Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Brain differences and cultural neuroscience


By now, it should come as no surprise when scientists discover yet another case of experience changing the brain. From the sensory information we absorb to the movements we make, our lives leave footprints on the bumps and fissures of our cortex, so much so that experiences can alter "hard-wired" brain structures. Through rehab, stroke patients can coax a region of the motor cortex on the opposite side of the damaged region to pinch-hit, restoring lost mobility; volunteers who are blindfolded for just five days can reprogram their visual cortex to process sound and touch.

Still, scientists have been surprised at how deeply culture—the language we speak, the values we absorb—shapes the brain, and are rethinking findings derived from studies of Westerners. To take one recent example, a region behind the forehead called the medial prefrontal cortex supposedly represents the self: it is active when we ("we" being the Americans in the study) think of our own identity and traits. But with Chinese volunteers, the results were strikingly different. The "me" circuit hummed not only when they thought whether a particular adjective described themselves, but also when they considered whether it described their mother. The Westerners showed no such overlap between self and mom. Depending whether one lives in a culture that views the self as autonomous and unique or as connected to and part of a larger whole, this neural circuit takes on quite different functions. [...]

1 comment :

  1. This is why peace in the Middle East is so elusive. The most basic understanding of realities are obscured.

    An enemy is someone with whom we as individuals and as a community, have fundamental differences. An enemy has values and beliefs, that are very different than out own. An enemy wants to deprive us of our beliefs and values, because that enemy finds our beliefs repulsive or threatening to their own. Enemies will fight to the death, should they choose to engage us or we choose to engage them.

    There are people who believe that enemies are opponents- that is, they can reasoned with and rationalized with and common ground can be had. We can negotiate with Belgium or Australia despite our differences because they share our value system. No matter how acrimonious our exchanges, we understand that we aren't going to kill each other. There are few, if any, examples of real democracies going to war with each other.

    Believing that an enemy can be an opponent is what led much of Europe to appease Hitler, in the beginning. Herr Hitler, it was believed, was after all a European. Surely he could be reasoned with. Surely he would respond to the rational idea that war was catastrophic.

    In dealing with the Islamists and Hamas, we are not dealing with opponents- they do not share our values and morality. For the radical Islamist or Hamas ideologues, violence and the threat of violence, plays a leading role in reacting to a provocation and in attempting to extract a desired response. The mere threat of violence unleashed is understood to be a blatant attempt to cow civilized society into submission.

    In western cultures and civilizations, violence is the option of last resort.

    The Arabs have a long way to go before we can negotiate with them as opponents.


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