The Culturally Modified Brain

Bruce Wexler, a psychiatrist and researcher from Yale University, in his book Brain and Culture that the relative decline in neuroplasticity as we age explains many social phenomena. In childhood our brains readily shape themselves in response to the world, developing neuropsychological structures, which include our pictures or representations of the world. These structures form the neuronal basis for all our perceptual habits and beliefs, all the way up to complex ideologies. Like all plastic phenomena, these structures tend to get reinforced early on, if repeated, and become self-sustaining.

As we age and plasticity declines, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to change in response to the world, even if we want to. We find familiar types of stimulation pleasurable; we seek out like-minded individuals to associate with, and research shows we tend to ignore or forget, or attempt to discredit, information that does not match our beliefs, or perception of the world, because it is very distressing and difficult to think and perceive in unfamiliar ways.

Increasingly, the aging individual acts to preserve the structures within, and when there is a mismatch between his internal neurocognitive structures and the world, he seeks to change the world. In small ways he begins to micromanage his environment, to control it and make it familiar. But this process, writ large, often leads whole cultural groups to try to impose their view of the world on other cultures, and they often become violent, especially in the modern world, where globalization has brought different cultures together, exacerbating the problem. Wexler’s point, then, is that much of the cross-cultural conflict we see is a product of the relative decrease in plasticity.

One could add that the totalitarian regimes seem to have an intuitive awareness that it becomes hard for people to change after a certain age. For instance, North Korea, the most thoroughgoing totalitarian regime in existence, places children in school from ages two and a half top four years; where they spend almost every waking hour being immersed in a cult of adoration for dictator Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung. They can see their parents only on weekends. Practically every story read to them is about the leader. Forty per cent of the primary school textbooks are devoted wholly to describing the two Kims. This continues all the way through school. Hatred of the enemy is drilled in with massed practice as well, so that a brain circuit forms linking the perception of “the enemy” with negative emotions automatically.

A typical math quiz asks, “Three soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them, if they all killed an equal number of soldiers?” Such perceptual emotional networks, once established in an indoctrinated people, do not lead only to mere “differences of opinion” between them and their adversaries, but to plasticity-based anatomical differences, which are much harder to bridge and overcome with ordinary persuasion.

Norman Doidge, M.D.
from The Brain That Changes Itself
Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

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