Neuroscience is a leap in understanding the human mind and psychology, just like the leap made by quantum physics in knowing the world and the universe. Most of the questions that this new field aims to answer take into account a factor of the equation that challenged all researches in humanistic studies: human individuality and subjectivity. From this viewpoint as well, neuroscientific knowledge does not happen only in the laboratory and in the biology research centers, but it also has a wide applicability in completely different fields such as media, economy, philosophy and even ethics and (religious) metaphysics. Furthermore, neuroscience creates a long fathomed bridge between art and science through fields such as neuroanthropology, neuroesthetics and neurocinematics.
Neuroplasticity and the cultural context
Anthropology was one of the first fields of research to focus on cultural diversity, employing observation and analysis as the main tools, moving from culture to the human mind and, subsequently, to the neuronal area. The last decades of neuroanthropology research conclude that, generally speaking, the human mind and cognitive processes are deeply rooted in the cultural and social context in which they grow and function. Moreover, exposure to a completely different social and cultural context than the one that shaped you, although initially sets adjustment efforts, in time it grows to influence your neuronal configuration, to activate parts of your brain that you were not used to use or to change your perspective and neurological reactions to certain stimuli. Neuroplasticity allows us not only to create cognitive tools adapted to the environment, but also to check those tools, to reinstall new programs and to do away with others.
“Use it or lose it” is the most frequent saying about the brain because the most used areas are also the most active. Niccolo Paganini is the greatest violinist of all time not because he was born a musical prodigy, although part of these skills can be inherited genetically, but because he spent almost his entire life practicing the violin minimum ten hours a day, which allowed him to perfect his dexterity, and also because he had unusually long fingers.
Cultural neuroscience is a theoretical and empirical research approach to mechanisms through which culture, the human brain and our genetic inheritance interact together. Within this approach, one analyzed biological factors that influence cultural variety and, thus, the way in which the brain is set up and, on the other hand, the cultural factors that cause changes not only in the brain structure and the way it functions, but also at the genetic level. A study published by Joan Y. Chiao and Nalini Ambadi on cultural neuroscience explains the methodology of this emerging field and lists the main areas in which this new field that is complementary to evolutionary psychology can operate in.
This field that will soon expand to all cultural aspects, starting with performance arts – such as cinema or theater – and ending with neuroesthetics, neuroliterature and, quite recently, neurofashion, is empowered by the complexity of the analysis tools it uses. At the cultural level, one analyzes the behavioral paradigm; at the biological, neuronal level one uses the specific equipment for neuroscience and at the genetic level one uses the candidate functional polymorphisms. The west versus east behavioral studies have shown so far that there are cultural variations in the basic psychological processes such as spatial and temporal perception, thinking, memory, emotions and self. For example, Mandarin speakers perceive time as vertical, while westerners perceive it as “horizontal”.
Both neuroanthropology and neuroculture focus, mainly, on the importance of context for every neuro or cultural event and thus encourage a holistic, interdisciplinary approach, both of human and exact sciences. The article The Receiving Context signed by Paul Mason explains the mechanisms through which context affects the interpretation process of different types of information. “The physicist Heisenberg demonstrated that photons of light appear to behave as either a particle or a wave depending upon how the observer sets up his experiment. In a similar manner, our understanding of the human brain depends upon our subjective gaze”, says Mason.
In an interview with Alec Balasescu that I have published in the NMSBA’s Neuromarketing Theory&Practice Magazine, he reaches the following conclusion: “We are complex entities with a behavior that results from the infinite and minute interactions between our brains, our bodies and our socio-cultural environment. If we concentrate upon one single element the results may be valid, but they would constitute only one piece of the entire puzzle”.
(To be continued)