a bearded man sitting in lotus with cultural body paint

How Culture Alters Your Brain

A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.

Mahatma Gandhi

With it’s many aspects culture might seems like an upon itself standing phenomenon. It is not what it looks like though. Culture would not exist without our collective belief. To grow up in a certain place you become part of a culture, not because you chose this, but because everybody in your environment is living this way. If you want it or not, your life is interconnected with this creation.

Another way to look at it, is to imagine you are a mirror and culture is a giant painting. The more you walk in front of it, the more will stick to your mirror. You become increasingly a reflection of the paining, and eventually it does not matter anymore if the painting is around or not, for you to reflect it.

However, if your parents have different values than the world around you and raise you their way, conflict can occur. I both experienced this with clients who fled their country as a consequence of political instability, but also when I was traveling myself.

Culture Clashes

In this case the way I was brought up did not fit my new environment and consequently made me question both the (new) world around me, just as much reflecting on where I come from. I remember when I went to Palestine for an internship. Often there were moments that I did nothing but stare at the ceiling. This was an intensely annoying experience to me. Then on top of that, a moment later I had to do everything at once. This felt so inefficient and did not agree with the idea of time and planning that I grew up with. Similarly, I now live in Brazil where time also has a different meaning. Here for example, if you make an appointment doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually made it.

Culture Affects Brain Neurology

In the following research you can see how profoundly culture affects our brain. Researchers found fascinating differences between native Chinese, and native English speakers. They looked at what parts of the brain showed activity when native Chinese speakers solved the same mathematical formula as native English speakers. They found that when the Chinese solved the formula there was more activity in the areas connected with visual and movement information. Whereas in the case of the English speakers, there was more activity in the sound and language areas. An explanation might be that in the Chinese language there is more emphasis on images and writing, and in the English language more on language processing and verbal information.

Thus, it seems that culture literally affects the way we are programmed. Nevertheless, at the same time it cannot exist without our collective belief. This does mean then, that culture can change. Still, because culture is the result of a collective belief, it will only change when enough people change their beliefs. When only one person stops believing the status quo, nothing will happen. If one fourth of the population perceive their culture differently though, there will be change.

Culture is Hard to Change

This rigidity is still present in the way women still receive less salary than man in western Europe. Nowadays, the majority of the people know that there is no valid reason for this. Still, the fact that this idea was a basic part of yesterdays culture makes it hard to erase in this relatively short period of time. Only when the old generation of beliefs disappear, new ideas can settle in.

Another example of this are (old) taboos like having sex before marriage, or not marrying at all, even though you are together with somebody for a long time. I learned in Bolivia that these are taboos, even though in the Netherlands both are perceived as normal. As a consequence, somebody thinking about not marrying in Bolivia might feel ashamed or frustrated, where in the Netherlands a person contemplating the same thought might experience nothing different than when he or she thinks of coffee.

The salt flats by day in Uyuni in Bolivia
The amazing salt flats in Uyuni, Bolivia. Also the country, where it is a taboo not to marry. (Photo by Eduardo Gutiérrez from Unsplash)

I believe it important to know that the connections between our thoughts, emotions, behavior, and culture are inevitable. Or like Mahatma Gandhi said: “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” Nevertheless, when you are aware of the subjectivity of culture, you have the opportunity to revalue any concept that is part of it.


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