Last night I attended a reading from Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, a new work from Psychiatrist Bruce Wexler at Yale University. The book is just off the presses (Amazon currently offers pre-ordering only) and promises to be splashy; Wexler's book has been endorsed by such psychology superstars as Oliver Sacks and Howard Gardner. I picked up a copy last night and am eager to run through it.
Brain and Culture reportedly grew out of a sabbatical review of recent findings in neuroscience and psychology. The published product begins with a review of the developmental trajectory of neural plasticity in the brain (roughly stated: neural plasticity and the likelihood of significant neural rewiring decrease with age) and uses basic physiology concepts as a framework to address more complex social interactions between people and cultures.
In part, Wexler argues that our need for consonance between our internal conceptions of the world and the structures of the external world itself, coupled with our decreasing abilities to alter our internal mental structures, helps explain the difficulty human beings have adjusting to changes in their lives or worlds -- e.g., adjusting to the loss of a loved one after bereavement, accepting political and social shifts in one's culture, and accepting new cultures or ideas. From Dr. Wexler's introduction:
"...Individuals seek out stimulation that is consistent with their established internal [neural and psychological] structures, and ignore, forget, or attempt to actively discredit information that is consistent with these structures. Things are experienced as pleasurable because they are familiar, while the loss of the familiar produces stress, unhappiness, and dysfunction... Since individuals develop internal cognitive structures that are consonent with their own culture, the appearance in their environment of individuals from a foreign culture, thinking and acting differently, creates an uncomfortable dissonance between internal and external realities."
"Because of the neurobiological importance of the fit between internal structure and external environment, cultures will fight to maintain control over the symbolic environment in which they live and which shapes their children."
I'm not sure yet how far the book will try to push corrollaries between basic sensory development - the aspect of brain plasticity we seem to know the most about - and the higher order processes of individual development and cultural evolution. I worry a bit that some of the analogies that grow out of these comparisons (Is the blindness or visual system weakness of a dark-reared kitten really the same as the "blindness" we have to the practices of cultures we have not been "exposed" to?) can be misleading; our understanding of basic developmental sensory plasticity doesn't necessarily apply to the more complex plastic changes that occur in the mature, thinking adult interacting with his or her environment and culture.
That said, Wexler's grounding the last fifty years or so of neuroscience literature in an interdisciplinary context makes for a thought-provoking read, and I'm very curious to see where he takes it. His talk was greatly appreciated by both myself and my neuroscience-phobic language philosopher partner - a feat in itself. Enjoy.