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Brain and Culture: The Crossroads Between Humanity and Biology

Angel Desai's picture

Throughout the course of the semester, the Bio 202 class has attempted to formulate an understanding between mechanisms of the brain and subsequent human behavior. One of the core areas of discussion has been the integrated action of neurons and its consequences on human accomplishment. Of particular interest is the way in which sensory stimulation from the external world can interrelate with groups of neurons and actually mediate change in an individual’s behavior. The book “Brain and Culture,” by Bruce E. Wexler takes the fundamental issues discussed in Bio 202 and applies them to larger ideological and socio-cultural movements. More specifically, Wexler argues that while still in the stages of early development, the human brain is shaped and adjusted according to its external environment. However, as the brain continues to develop into adolescence and eventually adulthood, individuals attempt to change the outer world in order to make it consistent with the “inner world” that has been cultivated since birth.[1] Wexler further argues that when incongruities between the environment and the developed brain inevitably occur, significant dysfunction and stress are the result. This line of reasoning offers an interesting point of reference for a discussion of reality as presented during the course. It is the hope here that by using the arguments suggested by “Brain and Culture,” a new understanding of reality in neurobiological terms can be further developed.

One of the key points introduced by Wexler addresses the concept of “neural plasticity.” This term refers to the malleability of the brain in the face of environmental stimuli. This is most clearly seen in children since the nature of the sensory stimulation they receive guides their development. While that in itself offers interesting avenues of exploration, it is the creation of an “inner world” that is most pertinent to any discussion of reality and expectation. Wexler posits that the interaction of a developing psyche with the external world is a key factor in the formation of inner identification. This is essential to later behavior because it provides a template against which everything that is experienced in adulthood will be compared. If the environment does not match up to the internal expectations of an individual, they will work hard to make the external world fit with their internal reality. This can happen either through ignoring the dissonant factor, or eliminating that which is unpleasing.[2] In effect, the brain filters everyday experience to alter the individual’s personal perception of the world. This line of reasoning is similar to the information presented in class as well as thoughts from the previous web paper on Vedic belief in an absolute truth.

The process of filtering experience suggests that reality is subjective and constructed by neuronal mechanisms of the observer.[3] This is turn implies that everyday experience is not “real” because it is highly processed by the nervous system to fit with existing internal belief systems. While such a concept was suggested in class through the examination of lateral pathways and visual organization, the evidence provided by Wexler allows for a broader interpretation of reality and the place of culture within that reality. Not only can we posit the existence of multiple realities based on subjective experience, Wexler also suggests that that the “inner world” is prominent enough to persuade individuals to subject their belief systems on others.[4] In the context of the discussions in class, such a statement has startling implications. The reality that each person constructs can on some occasions, provide a reason to coerce others into accepting that same reality. On a macroscopic level, this illustrates the inability of many people to act autonomously. From a neurobiological perspective, this demonstrates the deep-seated necessity for the human brain to develop through socialization. Wexler highlights both points by explaining the connection between the internal world and conflict between cultures as an expression of the discord of variable realities existing within a society. His use of anecdotal evidence is especially compelling, and acts as an additional insight into the study of reality and social interaction studied in Bio 202.

Perhaps one of the most interesting hypotheses made in “Brain and Culture” comes at the end in which Wexler seeks to explain the changing tide of neurobiology and behavior in the past 50 years. As nations become increasingly integrated and information becomes readily available, it is much more difficult to find communities that act as the sole influence on younger generations.[5] The internal world of the developing child is still highly malleable, but is now subject to forces beyond familial structures. From a Bio 202 perspective, this might mean that the reality an individual experiences is progressively more varied as exposure to the external world becomes increasingly nuanced. In addition, one might presuppose that as a result of this newfound flux in the world’s environment, younger generations are now experiencing realities which are constantly changing according to the presence of new input. Perhaps this means that as humans we are progressing to a stage where the external world is reasserting its authority over us, creating stresses and disjunction unprecedented to the generations of people before us. While such a possibility may be slightly grandiose in the context of this discussion, it is interesting to consider the societal implications of these basic neurobiological claims.

While “Brain and Culture” is an immensely important book in furthering any conversation concerning the brain and behavior, there are certain topics in it that require additional attention. A main concern is the claim Wexler makes linking modern cultural conflict with neuronal arrangements. While the underlying premise is intriguing, the end of the book is highly reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” which also portrays a doomsday showdown between east and west. Granted, cultural conflict does exist between the groups mentioned by Wexler, however, the book treads a thin line between neurobiology and international relations theory that is difficult to accept. The biology behind the social phenomenon becomes lost in the thicket of international development and political theory.

On a more personal level, Wexler’s arguments engender new avenues of self-reflection broached in previous web papers. As a practitioner of certain Vedic philosophical systems, Wexler’s “internal world” makes sense in the context of the self and its reality. The inner world that we seek to impose on the external environment is akin to the Vedic belief that reality is an illusion created by a false reliance on the material world. It is difficult however, to reconcile the idea that a “non-real” world in the Vedic sense, affects an individual’s self to the same degree that the self is able to project its own reality on the world. Unlike “Brain and Culture,” Vedic philosophy does not make a distinction between an individual’s environment at large and the external world as perceived by the observer. If, as Wexler advocates, an individual’s external world molds their inner world, then the Vedic belief that reality is in the eye of the beholder must be incomplete. Resolving both points of view then becomes extremely complicated.

Wexler’s argument about the external world playing a large part in the creation of personal ideology also appeals to my own sense of identity in another way. As a first-generation American, I sincerely relate to the idea that social interaction and tightly-knit communal beliefs play an important role in early development. Many of the values (or personal reality!) that I now seek to impose on others is a product of ideology which was thrust upon me as a young child. Perhaps more interesting however, is the conflict I sometimes feel between my original inner world, and new ideologies that are a product of environmental circumstances like college or living away from home. Wexler suggests that internal change does occur for some people, but the result is often traumatic and full of stress.[6] This is an extremely accurate summation of my own development. As Wexler states, “[t]he angry consternation of their elders will not stop the youth of each culture from assuming characteristics from the others and then changing their cultures from within as they themselves assume leadership roles and act to make the external world consonant with their hybrid selves.”[7] As a child of a 21st century America and immigrant parents my exposure to multiple outlets of sensory stimulation guides my behavior in opposing directions. My reality is based on a constant state of denial and acceptance of differing cultural norms. While a clear resolution may never occur, reading this book has helped me realize that my sentiments are in some way, universal. Ultimately, Wexler’s goal is to explain human behavior in terms of the universal. While economics, politics, religion and cultural beliefs provide stark points of division among human beings, “Brain and Culture” offers a common neurobiological ground from which human experience can and should be further explored.

[1] Wexler, Bruce E. Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006. p. 191.

[2] Ibid., p. 210.

[3] Neurobiology and Behavior. Lecture. 4/10/08.

[4] Wexler, p. 210.

[5] Ibid., p. 251.

[6] Ibid., p. 172.

[7] Ibid., p. 251.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain and culture

"in the stages of early development, the human brain is shaped and adjusted according to its external environment. However, as the brain continues to develop into adolescence and eventually adulthood, individuals attempt to change the outer world in order to make it consistent with the “inner world” that has been cultivated since birth. Wexler further argues that when incongruities between the environment and the developed brain inevitably occur, significant dysfunction and stress are the result."

VERY interesting way to think about brain and culture. But do the "incongruities" have to lead to "dysfunction"? Might they not instead open up new possibilities for exploration/understanding?