Westerners are WEIRD

How our culture affects human neuroanatomy, neural circuitry, and evolution

This post is for my readers interested in the interaction between our genes, culture, brains, and evolution. My comments are based on the recently published book (above, 2020) by Joseph Henrich, PhD, Professor and Chair of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. His research focuses on evolutionary approaches to culture, psychology, social status, religion, cooperation, and decision-making. I was clued into his book by Lawson Sachter-Roshi at Windhorse Zen Center. Roshi Lawson has given several teishos (teachings) from it at our Sunday services and during sesshins. The book is a great read: clear, well written, and full of summary data (mainly charts) to bolster his hypotheses. As an evolutionary geneticist in my academic/college professor/researcher career, I am interested in many of these topics. The book really rings my bells on several different level. It is going to take me months to get through it though. It is a 680pp treatise, and I’m a relatively slow, plodding reader. It doesn’t help that you have to stop and think a lot about the things he is saying.

Roshi got into the books’ topics coming from the standpoint of how to to better transmit Zen concepts, truths, and teachings to our Western mind. You have a philosophy/religion, honed and perfected in the East, on the opposite end of the spectrum. The way Eastern and Western minds view, interpret, perceive, the world, How best to translate and transmit something honed and wielded in Eastern minds to Western minds? Still working on this one.

WEIRD is an acronym that stands for–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Henrich’s book is an impressive opus on how the West became so psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, the book’s subtitle. Westerners appear unique to humankind’s past and all other non-western cultures and civilizations current and past. It is not because we have different genes, but because our culture’s emphasized reading since the time of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. It was Luther’s emphasis that each person find his/her own relationship with God/Jesus, and this was to be done by reading/studying Scripture, the Bible. This emphasis resulted in our schools, public education, universities, and a high rate of literacy–and rewired our brains in the process. These are epigenetic changes; ie. changes above the level of the gene that controls the expression of genes, resulting in neurogenesis (brain growth). Result: same genes, different brains. Before the Reformation, no more than 10% of the world’s populations could read it is estimated. And for many societies and populations, 10% is probably way high, probably more like 1%, I’m guessing. It was from these Reformation beginnings that Western culture has such high literacy rates. Tied into this later would come the Industrial Revolution.

Not to worry. The Catholic church got into the game-change plan too. It drove a package of social norms that dramatically altered marriage, families, inheritance, and ownership. Paving the way for cities, impersonal commerce, voluntary organizations, which laid the foundation for charter towns, universities, and transregional religious orders. These were increasingly governed by individualistic norms and laws based on principles and ideas instead of kin relationship. These changes and shifts ushered in the Industrial Revolution, which created a waves of globalization, the effects which still cascade around our world today. Staggering, no?

How did this literacy change with its emphasis of reading change our Western brains?

  • Parts of our brain became specialized. The left ventral occipital-temporal region, which lies between our language, object, and face processing centers, became enlarged and specialized for reading and vocabulary.
  • Our corpus callosum became thicker. The corpus callosum is the information superhighway between our left and right hemispheres.
  • Modified parts of our prefrontal cortex, Broca’s area, that is specialized in language production and other areas engaged ub speech processing and thinking about others’ minds.
  • Improved our verbal memory and broadened our brain’s activation when processing speech.
  • Moved our facial recognition area to the right hemisphere. In other humans facial recognition involves both the right and left hemispheres.
  • As a result, lowered our ability to recognize faces.
  • Reduced our default holistic visual processing in favor of analytical processing. Westerners rely more on breaking things down into components and less on their broad configurations. We are better at seeing the individual trees than the forest they compose. Our gestalt processing abilities have been downgraded.

With these changes the Western part of our species moved from a kin-based, relationship social order, to an individualistic based one. WEIRD psychology was guided by principles and ideas, viewing the world and problems with a highly analytical mind. We focus on personal attributes, tend to be egocentric, greatly value achievements, and have memberships in abstract, idealized social groups over personal relationships, inherited social roles, and face-to-face communities. And, we have been very successful and prosperous. In the process, killing our ecology, polluting and raping the environment, and eliminating indigenous species and peoples.

One of the huge downsides, is all the GUILT we carry. WEIRD people tend to be very guilt-ridden. This is as opposed the rest of human cultures past and present that experience SHAME, not guilt. This will be the subjects of one of my later posts.