Your Culture and Your Brain

Lessons from cultural neuroscience.

Two years ago, my interest in all matters neuroscience intensified when a magazine commissioned me to write about the source of our dreams. Since then, I’ve discovered that the brain is a pretty unruly organ, changing every time we experience something new, like becoming a parent, or being exposed to clever marketing techniques, sometimes even taking the initiative and making a decision when we haven’t yet told it to.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before researchers would find that not only do our brilliant minds shape our culture (thank you, Steve Jobs!) but that the notion of where we come from is pretty important in shaping our brains. A 2010 Newsweek article talks of a region behind the forehead called the medial prefrontal cortex, which it says represents the self. Researchers found that this region lit up when Americans in the study thought of their identity and traits, but for Chinese volunteers, it activated not only when they considered adjectives to describe themselves, but also their mothers.  The Westerners, apparently showed no such overlap between self and mom.

This new field of study is called cultural neuroscience and is dedicated to exploring the differences between Eastern and Western brains. I, personally, have always been more about mixing and matching.

So if you’re wired a certain way, how do you create a balanced view of the world and learn to see things from an opposite perspective? Here are a few ways.

1. Ignore your first thought.

That’s your brain falling back on decades of cultural influence, remember? So when your mother calls for the third time in as many hours because you might have mentioned that your son had a tummy ache in the morning, ignore your (Western) instinct to turn the phone off and just answer already. I’m Indian and yes, my Eastern brain demands that I do.

2. Focus intently on the things you’re not wired to focus on.

So if you’re not an Asian geek, it’s likely you’ll have to spend more time with math and if you’re an Indian woman, you’ll probably have to work harder to make that emotional transition of moving out of your parents’ house and getting your own place. Blame your ancestors and power through.

3. Try everything three times.

When I traveled frequently, this was my rule. I was not allowed to dismiss anything—a place, a taste, a person, or even an idea—without first having tried it three times. The first time you come across something new, your mind resists it. The second time, it challenges it. The third time, it starts the process of acceptance. Give an opposing idea three chances and then you’re free to dismiss, if that’s what you choose.


Lessons from cultural neuroscience.

Two years ago, my interest in all matters neuroscience intensified when a magazine commissioned me to write about the source of our dreams. Since then, I’ve discovered that the brain is a pretty unruly organ, changing every time we experience something new, like becoming a parent, or being exposed to clever marketing techniques, sometimes even taking the initiative and making a decision when we haven’t yet told it to.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before researchers would find that not only do our brilliant minds shape our culture (thank you, Steve Jobs!) but that the notion of where we come from is pretty important in shaping our brains. A 2010 Newsweek article talks of a region behind the forehead called the medial prefrontal cortex, which it says represents the self. Researchers found that this region lit up when Americans in the study thought of their identity and traits, but for Chinese volunteers, it activated not only when they considered adjectives to describe themselves, but also their mothers.  The Westerners, apparently showed no such overlap between self and mom.

This new field of study is called cultural neuroscience and is dedicated to exploring the differences between Eastern and Western brains. I, personally, have always been more about mixing and matching.

So if you’re wired a certain way, how do you create a balanced view of the world and learn to see things from an opposite perspective? Here are a few ways.

1. Ignore your first thought.

That’s your brain falling back on decades of cultural influence, remember? So when your mother calls for the third time in as many hours because you might have mentioned that your son had a tummy ache in the morning, ignore your (Western) instinct to turn the phone off and just answer already. I’m Indian and yes, my Eastern brain demands that I do.

2. Focus intently on the things you’re not wired to focus on.

So if you’re not an Asian geek, it’s likely you’ll have to spend more time with math and if you’re an Indian woman, you’ll probably have to work harder to make that emotional transition of moving out of your parents’ house and getting your own place. Blame your ancestors and power through.

3. Try everything three times.

When I traveled frequently, this was my rule. I was not allowed to dismiss anything—a place, a taste, a person, or even an idea—without first having tried it three times. The first time you come across something new, your mind resists it. The second time, it challenges it. The third time, it starts the process of acceptance. Give an opposing idea three chances and then you’re free to dismiss, if that’s what you choose.


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