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Culture and the brain

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Winter


A new book explores the links between neural networks, feelings and culture.

Bruce E. Wexler, M.D., professor of psychiatry, believes that understanding how our brains work can illuminate human experiences small and large—from why our favorite letters in the alphabet are those in our own names to why we must struggle to adjust when a loved one dies. In his new book, Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, he summarizes contemporary research into the brain and how it explains why we resist the unfamiliar and the alien—whether it’s a colorful tattoo on our teenager’s biceps or the rhetoric of those who insist theirs is the only true religion.

“The aim of this book is to look at what we know about neural processes to see if that can increase our understanding of the psychological and social processes that rest upon this neurobiological platform,” said Wexler, a clinician and researcher at the Connecticut Mental Health Center. “Our appreciation of the neurobiology can help us to understand—and eventually deal with—both psychological and social issues.”

The connections between neurons that create networks derive not only from our genes but also from sensory input when we’re young. And human neural networks remain plastic into the third decade of life, much longer than those of any other animal.

The less flexible adult human brain strives to see the world in a way that “agrees with internal structures.” That’s why physicians evaluating a sick patient may choose a common diagnosis even when the patient’s problems don’t quite fit. “We complete perceptions in keeping with our expectations, and those expectations are based on past experience, but not necessarily on the facts at hand,” Wexler observed.

It is the comfort of the familiar that motivates some immigrants to settle in ethnic enclaves, Chinatowns and Little Pakistans that recreate their former homes. The generation gap is especially poignant for immigrants, whose children are shaped by a very different world from the one in which they grew up. And for all parents, the world changes from generation to generation. “Most children in the world today are raised almost entirely in human-made environments,” Wexler said. Because each new generation has different brains from those of their parents, they in turn raise their children differently—leading to what Wexler calls “transgenerational shaping of brain function.” But the generation gap discomfits all parents, because children loom large in parental neural networks.

“We don’t like our children to turn into foreigners, because our children are so richly represented within us,” said Wexler. Similarly, we have trouble adapting when a loved one dies, because that person occupied a central place in our neural networks. “It’s a very arduous task to restructure, and it takes adults about a year.”

What he calls “the neurobiological antagonism to difference” can help explain violent cultural clashes: genocide in Armenia, Germany and Bosnia; massacre in Rwanda; Christians warring against Muslim “infidels;” and Muslims attacking Western “infidels.”

Understanding our resistance to differences can point the way to reconciliation. Wexler now spends most of his spare time working for a nonprofit group he started called A Different Future. Its aim is to “amplify the voices” of Arabs and Israelis advocating peace—delivering a message of mutual respect that will embed itself into the neural networks of young Israelis and Palestinians.

Wexler admits that even his own neural networks may balk at the unfamiliar. On a trip though Ohio he saw a building that looked out of place. He remembers thinking, “What is a mosque doing here?”

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