Why It’s Important To Know That Sensing And Perceiving Are Plastic

Thanks to neu­ro­science research, we today know that we don‘t exclu­sive­ly absorb cul­ture through uni­ver­al­ly shared, stan­dard issue, human per­cep­tu­al equip­ment, but cul­ture deter­mines what we can and can‘t per­ceive. Our func­tion­al cog­ni­tive archi­tec­tures are changed by the cul­ture we live in.

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 persep­tion, are changed by cul­ture. This fas­ci­nat­ing impact of cul­ture on our brain has been shown in sev­er­al inter-cultural exper­i­ments, by Richard E. Nis­bert. These exper­i­ments showed that West­en­ers (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“.

Cul­ture Changes Per­cep­tion

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.

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