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Culture alters the brain

Culture and neuroplasticity
Consulting Educational and Communications Expert
Trends in Education

Learning changes the brain

"Pensar es servir"


Every mind is creative
Click here for an overview of this topic mapped on Prezi.

"We are the only animals that shape the environments that shape our brains."  Bruce Wexler, author of Brain and Culture

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We create culture, but culture also creates us.


What is culture?

Culture may be defined in many ways:

It refers to historically created models for living that guide the behaviour of individuals within a group.

It is the collective forming of the mind that distinguishes one group of people from another.

It is the learned and shared patterns for living within a society - i.e., its signature activities.

It is the shared knowledge and the shared patterns of thought and behaviour created by a group of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the world around them.

These shared patterns of behaviours and interactions, shared patterns of thinking, shared worldviews, and shared ways of understanding the world and experience are learned through socialization, beginning in infancy.

These models of thought, behaviour and worldviews may be explicit, implicit, reasoned, or taken for granted.


The brain shapes culture

People create their culture. For individuals in a cultural group, culture is the internal representation of the world, and it is expressed through worldviews, patterns of thought, behaviour and social interactions that are shared within the group. These cultural patterns and structures are self-maintaining. We identify with people who share our worldviews, and the collective expressions of our culture reinforce it.

Cultures produce the symbols and ideas, tools and artifacts, traditions and technologies through which they are identified, maintained, and transmitted from one generation to another. In our modernized societies, social scientists consider values, symbols, interpretations, and perspectives to be the essential differences between cultures. In other words, "the essence of a culture is not its artifacts, tools, and other tangible cultural elements but how the members of the group interpret, use, and perceive them" (CARLA).


Cultural activities modify the brain

"Neuroplastic research has shown us that every sustained activity ever mapped - including physical activities, sensory activities, learning, thinking, and imagining - changes the brain as well as the mind." (Norman Doidge in "The Culturally Modified Brain" in The Brain That Changes Itself)

While the cognitive, behavioural and material elements of culture are produced by the brain, the patterns of thought, behaviours and activities practiced within a culture change the brain and shape the mind. In other words, in terms of culture and the brain, change happens in two directions. These changes may include perceptual learning - i.e., when the brain learns to perceive in a new way, or with more acuteness, resulting in the development of new brain maps and structures. What we can and cannot perceive depends, to a significant degree, on culture.

Neuroscientists have studied the brains of London taxi drivers. Their research shows that their job training and the years they spend navitating the streets of London rewires their brains. The more years they spend driving their cabs in London, the larger the size of their hippocampus - the area of the brain associated with spatial representations and which also turns short-term to long-term memory. Similarly, research shows that individuals who meditate or teach meditation have a thicker insula - the area of the brain that is activated when we pay close attention. The culture of the Moken of the Andaman Sea, mentioned below, is an example of cultural activities rewiring brain circuits and enabling individuals in that culture to control they way their eyes see under water.

How do education systems change the brain? Here's some food for thought from Ken Robinson:

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When cultures collide

Cultural disruption, which is not a new phenomenon, has various aspects. Within every culture, differences within the group may result in family and intergenerational conflicts and other social issues. Throughout history cultures have collided when colonizing nations imposed their worldviews and governing structures to dominate and exploit the resources of subjugated nations and peoples around the globe. Nowadays different cultures continue to come into contact, and sometimes they collide, as people from around the globe move in large numbers to cities and countries where the dominant culture is substantially different and often in conflict with their own.

When people transition from one culture to another, from one culture into another, or from one social environment to another, they experience culture shock - i.e., brain shock. In some cases, their worldview is disrupted. Generally speaking, however, an initial honeymoon period is often followed by anxiety, rejection of the new culture, and then by different stages of adjustment. Learning, adjusting and adapting to a new culture - often called acculturation - is one way the plastic brain mediates between cultures.

However, cultural conflict may also lead to rigid mindsets. Norman Doidge uses the term "plastic paradox" to convey that brain plasticity is neutral - it may be positive or negative. The term plastic paradox expresses the idea that while neuroplasticity means brain change, neuroplasticity can also lead to rigidity in the brain. Repetitive patterns of behaviour create and strengthen neural pathways that, once established, are not readily undone. However, neuroplasticity means we have the capacity to adapt throughout life, even though change is generally more effortful as we age.

