How Culture Alters Your Brain

A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.

Mahatma Gandhi

With it’s many aspects culture might seem like a fixed upon itself standing phenomenon. It is not what it looks like though. Culture would not exist without our collective belief. To grow up in a certain place you become part of a culture, not because you chose this, but because everybody in your environment is living this way. If you want it or not, your entire life is interconnected with this creation.

Another way to look at it, is to imagine you are a mirror and culture is a giant painting. The more you walk in front of it, the more will stick to your mirror. You become increasingly a reflection of the paining, and eventually it does not matter anymore if the painting is around or not, for you to reflect it.

However, if your parents have different values than the world around you and raise you their way, conflict can occur. I both experienced this with clients who fled their country as a consequence of political instability, but also when I was traveling myself.

In this case the way I was brought up did not fit my new environment and consequently made me question both the (new) world around me, just as much reflecting on where I come from. I remember when I went to Palestine for an internship. I found it intensely annoying when there were moments I literally had nothing to do until the moment I had to do everything at once. This felt so inefficient and did not agree with the idea of time and planning that I grew up with. Similarly, I now live in Brazil where time also has a different meaning, and to make an appointment doesn’t necessarily mean that you made it.

In the following research you can see how profoundly culture affects our brain. Researchers found fascinating differences between native Chinese, and native English speakers. They looked at what parts of the brain showed activity when native Chinese speakers solved the same mathematical formula as native English speakers. They found that when the Chinese solved the formula there was more activity in the areas connected with visual and movement information. Whereas in the case of the English speakers, there was more activity in the sound and language areas. An explanation might be that in the Chinese language there is more emphasis on images and writing, and in the English language more on language processing and verbal information.

Thus, it seems that culture literally affects the way we are programmed. Nevertheless, at the same time it cannot exist without our collective belief. This does mean then, that culture can change. Since it is the result of many people believing it, it will only change when a tipping point is reached. When one person stops believing the status quo, nothing will happen. When one fourth of the population starts perceiving it’s culture differently, things are bound to shift.

This rigidity can be found in the way women still receive less salary than man in western Europe. Even though, it is generally accepted that there is no reason for them to be payed unequally. This form of underpayment is a consequence of beliefs held tens of years ago. Nowadays, the majority of people belief differently, still the fact that this idea was a basic part of yesterdays culture makes it hard to erase within a decade. Only when the old generation of beliefs disappear, new ideas can settle in.

Another example of this are (old) taboos like having sex before marriage, or not marrying at all, even though you are together with somebody for a long time. In Bolivia for example, I was told that these are taboos, where in the Netherlands both are perceived as normal. As a consequence, somebody thinking about not marrying in Bolivia might feel ashamed or frustrated, where in the Netherlands a person contemplating the same thought might experience nothing different than when he or she thinks of coffee.

saltflats
The amazing salt flats in Uyuni, Bolivia. Also the country, where it is a taboo not to marry when you stay together with someone.

I believe it important to know that the connections between our thoughts, emotions, behavior, and culture are inevitable. Or like Mahatma Gandhi said: “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” Then, when you are aware of the subjectivity of culture, you have the opportunity to revalue any concept that is part of it.

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Connect To Change

In recent times I have acquired a different view on what change means and how it works. Generally change is understood as I am changing. The fact that we use it as a verb however, does not mean I am the subject of the process. We have created a world where I am the center of my story, and every other person of theirs. Be it in evolution or in nature. We tend to forget nevertheless, that there is a lot more than me, you and us in this world. Not everything is palpable, but it is does affect everyone, including the world around us.

The idea that change is something that should be initiated by me, is exactly what has come to struck me as odd. Once I relieve myself of the idea, change is not as surprising, confusing, and confronting anymore. The world within and around me is always moving, even without my conscious interference. Nevertheless, when my attention is needed I can trust my body, mind and environment to communicate with me. I will feel uncomfortable the moment I start walking wrong.

Change Signals

The signals I receive however, are not always directly pointing at it’s origin. Feelings of insecurity and general discomfort might arise as a consequence of a toxic relationship. Then, when we take a look at our environment; we tend to develop strong connections with the places we live in, and work at. A new environment we tend to compare to what we already know, instead of viewing it as it is. A stimulus that might indicate our environment demands change, does not necessarily need to come from my (social) environment. This might just as well be back pain, confusion or a lack of sleep.

