Monday, March 10, 2008


Attention Expats: You Are Being Rewired

It might take six months, but chances are, it will happen.

You might have noticed the changes already. You might feel strange upon returning to the US or some place in the west and not taking your shoes off at the door. You have an urge to bathe regularly. The sight of a massive steak two days in a row appears gluttonous. You don't want to carry your trash through a public elevator to the dump downstairs. You want to keep baby diapers out of the kitchen. And so on.

If you feel that this is happening to you, well, guess what? Now there's some scientific evidence to back it up. Actually, to be accurate, there are scientists who suspect that this kind of rewiring is going on, and plan to study it on the heels of related research.

It was popular during the 80s and 90s to pull out the old trope that different people from different cultures see the world . . . differently. East Asians are more community focused, and westerners (Americans in particular) are, well, more self-focused.

Supposedly, this even shows in our advertisements.

Now, scientific research claims to show that different cultures utilize their brains differently when making judgments.

The scientists asked 10 Americans and 10 East Asians who had recently arrived in the U.S. to look at pictures of lines within squares.

In some trials, subjects decided whether the lines were the same length, regardless of the surrounding squares, requiring them to judge individual objects independent of context. In others, participants judged whether different sets of lines and squares were in the same proportion, regardless of their absolute sizes, a task that requires comparing objects relative to each other.

The fMRI revealed that Americans' brains worked harder while making relative judgments, because brain regions that reflect mentally demanding tasks lit up. Conversely, East Asians activated the brain's system for difficult jobs while making absolute judgments. Both groups showed less activation in those brain areas while doing tasks that researchers believe are in their cultural comfort zones.

The interesting question--to me and to one of the lead researchers--is whether or not immigrating also impacts how the mind works.
Gabrieli said . . . "There's a hint that six months in a culture already changes you," he said, referring to psychological, rather than neurological, research. "It suggests that there's a lot of flexibility."

It will be interesting to see the results of this kind of research. I'd be curious to hear from those of you who travel between cultures. I certainly have varying degrees of re-entry/decompression, particularly when going from Japan back to the US. How about you? Sometimes the change is so intense, that it actually feels like something physical or chemical is going on. It's also one reason why I always think that if people really want to challenge themselves and experience an alternate reality, they should try to learn another culture or language. That'll shift your perspective if you dedicate yourself. Only, it's not as easy as getting drunk.

I'll be curious to hear how the research pans out.

See the comments at Japundit.

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