Thanks to neuroscience research, we today know that we don‘t exclusively absorb culture through universally shared, standard-issue, human perceptual equipment, but culture determines what we can and can‘t perceive. Our functional cognitive architectures are modified by our culture.
The impact of this so-called perceptual learning is bigger than most of us imagine. Not only literacy and language but also such fundamental brain activities, such as sight and perception, are changed by culture. This fascinating impact of culture on our brain has been shown in several inter-cultural experiments, by Richard E. Nisbett. These experiments showed that Westerners (US Americans) perceive words or images differently from Easterners (Japanese). While Easterners approach words and images „analytically“; i.e. by dividing what they observe into individual parts and therefore perceiving objects in isolation, Easterners approach the world „holistically“, seeing objects as related to each other, perceiving „the whole“.
Our Functional Cognitive Architectures Are Modified By Our Culture
However, if people of one culture emigrate to another, after a few years they start perceiving as people of the newly adopted culture do. Perception, as it turns out, is not a passive, bottom-up process, but already starts when energy from the outside world reaches our body’s sense receptors and move on to the perceptual centers in our brain. While perceiving, the human brain is active and constantly adjusting itself.
The fact that culture changes perception should lead to a much higher tolerance and better understanding among human beings. If I know that my neighbor does not perceive the same while looking at the same object, I might be called upon to have a conversation about the object’s properties first, before getting into a potential argument. Let’s always remember Darwin!