The confusion that arises as a consequence of these change signals, I believe to be the result of the values and thoughts we hold towards them. Originating more from our formal education, upbringing and social environment’s values, than they are our own. Therefore, to synchronize with this process can be confronting before it is liberating. To realize that the direction I am moving, is different than what I have always perceived as important, can be unbalancing.

Letting Change Happen

The gain is though, that once I engage with the process instead of resisting it, life gets interesting around every turn. This perception of change is something that results in no day being the same. To run with it is not only highly satisfying, I believe it is also a trainable capacity. Noticing every signal for what it is when it comes to my awareness, will allow me to engage quicker in this unfolding, and with less insecurities. Ultimately, I know that change is not solely a capacity, but rather a synonym to life.

 

The Power of a Shower

I come home after 9 months of travelling, experiencing barely what I wanted beforehand, but everything I needed. I changed my perspective on a million of subjects, I learned new languages, I met amazing people, I found a new home, I saw amazing things and I enjoyed every day of it, even when I did not. Now, with all these memories continuously replaying in my head, I try to make sense of them. How can I, without diminishing the value of all that I experienced, incorporate this into a life that satisfies me.

Follow My Own Advice

In a previous blog, I wrote about having the guts to follow heart before brain. At this moment in time, I feel that I am at a point where it is essential that I follow my own advice. I notice that I have a certain vision regarding how I want to live my life and where I want to invest my energy. The thing is, there is a complete lack of structure nor a path to follow. I see no clear trajectory and nobody is telling me where to go. There is just a burning energy in my heart when it comes to the idea and purpose I derive from everything that I experienced.

Insecurities

When I start thinking (with my head brain) however, questions and insecurities instantly arise. What about money and what if I fail? After, I get stuck in these thought patterns that seem to have no way out of them. Once I shift my awareness back down to the heart though, everything seems really clear. I make the conscious decision to engage with, and live this feeling. What follows, is total evaporation of all the worries and doubts that were in my brain before. Instead of all the negative energy blocking my thoughts with impossibilities, it is now liberated and ideas start flowing around automatically.

It is interesting to see how efficient it is to thrive upon heartfelt energy. Once I accept it’s presence it seems that it overrules what goes on in the brain. The insecurity (and therefore lack of courage) that blocks this process is a quality of the gut brain however (more on that here).

Realizations In The Shower

What helped initiate this shift was a simple conversation between two man that I watched. The shower after, allowed me to process this: how turning to the age of fifty had provoked changes in the two talking to what was really important in life. Then, in the shower after all, is one of these moments we are usually alone with our thoughts. Even when we are unable to find time during the day to find a moment of tranquility, every person with a shower still has one.

This made me realize, that I want to value life exactly like that. I am 26 years old, far from turning fifty, but I do not feel that I should wait with acting upon this realization until then. Nevertheless, here is another reason to be insecure. If everybody starts realizing these things with fifty, am I not missing something if I am contemplating similar thoughts right now? Then I remember however, have the guts to follow heart before brain.

Why I Am Antisocial

Over the previous year I have met quite the amount of people. Ranging from young to old, poor to rich and everything along the line from very extrovert to very introverted. Regardless of personality type, I have had great conversations with all of them. Previously, having felt uncomfortable with “small talk”, I have become quite good at it now. The continuous exposure to conversation through being part of open cultures has helped me a lot. As a result, I come to the conclusion that small talk does not necessarily mean there is no purpose or content to what I am talking about. I know now, that the distinction between small talk, and otherwise meaningful conversation does not make sense to me anymore.

More Than Small Talk

From my point of view, to make this distinction, also means diminishing the fun and value of having a conversation. Just standing next to someone, there are so many more things happening than just the exchange of words. The biggest amount of our communication is non-verbal anyway. This is something I have become very aware of after meeting all these people. There are little words needed to figure out how comfortable I am going to be with somebody new.

I perceive that the expectations I have entering a conversation play a big role in this process. However, I have interacted so often now, that it has become easier to be at ease during a first encounter. Nevertheless, there are still situations I wish I would be able to be more open. On the other hand though, I have been in situations where I was purposefully antisocial. As things go, the truth is, that there are people I prefer not to talk to.

