Book review: Brain and culture

Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (Bradford Books), by Bruce Wexler

Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006

This book explains human difficulties with change, including phenomena like the generation gap and the clash of cultures, in terms of brain development over the course of the human lifespan. This offers a fascinating perspective on some of the more difficult problems we face as a species.

The human brain, in the first two dozen years or so of life, is molded by its environment, both its physical surroundings and the cultural environment created by other brains. The first half of this book describes, with extensive supporting evidence from scientific studies, the ways in which the young brain is shaped by experience. The inputs from the environment are essential for the proper functioning of the brain, in particular with regard to perception and language.

The mature brain is very different, though. After structuring itself to mesh with its environment, the brain becomes much less plastic in adulthood, and instead of shaping itself to the input it receives, it tries instead to shape the external world to match its internal conception of what the world is about. That is, we form our ideologies in youth and then tend to perceive and interpret experiences so as to support our worldview while ignoring or discounting contradictory input. The second half of the book discusses the evidence for this and the implications of it. The evidence includes some of the cross-cultural studies in which Asians and Americans notice and focus on different parts of a scene, with Asians taking a more holistic view and Americans finding a prominent central focus and perceiving the rest of the scene as background. There are many other strains of evidence for the ways we interpret reality based on our mental maps.

These types of mental representation are useful, of course, and can save us a lot of time and energy. But when we find that our inner map of reality differs in some important way from the real world, we don’t like it, and we try to restore a good fit between the two. And that’s where things get interesting. Wexler discusses two examples of changes in the outside world that require great effort to adapt to: the loss of a spouse, and moving to another country. Children of immigrants typically do better in terms of learning the language and adopting the customs of the new country, as their brains are still absorbing and adapting to the world around them. Older immigrants have a much harder time of it.

One of the most painful ramifications of the way our brains work, though, is what happens when people from different cultures meet. The supporting data for this part of his argument are not as strong as for the other parts, but Wexler still makes a convincing case that conflict between cultures is often based on a struggle over whose ideology will prevail rather than a struggle over resources like land. He examines contemporary writings about the Crusades, for example, which indicate the ideological fervor (rather than lust for territory) that moved people to join these often doomed enterprises. He traces the stages people go through when meeting a significantly different culture: ignoring the differences, then distorting them so as to interpret them in terms of the existing ideology (e.g., European explorers deciding that certain native Africans were descended from Noah’s son Ham, or Hawaiians deciding, when Captain Cook arrived, that he must be the deity Lono, rather than a human like themselves). But with prolonged contact, these efforts to incorporate the new input into existing mental structures break down, and people are apt to start trying to eliminate the distressing evidence of a contradictory worldview. Because religion is often central to a culture, it appears frequently as the chief cause of intercultural struggles.

So what is to be done about it? Contact between different cultures is much more extensive today than ever before in the history of our species, and it’s not going away any time soon (barring a widespread collapse due to global warming or a collapse in transportation due to energy shortages, in which case a much smaller human population may retreat into local enclaves that do not have much interaction with others elsewhere on the planet). Wexler discusses some of the current problems of intercultural contact, for example, the loss of languages and long-established ways of life as small groups are forced to leave their native lands, or the struggle of even larger countries to maintain their own culture against the juggernaut of American movies, music, etc.

Culture is always changing; although Wexler doesn’t address it extensively, each generation is shaped by a different environment from the one before, and the neurological processes he describes could also account for the negative reactions of generations of parents to the worlds their offspring create (the generation gap). But as difficult as those intergenerational changes are, at least there’s usually enough continuity that a culture continues to think of itself as being in some way essentially the same throughout time. The kind of culture change that comes from outside these days can be much more disruptive, and is often felt as a much more painful loss of identity and meaning. Wexler suggests the university as a model for blending cultures; people are exposed to a wide range of cultural possibilities in a relatively non-threatening atmosphere. This type of smorgasbord approach will never preserve all the world’s existing cultures and languages intact, but it does provide a more or less painless way for cultures to meet and blend without crashing into each other.

I really enjoyed reading this book and felt like I learned a lot. (It seems a bit pricey, though, which is too bad because it might keep the book from getting as wide a readership as it deserves. You might want to consider seeing if your library has this one.) It left me with some questions that I hope someone else follows up on. For example, I wonder about the power of culture to reinforce curiosity and respect for differences as a positive aspect of a group’s identity, and the limits of this approach. (I think there’s a limit to how open you can be before you start to lose your own sense of who you are. Also, some questions of material culture are not open to compromise, and some practices do not deserve respect no matter how important they may be to a culture–clitoridectomy, for example.)

Also, people differ in how open to new experiences and different ideas they are in adulthood–actually I think individuals vary depending on circumstances–and I’d be curious to know how these individual differences play into the overall situation, and whether we can identify any neurobiological differences that could account for them. Could it be that our ability to maintain a balance between preserving our own culture (including standing up for our values) and opening up to others in a peaceful and appropriate way depends on a balance in different personality types in the population?