Tiger on tree trunkThink culture just surrounds us?

Think again.

Culture is embedded in our brain.

This was one of many ah-ha’s in my applied neuroscience coursework through the Neuroleadership Institute.

While I knew that each person’s brain is different, I didn’t realize the extent to which brains from different cultures can process experiences differently. 

For example, brain imaging and eye-tracking studies have confirmed earlier cultural behavior studies that show:

  • When looking at pictures or scenes, Westerners tend to focus on objects while Asians tend to focus on contexts and relationships.  For example, when you look at the picture above, what do you see? (See Cultural variation in eye movements during scene perception by Hannah Faye Chua, Julie E. Boland, and Richard E. Nisbett in PNAS, 2005.)
  • Asians tend to view close others, such as their mother, as part of their self, while Westerners tend to see themselves as independent. That supports the view of Asians having more of a collective world view than the individualistic one associated with Westerners, especially Americans. (See Neural representations of close others in collectivistic brains  by Gang Wang, Lihua Mao, Yina Ma, Xuedong Yang, Jingqian Cao, Xi Liu, Jinzhao Wang, Xiaoying Wang and Shihui Han,  in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, March 2011.)

With so many of us working on and with global teams, we need to be mindful that those from cultures other than ours may process the world differently than we do. We all may literally see different things, which influence how we work and interact with each other.

How can we turn this neural and cultural diversity into an advantage? 

Consider these three actions:

  1. Be aware of the cultural differences. Taking the time to think about this topic can help your brain be more flexible and open to possibilities.  Furthermore, it guards against you from projecting your personal thoughts and feelings to others.
  2. Motivate yourself to be curious and learn about different cultures. Steeping yourself in the way others live, think and work will help you become more sensitive to other ways of thinking and being.
  3. Take actions that get you out of your comfort zone as you experience other cultures. For example, even adjusting the way you run your meetings to adapt to other cultures will help you flex and improve your neural plasticity.

These three actions— involving our cognition, motivation and behavior—can help us deal with cultural diversity, as Linn Van Dyne, Soon Ang and David Livermore write about in their paper Cultural Intelligence: A Pathway for Leading in a Rapidly Globalizing World

As our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world gets flatter and more unpredictable, those who can embrace and bridge cultural diversity will not only survive, but thrive.

How are you approaching cultural diversity?

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