A&O READING – NOVELTY, CULTURE, BIAS – EXCERPT from review of Wexler 2006


Our Aversion to the Unfamiliar


Excerpts from a book review of Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change by Bruce E. Wexler (2006) by Judy Illes, Vivian Chin. Published in American Scientist Jan-Feb 2007.


All the themes in DEEP ETHOLOGY are touched on; neuroplasticity; nature, nurture and developmental trajectory of the frontal lobes of the human cortex; balance between internal structures and external reality [look at A&O notes on cognitive dissonance and how it drives learning]; unknowns (novelty) evoke negative bias (but some bring pleasure); knowns (the familiar) bring positive bias (but some bring displeasure).   (highlighted and bold-face text added)

In her 1992 book, Imperial Eyes, literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt observed that “the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations” is often a battlefield, “usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict.” This concept of a contact zone (to use the term Pratt coined for it) provides the basis for a hypothesis that Bruce Wexler tests in Brain and Culture—that early wiring in the brain makes it hard for people later to accept novelty and unfamiliar experiences. Difficulty in handling the unfamiliar—people with a different skin color, different values or a different ideology, for example—is an essential feature of the often-negative interactions between cultures.

Wexler’s thesis is that “the developing human brain shapes itself to its environment.” The particular form of the environment is relatively insignificant. What is important, Wexler claims, is that incongruities between the environment and the developed brain introduce distress and dysfunction. He bases his argument on findings from laboratory experiments, which he applies to psychological and social problems.

After a brief introduction describing how the human brain works, Wexler provides in part I (“Transgenerational Shaping of Human Brain Function”) a review of basic neurobiological experiments examining brain plasticity. The range of topics within this domain is great and includes visual-adaptation experiments, language acquisition through imitation, and the effects of parental nurturing and sibling interactions on the development of human intelligence. In his discussion of these subjects, Wexler explores the relation between the internal structure of the brain and the external environment. For example, human frontal lobes (which, as Wexler points out, are “thought to be closely associated with values, morality, emotion, and other personality traits”) are not fully mature until the age of 20 to 25 years. This late maturation may provide an evolutionary advantage, he says, in that it affords more time “to incorporate the growing collective wisdom and latest innovations.”

Part II (“The Neurobiology of Ideology”) constitutes the heart and soul of this volume. Here Wexler brings empirical data from laboratory experiments to bear on historical phenomena, and neuroanatomical data to bear on social phenomena. He describes, for example, how brain-imaging studies have correlated activation of the amygdala—induced when people view pictures of ethnically diverse human faces—with social prejudice. He explores the neurobiological antagonism to difference, whether it relates to the relatively mundane (dress, food, theater) or the more profound (premarital sexual behavior, escape from a brutal parent, disobedience in combat).

In addition, Wexler explains that people develop internal, experience-determined neural structures that “limit, shape, and focus perception” on the aspects of environmental stimulation that they commonly experience. Their external and internal worlds, therefore, act in concordance with each other. Wexler argues that when people are faced with information that does not agree with their internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information. When changes in the environment are great, corresponding internal changes are accompanied by distress and dysfunction. The inability to reconcile differences between strange others and ingrained notions of “humanness” can culminate in violence. The neurobiological imperative to maintain a balance between internal structures and external reality fuels this struggle for control, which contributes to making the contact zone a place of intractable conflict. The result manifests itself in our world today in, to give two examples, racial inequality and intercultural hostility. Indeed, part of the problem, Wexler suggests, is that interaction among diverse populations is a relatively new phenomenon:

For 80,000 to 100,000 years human beings lived in isolated communities distributed around the globe. Division into separate communities may have preceded the development of much of a language or culture, and there may never have been a common human language or culture as we think of each today. Certainly cultures developed independently of one another over most of the history of the species, and each community was unaware that most of the others even existed. The distinguishing feature of the current epoch in human development is the discovery and initiation of contact among previously separate and very different peoples and cultures.

Wexler describes how the prejudicial beliefs that lead to cultural clashes derive directly from sociocultural input, beginning with the important adults (parents, for instance) to whom an individual is exposed during childhood. He makes a few bigger leaps that are less easy to digest, such as when he compares a kitten’s experience with unfamiliar oblique lines in a visual-plasticity experiment to that of an immigrant displaced from a village distinguished by flatlands to a city of skyscrapers. But his arguments are provocative and thoughtful nonetheless.

However, Wexler does not appear to have considered the simple fact that some unknowns bring joy. Personality, sense of identity and taste can have a profound effect in determining whether unfamiliar stimuli are perceived as negative. People often have positive reactions to new experiences, such as the sound of an agreeable piece of music never heard before, the smell of a delicious but unfamiliar recipe, or even novel concepts such as the ones in this book.

There have also been times when communities and even nations have overcome cultural conflict. Consider the work of Martin Luther King or the women’s rights movement. To take another example, many immigrants forced to leave their home countries suffer irrecoverably from the experience, but others choose to move and find better opportunities or maybe just a pleasant change of pace. Some people are driven to help others from different cultures, as evidenced by the long existence of international organizations such as the Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders and Engineers Without Borders.

Furthermore, Wexler’s position is that familiarity, or “consonance between inner and outer worlds,” is inherently pleasurable. An external event that coincides with a past experience in a person’s life, he asserts, is enjoyable “merely on the basis of familiarity and independent of any qualities of the object.” But people often express negative reactions toward familiar stimuli, such as boredom with a job or relationship. In addition, some immigrants avoid moving to familiar social environments that might incite memories of painful or stressful experiences, such as racial or gender inequality. Thus not all goal-directed behavior can be explained by the internal-external dichotomy on which Wexler bases his position. These counterexamples cast doubt on his claim that familiarity is always pleasurable.

The brain is, after all, both the driver and receiver of ideology. Certainly much of human behavior is hardwired. But unlike the heart, liver or even our genes, the brain can respond in a dynamic way not only to internal physiological cues but also to unpredictable external ones, and it can embody that response in future behavior. This book is a foray into uncharted territory, exploring how neuroscience can unveil ways to help us understand one another despite our differences. Wexler calls for education to alter our instinctive aversion to the unfamiliar, and Brain and Culture is a significant contribution to that effort. It is an approach from which all citizens and all cultures can benefit.


Reviewer Information: Judy Illes is acting associate professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine and director of the Program in Neuroethics at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. Vivian Chin is program coordinator for neuroethics at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.