Your Brain on Culture: The Fascinating Field of Cultural Neuroscience:

Updated: Apr 4

Why Culture, Global Citizenship, and Languages Should Be Prioritized in Education.

I'm a brain nerd. I admit it. I love to study how the brain is wired for learning and experiences. I spend countless hours researching and reading about Neuroplasticity, Neurodiversity, and Cultural Neuroscience. It has long been believed that human biological and psychological development are separate in the brain, one being environmental and the other innate. Because of this long-held belief, biology and psychology have always been studied separately. I have always believed that connecting with people who are different than myself, those who come from other cultures, hold different beliefs, who have different identities, has been paramount in changing my brain. I knew that my willingness to step outside of my own environment and comfort zone had been an essential part of changing my viewpoints and changing my brain's biology. It turns out I was not wrong! Let me introduce you to Cultural Neuroscience, a discipline now recognized as marrying biology with psychology! Cultural Neuroscience is a research field that focuses on the interrelation between a human’s cultural environment and neurobiological systems. The field particularly incorporates ideas and perspectives from related domains like anthropology, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience to study sociocultural influences on human behaviors. Such impacts on behavior are often measured using various neuroimaging methods, through which cross-cultural variability in neural activity can be examined (Kitayama and Park). In other words, Cultural Neuroscience studies how genetic and cultural factors interact to influence each other and grow the prefrontal cortex of the brain! What happens in the prefrontal cortex? That's where all of our executive functioning lies! The prefrontal cortex is where all of our higher-order thinking happens, it's where we make our decisions, and it's where we keep our reasoning skills! It's never too late to build your prefrontal cortex. However, studies show that the younger we start, the more plasticity we create! Further, we all have a cultural identity shaped by our biology, experiences, and environments. These cultural identities have often been described using the tree and the iceberg models:

Both models divide cultural identity into three categories: surface culture, shallow culture, and root culture.

Surface culture refers to what can be easily seen on the outside or experienced by those not part of that culture on the "surface" without a large amount of immersion. Surface culture refers to food, language, national symbols, holidays, dance, art, literature, music, games, etc.

Shallow culture refers to the aspects of a culture that require a bit more of an immersive experience and are a bit more ingrained in a person's cultural identity. Shallow culture includes etiquette, manners, attitudes, facial expressions, non-verbal communication, communication styles, and social rules.

Deep Culture refers to the collective deeply held beliefs and values of a culture and are significantly ingrained in a person's cultural identity. Deep culture usually includes things like family values, religious beliefs, political beliefs, and problem-solving. It is a long-held belief amongst many that deep culture cannot be changed. That it is static, rooted so far into a person's cultural identity that no amount of social or psychological influences will change it. I couldn't disagree more, and the science doesn't support this.

I tend to think of cultural identity like the ocean.

When we go swimming in the ocean, we can see what is just below the surface. It doesn't take very much effort to immerse our faces in the water. Then, if we go snorkeling, we are a little deeper. We see more colorful fish, maybe some coral or beautiful sea plants. If we go scuba diving, we see deeper water, more ecosystems, and more sea creatures. Here is the thing about the ocean though, while all that lives in the ocean may be fixed to a certain geographical area, the water is not! Water moves, it flows, it evaporates into clouds and rains down on the land. Water is ever moving and ever-changing, and so are people these days! People are moving around the planet more than ever before. They are experiencing each other through the internet and apps that connect people. When we have the opportunity to see another environment or way of living, it literally changes the surface of our brains and gives us another perspective, another way of thinking. Humans have to be open to these new ways, we have to have a growth mindset and be willing to step outside of our comfort zones, but it is possible to change our thinking, add to our cultural identities, adapt, and change that deep culture within us! I see these changes as growth in our cultural identities, an adaptation by learning new things.

We can facilitate this growth in cultural identity as educators by providing opportunities for our students to explore their own cultural identities. This growth has to start within us though, as educators, we need to explore our own identities and, in turn, our own implicit biases before we can help our students do the same. Implicit bias is a term that refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our actions, understanding, and decisions unconsciously. Oftentimes, we don't recognize our own implicit biases unless we actually take the time to explore them and why we feel the way we do about certain issues or why we feel uncomfortable in certain situations. We cannot change what we do not acknowledge, so an exploration of implicit bias is essential in beginning the process of exploring cultural identity with students. The first step to exploring implicit bias is to help students identify the elements and influences that make up their cultural identities. I have two particular exercises that I use in professional development with educators and students to help them reflect on and identify who they are as people. The first is an identity wheel. The identity wheel prompts the students to fill in the blanks with information about their identity. These prompts include ethnicity and race, nationality, languages they speak, favorite things, education, etc. Once the students identified the elements that make up their identities, they are then asked to reflect upon those elements and share which ones they think about the most, the least, which ones they want to learn more about, those they feel they have control over, and those they feel that they cannot control. They then color code the wheel based on their reflections.

The second exercise is called "Our Cultural Selves." This exercise allows students to reflect upon who they are by identifying what they believe comes from the inside versus influences that come from the outside. I give the students the outline of a person, with instructions to write words or draw pictures of things inside the person that illustrates who they are from the inside. On the outside, they draw pictures or write words that illustrate who they are from the inside. This exercise aims to help the students realize that the inside and the outside are interconnected.

These activities are done with every class and every group that travels abroad with LW5S Ed. We don't just do these activities at the beginning of the year or before travel and forget about them; however, we revisit them, sometimes multiple times a year, to add to them, to adapt them, to see what has changed. The biggest change I see in these is when students travel abroad. It is amazing what happens to the identity wheel and the "Cultural Selves" upon return from travel with intent. Their entire worlds change, and what they saw at the surface before is now more ingrained in their own identities. If you are interested in these activities, they are part of the lesson I designed called "Our Cultural Selves."

Our final project is to create a "Where I'm From" poem based on the original poem written by George Ella Lyon. You can hear the poem and more about her work by scanning the QR Code. George

Ella Lyon wrote this poem in response to the hatred and fear-mongering alive in The United States today. She wanted the reader to experience where she is from, and she challenges others to write similar poems to share where they are from to share the diversity in our stories. The lesson plan and materials for this lesson are called "Where I'm From Poem."

Once the students have explored their own cultural identities, it's time to start working on implicit biases. I do this by presenting students with a list of different people worldwide and asking them to write down all the stereotypes about these people. We then discuss where stereotypes originate and how we can move beyond a stereotype to really get to know people. This exercise is part of the "Our Cultural Selves" lesson.

I also have another exercise where I give students pictures of different people and write that person's life story in groups. The groups must give the person a name, decide the person's political views, socioeconomic status, decide what kind of family life this person has, etc. This leads to a discussion on implicit bias by helping students think about why they told the story of this person's life the way they did. The students then work in groups to come up with strategies for fighting against bias. The list of strategies is then displayed in the classroom or in a place where students can have access to them, so when issues of bias are presented in the future, the students can use those strategies to help them remove their bias. This activity is called "Identifying Implicit Bias," and I have found it highly effective.

These activities lead students to the realization that they can change their thinking and grow their brains by simply making meaningful connections with others in the world. This starts with the individual students being willing to open their minds and hearts to others. Ultimately I believe that all people should leave their own communities and countries and meet people around the world and really experience other ways of life. The younger, the better, and the more often, the better! We can start, though, by making sure our students have the chance to explore their identities in a safe environment so that they can make connections with their peers and those that live in their own community.

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©2020 by Elizabeth Porter- Language with the Five Senses. Proudly created with