This process of rewiring the brain involves subtractive as well as additive plasticity, as the brain gradually lets go or unlearns of some old habits of mind and learns to see and think in different ways. It's not surprising that this process is easier for the young than it is for the old, especially as older brains are less plastic than younger ones. Older people tend to seek out others like themselves because familiarity feels better and is more comfortable. Sometimes within a culture or family, intergenerational conflict may occur. However, rigidity and flexibility of mind are not limited to age; neither is age-related rigidity a given.

Throughout history, different cultures have often co-existed in one place with varying degrees of harmony. Similarly, in many modernized societies today, it is not unusual for different cultures to co-exist with varying degrees of harmony, nor is it surprising that an individual may identify with and live as a member different cultures.


Between cultures - the mediating brain

Culture provides a way of perceiving and understanding the world. It also determines what we can and cannot perceive. Modern neuroscience confirms that cultures change the brain's functional cognitive architecture. In other words, Culture changes the physical structures of the brain and reorganizes how areas of the brain connect and work together to process sensory input such as seeing, as well as higher level cognitive activities such literacy and language, as well as memory.

How would the memory capacity of the griots or other keepers of the culture in highly evolved oral traditions compare to the (human) memory capacity of technology-dependent specialists in modernized societies? In the absence of such a study, we may also consider how the differences in memory capacity between a London taxi driver and an occasional Sunday driver might compare.

Research has shown that Easterners and Westerners perceive differently. The differences between Eastern "holistic" and Western "analytic" ways of seeing are produced by culture. The aspects of perception underlying a wide-angle perspective that interrelates the "wholeness" of things vs. an narrow lens that divides the whole into parts are beyond conscious control and dependent on brain circuits and maps which, you will remember, are culturally modified.

However, as the brain is plastic, when people change cultures they learn to perceive differently, and often they become able to perceive in ways that reflect both cultures. Studies have shown that the bicultural brain can be "primed" to perceive in one culture or the other. Participants from Hong Kong, whose brains have learned to perceive in ways that reflect British as well as Chinese cultures, perceived in Western ways when shown iconic images from the West, and perceived in Eastern ways when shown iconic imaged from the East.

The crosscultural nature of perceptual learning reminds us that "we see with our brains, not with our eyes." In other words, the brain is not a passive receiver of sensory stimuli. As with the sensory processes, the cultural brain actively selects and processes the information it receives to perceive and make sense of the world.

Global communication systems, international capitalism and multicultural societies have created a world that requires crosscultural understanding, and even perceptual learning, in our everyday lives and workplaces. Understanding neuroplasticity may motivate us to adopt a positive attitude that approaches change with an open mind. We now know that over time, focus and practice lead eventually to the development of new brain maps and structures that make our crosscultural interactions feel comfortable and natural.


The Moken of the Andaman Sea ("Sea Gypsies")
Source, "The Culturally Modified Brain" in Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself

Various nomadic peoples live mostly on the water off the west coast of Thailand. Among them are the Moken of the Andaman Sea. The signature activities of their culture have become well-known in the West since it was discovered that they can lower their heart rate to dive much deeper and remain underwater much longer than most divers, and they can also control the shape of their lenses and the size of their pupils to see clearly under water without goggles. Living and learning the signature activities particular to your culture rewires your brain in ways that are particular to your culture.

The particular abilities that characterize the Moken are learned cultural activities. In other words, like reading and writing, which are signature activities in many cultures today, underwater vision is not a genetically evolved trait. Anna Gislén, a Swedish researcher, has taught Swedish children to improve their underwater vision by constricting their pupils, an example of perceptual learning.


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The Moken drew the attention of the media following the December 26, 2004, tsunami that brought the Indian Ocean inland, killing hundreds and thousands of unprepared and unsuspecting victims. Even experienced Burmese seamen perished, but the Moken all survived. They attributed their survival to perceptual abilities rooted in their cultural knowledge. They saw the changing patterns and movements of the sea, saw dolphins heading for deeper water and elephants moving to higher ground, heard the quiet of the noisy cicadas, and remembered their traditional story about the wave that devours. Not dependent on science and technology to interpret changes in the environment and to warn them of imminent danger, they knew to seek the safety of deeper waters or high ground.

Responding to the observation that a crew of experienced Burmese seamen had all perished at sea, a Moken observed: "They were looking at squid . . . They saw nothing,they looked at nothing. They don't know how to look." Their oral traditions and other forms of cultural knowledge have taught the Moken to see, not just underwater, but also to perceive and understand their world.