Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

How to Incite Meaning

ilja's picture


      I started this paper looking to influencethe meaning people give to things. To see how we form opinions and which partsof our brain are important in forming these viewpoints. Neurobiology showed methe many structures and worlds involved in forming our outputs and theinterpretations of our world. I had to re-discover the story teller as theconscious and sometimes described as the rational part of the brain compared tothe unconscious, intuitive and described as the emotional part of our brain.The consensus between these two parts is important in our daily lives and thecultures in which we live. It is also important to take these contexts intoconsideration when talking about science, education and policy making ofgovernments.

      Neurobiology has taught me to identifydifferent parts of the brain. We learned how individual neurons are structuredinto bigger groups of organs and larger structures that form our outputs. Welearned that it is not a process with a beginning and an ending but more like acycle in which outputs again influence inputs. Furthermore there are otherfactors, environment, genes, context, prior experiences etc. that all play arole in how we interpret the world and how we respond to it. We also discussedthe role of the “story teller,” the cognitive conscious, which contains ourperception of self and our actions, compared to the cognitive unconscious whichis involved in unconscious learning and influences from which we are not aware(9).

      In philosophy concepts of unconscious andconscious learning and decision making have often been described as the‘rational’ versus the ‘emotional’ parts of the brain (1). Some see theemotional part to be one’s soul, others describe it as intuitions or innerdrives. Generally the emotional part of the human is considered to be‘uncontrolled’ and inferior to the rational part. The rational part of thebrain is considered to be the part that separates us from other humans. TheRational part, part that truly matters, should rule over the emotional part ofour brain. Some even go as far as to make claims about creating a utopia ifhumans were only able to control these inner emotions or drives.

      To go back to the neurobiologicalperspective on this matter the article “the Emotional Dog with a Rational Tail”by Johnatan Haidt gives us a different perspective. He explains that there isstill much discussion about which part is involved in which processes and howthey interact but that it has been shown that the “story teller,” “rational” or“conscious” part of the brain takes longer to form outputs than the“intuitions,” “gut feelings” or “unconscious.” When comparing the conclusionsmade by the initial unconscious parts of the brain we find that they often arein consensus with the later formed, conscious, outputs. Haidt even goes as faras to draw the conclusion that the story teller seems to conform to the gutfeelings (1, 3, 6).

      It seems that the story teller only has animpact when there is a serious conflict between the conscious and unconsciousoutputs of the brain. Furthermore, when one wants to change the opinion ofanother person it is thus far more effective to try to change ones ‘gutfeelings’ than to try to reason someone into a different point of view. To methis is a really interesting conclusion since I experience emotions andintuitions often to be regarded as inferior to reasoning. In school nobody istaught to trust their feelings and develop a strong and good sense ofintuition. The idea of loopy science is another example of our dependence onour story tellers. We look for truth, for logic not for feeling or intuition toexplain things.

      The article on “the Emotional Dog with aRational Tail” tends to emphasize the importance of intuition, not as a toolthat should always be regarded as correct and the right choice but as animportant factor in influencing our stories (4,5). It is still important toremember that the brain is never showing us truth but only our individualviewpoints based on our individual interpretations. Humans have sufficientlysimilar bodies and senses to be able to communicate about our interpretationsof the world (8). It therefore seems that there is not only a ‘consensus’within our brain, based on our conscious and unconscious interpretations, butalso on a larger level between individuals about the world.

     The idea or a consensus, that there is noobjective truth or real knowledge of what is out there but only aninterpretation that is agreed upon by different parts, is an interestingconcept in terms of the brain but also within concepts of culture. The‘educated guess’ of the brain about our world is based on a consensus of thebipartite brain, on our genes, experiences and environment etc. The idea of cultureis based on a general story or viewpoint in which communities operate. Cultureis a common viewpoint through which we relate to each other. It is formed fromindividuals who all contribute to the general story that is created. Culturedoes not represent truth or reality, culture is a viewpoint, a general story,within a community of people who all have slightly different individualstories.

