Beware! Culture Changes Your Brain Without You Noticing

Your brain is in constant change. With every new experience (meaning: every single moment) connections between the neurons in your brain are created. As a result, the structure of your brain changes all the time.  Scientists call this “neuroplasticity”. Seeing that, our notion of IQ does not really make sense. Since everything we learn recreates our brain, and every time neurons connect with each other, we are able to process information faster. What this means is that by learning something new, we do not only store the information in our brain, but we also become smarter.

In that sense, we also learn culture. Whenever we engage in an activity such as painting, playing the guitar or interacting with people, sharing ideas or philosophies, what we do is nothing else than learning culture. In doing so, we also get to know what is right or wrong, good or bad – we establish our moral guidelines. This has the effect that we pay attention to these things that are congruent with the values we learned. Let’s say your parents are mostly academicians. They place a high value on education and they communicate this to you regularly. It is only natural that you will learn that education should be your priority – and that is what you do.

Obviously this also implies that you learn what you should not prioritizeYou then simply ignore any information which is not according to the values that were pushed into your brain. Or, if there is really no way to blend out the information (because you are constantly exposed to it), it makes you feel uncomfortable. When was the last time that you opened a newspaper with a completely different ideology than your own? Just give it a try! If your political orientation is right, try to read a communist newspaper. If you are christian, read a newspaper that is strongly influenced by Islam. How do you feel?

In one of my previous articles “Your Perspective is Never Complete“, I’ve already pointed out what impact culture can have on your perception. While western people see the world in an analytic way, meaning that they look at the impact of individual elements on other elements, Asians think more holistically. They look at the big picture – what impact does the environment have on this situation?

Very interesting for me was when I learned of an experiment with citizens of Hong Kong. They are influenced by both – the Chinese and the British culture all the same. Researchers have shown that the people of Hong Kong can be “primed” to think either way. After showing them pictures which evoke western associations, they are more likely to think the western way. When you show them pictures relevant to the Chinese culture, it’s the other way round.

This makes it clear that it is possible to learn both ways of thinking.

And that is exactly what you do when you move into a new cultural environment. When you move to another country and you are constantly exposed to the local way of thinking, sooner or later the neurons in your brain will be rewired – you will be able to perceive the world in a completely new way.

The problem here is that when you just arrived in a new culture, the local values are the complete opposite of your own. You can see where this leads to, right? Yes, 100 points! The problem is that since the local way of doing things is too different than your own, there is a good chance that you will tune out the information. When things become too uncomfortable for you, you might just decide that it is better to spend your time with other expats or do anything else to avoid contact with the local ideology. Obviously you won’t learn anything that way. Except, maybe, that the local people are all “idiots”. If that happens than you can probably already pack your stuff and fly back home. Trust me, it is better for you.


Well, if I were you I would make sure that this doesn’t happen. Living in a different culture can be an amazing experience. But it also has the amazing benefit that, as Norman Doidge calls it “immigration is an unending, brutal workout for the adult brain”. It is only logical, isn’t it? Every day unfamiliar stuff happens. Every day you learn new stuff. Every day you are forced out of your comfort zone. Yes, living abroad changes you – and your brain – a lot.

So how do I ensure that I make the most out of my experience abroad?

Ah, good question! The impact on the structure of your brain is the strongest through what Norman calls “massed practice”. It basically means that you expose yourself as much as possible to a certain field of knowledge in an extremely short period of time. So if you want to learn how to play the guitar, for example, and you start immediately by playing 5 hours every day for three weeks, then there will be a very strong change in the structure of your brain.

The same thing works with culture. When you arrive in your new home, do not take it slow. Shock yourself by directly learning as much as possible about the “local way” in the first weeks after you arrive. Chances are that many things will make you feel uncomfortable – they are completely opposed to your cultural values, after all.

Now, this has two benefits. First of all the impact on your brain will be much stronger that way. Second you will also create a habit of challenging your learning new stuff and challenging your own way of thinking, rather than “taking it slow”. If you start slow, it will be very difficult for you to get out of the habit of staying in your comfort zone (thanks, neuroplasticity!)

So, what more is there to say? Get out of your comfort zone right now & get smarter day by day!

You can learn more about neuroplasticity by reading “The Brain That Changes Itself” from Norman Doidge. Trust me – you will love it!



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