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Culture wires the brain


In exploring the future we have to account for culture, along with people’s behavior and trends in society, technology, the economy, and so on. It can be easy to forget the power and influence of culture on society, because it forms the deepest and often hidden underpinnings. But it’s critical to try to understand culture in the context of social change. It can be the thing that amplifies or accelerates a social change, or the thing that slows in down. And most likely, it can help us account for why things unfold differently in different parts of the world. Note too that a long-debated, but valid idea is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that the language we speak shapes how we think as well.
Culture is slow to change, much more so than consumer trends, fads and fashion, and material culture. Culture is what we use, without thinking about it, to decide right and wrong and what things mean. It shapes our response to almost everything, and it underpins our family and social structures and relationships with others. Culture is not immutable, but it is extremely slow and difficult to change.
In our foresight work, we use the integral futures thinking of Ken Wilber, amplified, and brought into a greater futures focus by Rick Slaughter.[LINK]  The integral futures model {DIAGRAM} helps us push our observations and thinking more deeply into the behavioral, motivational, and cultural shapers and underpinnings of what people do. Culture takes up one of the four quadrants.
Now new research suggests that there are “hard-wiring” reasons for culture’s power and durability as an influence: the brain structure is shaped by culture, with differences visible in the brains of people from one culture, compared with another. That work confirms that culture is slow to change, and doesn’t swing with superficial trends in society. And it confirms that culture is extremely difficult to change. Some details are here.  (via http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/007382.html)
We should use this understanding about culture in exploring the future. If nothing else, it will remind us that change will unfold differently in different places. It is much too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that people somewhere else will like or dislike a technology, want or not want something, or understand something just the way we do. More likely, there will be differences. And sometimes, things will be superficially similar, but actually the values and attitudes and deeper understanding of things will be different.
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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Cindy Frewen Wuellner September 23, 2010, 12:30 pm

    John: Isnt it fascinating to discover that our brains are shaped by culture! east asians have stronger perception while westerners have stronger rationality. It would therefore take generations of co-mingling and cultural shifts to make us think alike – if it would ever be possible. 
    I recently read studies regarding what we learn in the womb – mother's preferences, language cadences, even eating patterns that later can lead to diabetes or obesity. So perhaps gender "tendencies" are also part of womb lessons and as you point out, culture at large.
    excellent post, glad to see the integral quadrants as an explanation.
    Cindy @urbanverse

  • John Mahaffie October 4, 2010, 12:38 pm

    Great new thoughts, thanks. I've got some more insights on this I will be writing about soon.

I'd love to hear your thoughts