      There are important functions that comefrom creating this consensus; it gives us a way to give meaning to the worldaround us and the communities in which we live. At the same time culture aswell as the individual brain can be disabling for an individual part. We haveto remember that the ‘consensus’ is a form of stereotyping (2). There will beconflicts within the brain between the story teller and the unconscious and insociety there will be conflicts between individuals and the general story. Bygiving meaning we inherently assign value and give power to certain aspects ofsociety as well as specific individuals. The subjective viewpoint that wecreate does not take into account that with this we disable others (2).

      Thankfully there is a different way tolook at culture than just through ability and disability. We can look atculture as a mix of different stories and intuitions that can be influenced byeach individual. Furthermore, everyone has something important to add to thismix. Individuals can prevent disability by finding individual abilities withinor outside the general story. Individuality and talent is especially importantto remember in education. Culture then becomes not only about ability ordisability in certain set criteria’s but how every individual can add somethingto the general story and culture in which they live.  A similar idea might be applied to disordersin the brain. One might have to stop looking at them as disabilities and seethem as an individual way to give meaning to oneself and the community ingeneral.

      The last thing I want to mention is theimportance of these ideas of culture and the brain in decision making. Thearticle Why isn’t the brain green?” in the New York Times discussed theapplication of behavioral research to explain why people are inclined to eithersupport or ignore environmental policies. It also discusses why people ingeneral consider problems relevant and urgent or irrelevant and distant. Thisis what started my search through Serendip about the brain, culture, consensusand decision making (3). My findings showed that it is important to payattention to intuition, group pressures and individual ways to influencegeneral stories within a society (1, 2, 3, 6). 

      Reading the article in the New York Timesmade me think about better ways to reach people who might not be naturallyinclined to do something for the environment. Looking at culture, the way ourexperiences are formed and different ways of understanding will helpenvironmentalists to choose the best ways to reach their audiences. Decisionmaking is related to many different worlds and contexts which influence bothour intuition and stories. The consensus that I saw as being part of thefunctioning of the brain does not decrease the complexity of trying to predictour behavior and thinking. What we can do is study the effect of certainpolicies on individuals and societies. To prevent similar mistakes to repeatitself, to improve our educational system, and not to waste our time on changeswhich will not generate the change needed within society.








1.           Haidt, Johnatan. (2001) “ The emotionalDog and its Rational Tail: A social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.”Psychological Review. 108, 814-834. May 5, 2009.<>.

2.           MCDermott, Ray and Varenne, Herve.(1995)“ Culture as disability.” Anthropology and education Queterly.26:323-348, 1995. May 5, 2009.</sci_cult/culturedisability.html>.

3.           Gertner, John. (06, 16, 2009). “ Whyisn’t the brain Green?” The New York Times. May 5 2009.<>.

4.            NA. (12, 19, 2008). “ GutFeelings.” Serendip. May 5, 2009.</exchange/node/3660>.

5.            Blecher, Stacy.( 05/11/2007).“Bllink Book review.” Serendip. May 5, 2009.</exchange/node/468>.

6.           Hopkins, Amber. (2006). “EmotionallyAttached: the Role of Feelings in Decision Making.” Serendip. May 5, 2009.</bb/neuro/neuro06/web1/ahopkins.html>.

7.           Sniezek, Sarah. (05, 11, 2007). “HowGroups Work: A Study of Group Dynamics and its Possible Negative Implications.”Serendip. May 5 2009. </exchange/node/481>.

8.Grobstein, Paul. (2009). “Neurobiology 202 class notes.” Serendip. May 5 2009.</exchange/courses/bio202/s09/notes>.


Paul Grobstein's picture

interacting elements in brains and cultures: a useful idea?

"Culture then becomes... how every individual can add somethingto the general story ... in which they live. A similar idea might be applied to disorders in the brain. One might have to stop looking at them as disabilities and see them as an individual way to give meaning to oneself and the community in general."

Can we really use this in concrete ways?  eg to reach people who might not be naturally inclined to do something for the environment. How?