The stripling neuroscience of culture

The Summer 2009 RSA Journal has an article I found fascinating when I read it on the plane yesterday. I still found it so this morning – it hadn't dropped from my mind as so many things do. It's called "Cultural Creatures" and is written by Adam Zeman who is Professor of Cognitive and Behavioural Neurology at the Peninsula Medical School in the UK. He states that "we are naturally cultural animals, equipped with brains that have evolved to acquire and create culture".

Clearly this is a very complex area of investigation and I'm skeptical about trying to simplify the complex too much. But David Brooks writing (partly) on the topic The Young and the Neuro in the New York Times about the 3rd Annual Social and Affective Neuroscience Conference reported that:

Jonathan B. Freeman of Tufts and others peered into the reward centers of the brain such as the caudate nucleus. They found that among Americans, that region was likely to be activated by dominant behavior, whereas among Japanese, it was more likely to be activated by subordinate behavior – the same region rewarding different patterns of behavior depending on culture.

All of these studies are baby steps in a long conversation, and young academics are properly circumspect about drawing broad conclusions. But eventually their work could give us a clearer picture of what we mean by fuzzy words like 'culture.'

Steven Pinker (a psychologist who researches and writes extensively on language and cognition) makes the point "there has to be an innate circuitry that does the learning, that creates the culture, that acquires the culture, and that responds to socialization."

Back to Adam Zeman. He poses the question "Can we learn anything from the stripling neuroscience of culture?" I'm hoping that we can – and it seems that it's already growing to be a field of intense inquiry. It might help with the question I get asked a lot "How can we change the culture of this organization?"