Becoming Antisocial

In the beginning, I was genuinely wondering if I was being impolite or closing down. Now I recognize though, that I have met so many people that I can say quite quickly if I want to invest energy in a connection. Being honest about what I like and do not like, together with my current outlook at life give me a compass in these situations. At the same time, ever since I stopped worrying about this, it has become easier to start a conversation with somebody new. Regardless if I am more, or less interested in that person. When I know beforehand that I am interested in nothing more than talking for a bit now, I will be more likely to engage in this conversation than when I am denying myself this truth. As things go, nothing is more uncomfortable and energy consuming than talking to somebody I do not want to talk to, at the same time worrying how to not talk to this person again.

On a deeper level I know, this all comes down to what is called self love. I cannot invest all my energy without having the time to recharge. Meeting people is awesome, but there are moments I do not have the energy for it. Just like with helping somebody else, either through my work or in my private life. If I do not take care of myself first, the situation I am creating will be unsustainable. Eventually, making me the person that would need help, even though I am trying to help somebody else.

The following I always conceive as a great metaphor to explain what I am getting at. Everybody that has been on an airplane, is familiar with the safety instructions before take-off. When the instruction gets to the point of the oxygen masks, they always tell you to put yours on first, before you help others. This practical form of “self love” is the same as being purposefully antisocial. When I do not take a breather every now and then, by not connecting with somebody or just straight up walking away from conversation, I will be unable to keep connecting with people long-term.

Talking Less Results In The Opposite

The interesting thing is, that since I started becoming more conscious about when, how, and under what terms I want to connect to somebody, I have actually found it easier to start talking to another person. I am not wasting energy on internal conflict, which would otherwise be something that inhibits my capacity to connect. To stay true to my own motivation and willingness to exchange, seems to be the ultimate tool to keep building authentic relationships.

 

Behavioral Change Step 1: Increasing Awareness

I am frequently reflecting on how I have in the past months come to certain realizations and perspective changes. When I notice that something does not fit or feel right, the first step is, to become aware of it’s origin. After, there is the challenge of fully realizing this new knowledge in to an alternative mindset.

I thought it would be interesting to break down this process, that I myself have gone through so many times already. From becoming aware to integrating new views, hopefully inspiring you to do the same when you think it necessary.

In this first part I will explain how I try to increase my own awareness to make me see things I would like to view, do, or feel differently about. For me this is the first step to adjusting perspective. Without awareness I would just keep living a misty reality where everything seems devised and uncontrollable.

I believe that awareness comes with regular discomfort. Accepting that I know nothing, even when I think I do, enables me to learn new outlooks. When I go out of my way to talk to different people, trying things I never did before and saying yes to the unknown all provoke this widening of my view.

Also, I try to keep questioning the world around me. Even when things seem totally obvious it is all the more important to do so. As things go, that is the moment I get comfortable in my current reality. Even though, I recreate my reality every second. This means that when I start believing in something to be the way it is, it inhibits my capacity to adjust. I start living an irrelevant version of a past me that has nothing to do with my current state of affairs.

Where it can be hard to actively practice awareness, there are often experiences that we can use to grow up on. They can be as simple as becoming aware that it is hard to cut with the backside of a knife, or the moment that our partner is angry with us. Both of these experiences can induce a contemplative state that might change our outlook to how we use a knife or what kind of person we are in relation to somebody else.

Furthermore, reading books, travelling, changing jobs, and trying a new sport, amongst other things, might all induce a similar reflective state. I think that everything we do is actually changing our perspective continuously. However, we tend to be so stuck in our habits that we need a relatively strong stimulus to let go of our past selves. Still, if I stay present in everything I do, it is easier to realize it’s meaning.

In my own case, travelling really helped me with shifting perspective. I was definitely aware of how certain things were not making me happy or limiting my feelings and outlook. At that time though, I did not have the capacity to fully realize the cause. Upon entering a different environment there was a reduction of stimuli pulling me in different directions. This freed up space to do something with the thoughts already floating around. This calm presence with my thoughts turned out to be the missing link.

