We are all similar

Illustration of crowd of people - icon silhouettes vector. Social icon. Flat style design

Illustration of crowd of people - icon silhouettes vector. Social icon. Flat style design

We are living in an increasingly polarised world. When we draw lines in the sand to demarcate our socio-cultural and religious identities, the consequences are violent. This is visible in the threats to liberal institutions, in mob lynchings, in suicide bombings, and in the building of walls that would put ancient Chinese engineering to shame.

However, our self-identity has been scientifically proven to have a strong biological basis and that contradicts the notion that, as human beings, we voluntarily choose certain behaviours over others.

In his fascinating book, The Man Who Wasn’t There , Anil Ananthaswamy illustrates how when things go awry in the brain, we get a peek into the way certain neurobiological processes work. For instance, it seems so obvious to say, “I exist”. But people who suffer from Cotard’s Syndrome claim, “I don’t exist.” By understanding abnormal neurobiological underpinnings, we have gained an insight into the neuroscience of our notions of self-identity.

Neurologist-philosopher Gerhard Roth’s words are profound: “Irrespective of its genetic endowment, a human baby growing up in Africa, Europe or Japan will become an African, a European or a Japanese... he will never acquire a full understanding of other cultures since the brain has passed through the narrow bottleneck of culturalization.”

Indeed, cultural neuroscience is a cutting-edge area of scientific exploration, using highly sophisticated brain-imaging tools such as fMRIs, which examine the neurobiological underpinnings of self-identity and how the culture we live in affects the neural pathways that dictate behaviour.

For example, when solving simple arithmetic problems, native English speakers engage the left perisylvian cortices — areas that are typically involved in linguistic processing. However, native Chinese speakers show very little activation in this area. Instead, they show marked activation in a pre-motor association area. This demonstrates that the same behavioural outcome is accomplished by different brain pathways, depending on their cultural backgrounds.

Renowned psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar examines the above biological phenomena through the lens of Indian identity in his book, The Indians , and posits that Indians, no matter which nook of the country they are from, share certain biologically predicated responses in thought and behaviour to the same stimuli.

The notion that we are more similar than different — whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, forward or backward caste, rich or poor, local or from the diaspora — may elicit ire in some people. But where do socio-cultural assertions by an insular few stand in the face of larger forces — biologically-proven phenomena that, in a beautifully Socratic irony, have partial bases in the very cultures they stem from?

The writer is based in Chennai .

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Printable version | Aug 11, 2022 11:15:43 pm |