused by cold does affect people’s moods and attitudes.  If that’s the case then there ought to be a simple relationship between temperature and national personalities, but it’s much colder in continental Europe, America and Asia, and these places don’t have the negativity associated with the national character of the Scots…

Sweating in Sweden

Of course, there are many factors at play here – I don’t claim that climate is the only one – but let’s tackle the point about other places being colder…  This is certainly true, in terms of absolute temperature.  When I first visited Scandinavia it was mid-winter, and I was well prepared, or so I thought.  Having read about the average winter temperatures in Oslo and Stockholm, I had bought thermal longjohns.  Well, dressed in several layers of clothing over my longjohns, and carrying a backpack, I discovered I couldn’t walk more than a short distance without feeling uncomfortably hot!  Yes, the air temperature was several degrees below freezing, but the sun beat down on the blindingly white snow and the air was dry and still.  I could have dressed as I did in Scotland and felt much warmer than I had in Aberdeen.   One feels the cold much more in horizontal rain or sleet, and the gloom caused by the sempiternal low clouds/haar of Scotland also does not help!

More recently I returned to Sweden in the middle of the year – glorious T-shirt weather, with all ages swimming in pristine lakes and gathering berries in the forests.  Completely unlike the miserable apologies for summer we generally experience in Scotland!

Of course, feeling cold is not just a question of climate, because we spend much of our time indoors, but also of housing and heating, and therefore of poverty and the economy.  The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world (and Scotland as part of it), fuel poverty is widespread and much of the housing stock substandard.  This can only exacerbate the effect of the dreich weather.   (This raises another question, of course:  does the weather indirectly make it less likely that the Scots will have the confidence to break away from this shockingly badly run entity, one that has consistently undermined Scottish confidence, as illustrated in the next paragraph?  These people, anyway, don’t appear to be suffering from negativity.)

Schoolboy being given the tawse

A national lack of self-confidence isn’t only due to the weather. Scottish culture and languages have long been persecuted and/or sneered at. A friend was given the tawse for daring to speak Scots in the classroom.

The Scottish cringe: given the tawse for speaking Scots

Yes, there are undoubtedly other factors contributing to the Scottish lack of get-up-and-go.  Centuries of ‘culture-cide’ have undoubtedly contributed to the Scottish cringe.  The most obvious example of ‘culture-cide’ is the longstanding hostility to Scots and Gaelic displayed originally by the English, and to some extent now assimilated by the Scots themselves.  A friend of mine was given the tawse in the 1970s for daring to speak Scots in the classroom!  Thankfully attempts are being made to rectify the situation, but ingrained prejudices die hard.

In summary, I suggest that the miserable weather we endure in Scotland may play a significant role in the national character, and that this may operate through the neurological circuits that link posture and mood.

A personal digression

I was born in Edinburgh and currently live in Edinburgh, but from the age of four grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa, countries where I often felt uncomfortably hot and where the glaring sunlight would bring on headaches.  When I first returned to Blighty I did not miss the warmth and sunshine, but as the years went on the greyness and cold took their toll.

My mother is Scottish and I often visited Scotland as a child, so I could not really view the character of the people with any perspective, having always been familiar with it.  I would say, however, that white people in South Africa struck me as relatively loud and pushy, which perhaps says something about the Scottish character being the opposite.  There is a pithy Afrikaans saying – ‘n boer maak ‘n plan – which translates literally as ‘a farmer makes a plan’, and metaphorically as ‘there’s always a way’.  This expresses something akin to the US ‘can-do’ attitude, and it might be said to be the opposite of the Scottish negativity discussed above.

Good Energy

I get my electricity and gas from Good Energy so don’t feel too guilty about heating my home.

Anyway, for years I eschewed heating, preferring to grit my teeth and tough it out.  This was for both environmental and financial reasons.  Does this have anything to do with my apparent lack of material success?  Those who believe in the so-called law of attraction would say that I had adopted a poverty/anti-abundance mindset and that this might explain it as much as a hunched posture.  (Most other people would probably say that I have should simply have stayed working as a vet rather than try to make it as a writer!)  Lately I have taken to using heating for several reasons:

  • My gas and electricity are supplied by Good Energy.  All the electricity I use comes from renewable sources and some of the money I spend on the gas is used to fund more renewable energy generation.   In other words, my energy consumption probably has less of a negative impact on the environment than most.
  • It is my responsibility as a tenant to keep the property I am renting in good order, and cold and damp are not good for it.
  • I feel it’s worth experimenting with an ‘abundance mindset’.  Worrying never gets anyone anywhere, and my financial situation appears to be improving anyway.
  • It’s more comfortable.

So now I add to these reasons the theory I have come up with, as presented above.  I realise that this cannot in any way be considered a scientific experiment, as I am doing more than one thing that may affect my worldly success (of which meditation is the major one) and there is  no control, far less a double-blind protocol and replication, but it will still be interesting to see what happens now that I am allowing myself to heat my home and shall be consciously changing my posture!  Happiness and wealth in abundance?

Education: meditation, ‘fake it until you become it’, inequality and, above all, empathy!

Whatever the merits of my own theory on the effect of weather on the Scottish national character, I am convinced of the benefits of meditation, which possibly triggered the idea in the first place.  It certainly boosts creativity, and it is extremely helpful to know that one does not have to identify with one’s thoughts and emotions; that one is more than one’s thoughts and emotions and that one can have some control over them.  Meditation is an invaluable tool for doing this, and should undoubtedly be taught in schools, perhaps under the title of ‘mindfulness’.

It seems that Amy Cuddy’s advice (‘fake it until you become it’) may also be worth passing on.  It’s another way of influencing one’s mental, emotional and physical state, and therefore one’s happiness and performance.  If there is as much evidence for it as it seems, how can we deprive our children of this knowledge?

I alluded above to the effects of income inequality on individuals and society as a whole.  There is now a mountain of evidence on this subject.  This should surely be on the school curriculum.  We should, in my opinion, measure every government policy against its effects on socio-economic equality.

The most important thing we should teach our children, however, is empathy.  This topic is fundamental if we are ever going to make a significant impact on their miserable, materialistic, bullied existences.  The ability to empathise is, interestingly, impaired by living in extremely unequal societies.   Empathy starts with not being too hard on oneself, so mindfulness must surely play a role here too.  These things are all related!

Tying up the topics of mindfulness (awareness/consciousness) , education and empathy, here is a discussion I highly recommend:

And here’s an extremely short video on empathy, imagination and education:

What will the ‘crabbit old bat’, an author of books on the brain, make of this?

Nicola Morgan's books on the brain

I wonder what Nicola Morgan, a famous ‘crabbit old bat’, and an author of two excellent books on the brain, will make of this essay?

Finally, I wonder what Nicola Morgan, famously top of the search engine list for ‘crabbit old bat’, and the author of excellent books on the brain for young people, will make of my essay?

All something to meditate on, anyway!  What are you going to do if you think there is some merit in any of the ideas I have shared?

Please at least share this essay with others if you found it interesting.

About biowrite

I am a writer specialising in non-fiction, particularly in assisting people with their biographies.
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