Where I summed up a couple of things that might induce a change of outlook before. There are also certain things that you can do to stay more present. I believe for me the easiest and at the same time the most underestimated one, is to literally do nothing. When there is nothing but me and my mind present, stuff already starts sorting itself out. To increase the power of these moments I sometimes use breathing exercises or meditation to calm my mind and become even more present with my thoughts.

To sum this all up I think that to increase my awareness, a questioning and accepting attitude is a prerequisite. Where it always starts with one question, usually there are a lot to follow. In the meantime there remains the challenge to not get lost in the maze that is our material life. Rather, developing awareness time and time again to get to a more fundamental level.

How Fear Influences Your Everyday Life (1)

This is the first post in a two part series on how fear influences your everyday life. In this first post I will try to dissect how fear is wired in to our current life without a valid reason. In the second part I will explore how society is actually stimulating this fear-based lifestyle, at the same time offering us a solution in materialistic form, instead of supporting us to deal with it internally.

Fear in Everyday Conversation

We all experience a sense of fear on a regular basis. Popping up whenever we see something happen we do not like, or when we think of something that might happen in the future. We are afraid of an exam, afraid to tell the truth or afraid to change the way we act. The feeling of being afraid is so normal that there are sentences like: “I am afraid this is not going work” or “I am afraid I am not going to make it on time”. Whereas, these sentences are used as messages, the words they contain are connected to feelings deeper rooted in our organisms.

The simplicity of these messages and the frequency with what we use them is a sign of how deeply rooted fear is in our behavior. If we do not pay attention a lot of our behavior and decisions, unknowingly will be based on fear. I for example, notice that I often feel stress and act stressed when I have to get too many things done in “too little” time. This is an example of fear-based behavior. As soon as I realize that stressing it does not support me to achieve my goal in any case, and that time is a subjective phenomenon anyway, it becomes easier to let go of these feelings.

In general though, we might be afraid to engage in new ventures, relationships or a change of life direction, all leaving us paralyzed in the present. Regardless of the probability of success of the desired choice, the result will always be the same; no change.

Origin and Consequence

Fear can be the consequence and origin of a wide variety of feelings. Fear by itself, awkwardness, shame and insecurity are definitely feelings that are connected in a lot of situations. While these feelings are usually blacklisted in our life – we do not want to feel them – they corrupt our decision making and behavior even more this way.

I for myself, can feel insecure before engaging in a conversation, definitely when I do not speak the language fluently. Another reason might be, when I have to tell somebody something I think they will not like in that moment. I experienced this both in my personal life as at work. Whereas, in the former this would be about speaking true to my feelings, in the latter it usually meant speaking the truth, and supposedly provoking a feeling of disappointment in my client. On both occasions though, these short-term “negative” effects do not mean anything when compared to what is to be gained from knowing the truth.

Essential

However, fear is probably the single most essential feeling to ensure the progression of our physical life. This sensation focuses all our attention in the present, diminishes the importance of any other feeling, heightens our essential physical abilities, and inhibits conscious decision making. Because, it is time to run away from a charging lion, safe a child from a speeding car or to steer clear of a creepy person in the night.

Nevertheless, we now connect these primal feelings with none life-threatening situations. Feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence supported by unnatural expectations from our environment constantly trigger fear(like) responses. School, work, schedules, planning, culture, social values and traffic together with constructs like time and money create an environment full of “dangers”.

Where fear might be experienced as it is, it might also develop into different behavior. This makes it harder to see where the origin of the discomfort is. Possibly, even developing in to chronic health problems. Take a look around your social environment (including yourself), and you will definitely encounter somebody that lives a fear-based life. It should be no surprise that these people look and act tense, and eventually live tense, marking their body and behavior with fear.

Acceptance

Where it is hard to block out all sensations of fear, it is the blocking of these types of emotions that actually strengthens them. To me though, it makes more sense to feel the fear and then deal with it, instead of steering clear. As soon as we get comfortable feeling fear it gets easier to deal with situations that arouse it. At the same time, allowing us to question both the situation and the feeling itself. Where after, it is possible to see this feeling for what it really is, and we might get to a point where we realize that it is actually provoked by something else.

Next week I will continue with what “something else” might be. Please come back next week to read on.