Friday, July 2, 2010

Culture Shock Really Is Brain Shock

When Michael Angelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he had to work in a very awkward position for several months with his head thrown back looking up. In addition to a serious neck cramp which I am positive he had, his brain rewired itself to see in this kinda upside down way all the time. It took several months for his eyesight to get back to normal.

Not only does man’s brain shape and make culture, but a person’s culture shapes and makes their brain. Because of neuroplasticity (the fact that the experiences one has and behaviors in which one repeatedly engages physically changes their brain) the life you live and what you do in it uniquely shape your brain. Your culture and even the lack of it make your brain.

In Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself, he tells of a group of nomadic people who live on some tropical islands off of the West Coast of Thailand called the Sea Gypsies.

They learn to swim before they learn to walk. They live over half of their lives in boats and on the sea. They dive down in the water to great depths without any equipment. They have learned to lower their heart rates and can stay under twice as long as most people.

What is amazing is that their eyes have adapted to see under water clearly without goggles. Under water, light is bent so that it does not land on the retina where it normally does. The Sea Gypsies have learned to control the shape of their lenses and the size of their pupils to account for this. Really. In studies, others have learned to do this also. This is the nervous system and brain learning to rewire itself based on the demands of the environment.

Studies have shown that musicians who play stringed instruments, have larger brain maps for their active hands. Brain scans of London taxi drivers show that the more years on the job, the larger the area of their brain that stores spatial relationships. Meditators have denser parts of the brain which are activated when paying close attention.

This cultural modification of the brain makes for some trying and humorous situations when someone immigrates to a new country. Culture shock really is brain shock. The native culture is learned and literally wired into the brain. What seems natural in one culture – how close we stand to each other, how loud we speak, the pauses in conversations – are learned. So the creepy guy standing way too close who shouts at you when he talks may just be from somewhere else.

Immigration is much more than simply learning new things. A Japanese six month old can hear the English r-l distinction. At one year, they no longer can. It is a massive rewiring of cortical real estate. Even much smaller changes, such as moving to a different space or changing jobs, require new routines and brain rewiring.


  1. Hiya Debbie,
    I love reading posts and articles about neuroplasticity. It's incredibly interesting to me and I think about it a lot of the time. As I'm currently trying to improve my body and mind's functioning, I'm constantly aware that the situations I put myself in could result in good (or bad) changes in my brain.

    The examples you discuss here are superb. I live in the US currently, but lived in Europe in my 20s -- it certainly was culture shock but I loved it. Trying to learn mannerisms and tease apart intended meanings even in small conversation were quite difficult at first.

    Great discussion, great writing (again!) and thanks for delving into my favorite topic.

  2. Nueroplasticity is truly amazing stuff and really gives us so much power over ourselves and our realities. I always feel it is like someone has given me a secret super power even better than X-ray vision.

    It is gonna happen for good or for bad whether we are conscious of it or not. Good for you for bringing it into your awareness and utilizing it.

    As much as I have disliked change in the past, I am embracing now because I know how good it is for my brain. I don't think I will move to another country anytime soon though! How brave you have been!