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The science of forgiveness and brokenness

Experts Dr. James Doty and Fred Luskin discuss brokenness, forgiveness, and the Japanese arts of Wabi-sabi and Kintsugi.

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March 09, 2021
4 min read

In today’s Braincare Clubhouse session, we discussed brokenness and the process of forgiveness with these experts:

  • Dr. James Doty: Clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and bestselling author.

  • Fred Luskin: Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. 

  • Dan Murray-Serter: Co-Founder of braincare company Heights, and host of our Braincare Podcast.

How did it all start?

I started the Stanford Forgiveness Project 25 years ago and conducted the first experiment on forgiveness. The result was very simple: if you learn how to forgive, your life is a little bit better. 

Forgiveness helps people reduce the stress of holding grievances, and allows them to process their life in the present. 

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Brokenness & Wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi is a term characterized as a Japanese aesthetic that appreciates imperfect beauty. This applies to the human condition as well. If you’re able to accept the true nature of reality- which is that all of us are incomplete and imperfect- you can decrease your suffering. It allows you to be comfortable with yourself and not feel the need to chase after perfection.

In Western society, we feel the need to present ourselves with a shield that lists our accomplishments instead of being truthful and presenting our fragility, frailness, and authenticity.

“Your existence is transitory, and all of us are incomplete in terms of our knowledge and wisdom.”


It’s important to see the things that you’ve done wrong or that other people have done that has harmed you, but the key issue is to not linger. Forgiveness is primarily an inner shift and often has very little to do with the other person. We have the capacity to alter our life experiences in a way that leads us to be more at peace with our life. It can lead to modest improvements in physical and emotional health. 

Forgiveness vs. reconciliation

Reconciliation is the repairing of a relationship. Forgiveness is releasing inner bitterness, grudges, or self-pity.

What does forgiveness have to do with the brain?

The areas in the brain that are associated with the sympathetic nervous system get engaged when bringing up negative emotional states, interactions, or events. 

Mental states affect our physiology, so if you stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, your executive control functions get limited, meaning you don't have access to parts of your experience or memory that will mitigate those feelings.

What is the point of forgiveness practices?

When you decide that you no longer want to define yourself as a victim and as being harmed by an experience, there are practices that can help. Practices differ; some take a more stoic approach whereas others take a cognitive approach. It depends on the person and what you’re comfortable with.


Kintsugi is a Japanese aesthetic that deals with the idea of repairing pottery with either silver, gold, or platinum within the glue. As a result, the glue holds the broken pottery together but doesn’t hide the fact that it’s imperfect, or that it’s been damaged. A person’s emotional baggage dictates how they function in the world, and how they present themselves. You have to realize that your negative past experiences should not be hidden because they gave you wisdom and made you the person you are today. 

Insight to make you kinder 

None of us are perfect- we have all hurt someone in our lives. Think about an individual who has hurt you or caused you pain. Then reflect on situations where you have mistreated others. This will give you perspective and make you understand that everyone is capable of hurting someone. 


Research suggests that gratitude is a nice precursor to forgiveness, and that people who are more grateful tend to be more forgiving.

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The Alphabet of the Heart 

C: Compassion for yourself and others 

D: Dignity

E: Equanimity 

F: Forgiveness

G: Gratitude

H: Humility

I: Integrity

J: Justice 

K: Kindness 

L: Love 

Read more on the Alphabet of the Heart here.

Heights Smart Supplement contains the highest quality plant-based omega 3 DHA, EPA, along with 18 other key nutrients your brain needs to thrive according to science in just 2 capsules a day.

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