Review - Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change

By Bandy Lee

Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change by Bruce E. Wexler (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006)

For practioners concerned with ministry and social change, Brain and Culture, is a groundbreaking book providing new insights into how individuals and societies encounter change and the implications for ideologies and social change. Though not directly addressed in the book, it is only a small leap to discern implications for religious practice and ministry.

The work appears at an exciting time, when divergent areas of inquiry, after centuries of fragmentation and specialization, are coming together. Concepts of body and soul, determinism and free will, and the viewpoints of science and religion are converging, not through negotiation or compromise, but through developments within the disciplines themselves. In recent decades, religion has undergone a momentous evolution, transcending fixed notions and rules to approach an essence that underlies different languages and practices. A similar phenomenon is occurring in the sciences, in that the assumed hard-wiring of the brain, the fixed course of gene expression, and even the durable quality of physical matter are turning out to reflect methodology more than inherent qualities of nature. We are finally nearing the possibility of integration since the replacement of universal faith, expressed in Augustine’s “Credo ut intellegam,” with its opposite, universal doubt, articulated in Descartes’ “De omnibus dubitandum est,” rendered a science that is “lame” and a religion that is “blind,” to borrow Einstein’s words. That a solution would arise in the most delicate interface of neuroscience might be unsurprising, but scientists grappled with the emerging data for decades before arriving at an adequate language to communicate them.

With scholarly rigor and highly original thinking, Professor Wexler draws connections between brain characteristics and socio-cultural dynamics over a solid foundation as few others could. His presentation is both meticulous and far-reaching, while the language he uses makes the exciting developments of neuroscience accessible to students of all fields. In 298 succinct pages, he guides the non-technical reader through an overview of the human brain; how environmental stimulation physically shapes it well into early adulthood; how these structures in turn influence an individual’s experience of the environment; and the personal, social, and global consequences of the reduction of neuroplasticity upon reaching adulthood. He creates a continuum between existing paradigms and offers a revolutionary interpretation that makes these scientific findings highly relevant in our understanding of both personal experience and the perils of our time.

Dr. Wexler warns in the introduction that the volume is full of “details,” but it is in these details that the reader will find support for each stage of his argument and his distinction from authors who might make unsupported leaps in logic. Drawing from a wealth of historical, philosophical, anthropological, political, and literary sources, the examples he gives animate as well as demonstrate in form the content of his synthesizing argument. Through persuasion, we return to the ancient tenet that reality is a process, including our own understanding, and we accept this with firm footing. Humanity is not chained by its biology, and it is also not cut adrift in random and capricious motives but arises as a distinct identity that is summative of environment-specific experiences. The book gives empiric confirmation to anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s observation that, when it comes to human beings, “culture, rather than being added on … to a finished … animal, was ingredient, and centrally ingredient, in the production of that animal itself.” Since culture is increasingly of human design, human beings come to fashion not only their environment but their very nature. Hence, it is part of our biology that we are all connected and responsible for one another.

With this malleability also come variation and a wide variety of internal structures. Amid rapid changes in the environment with each succeeding generation and accelerated migrations, the solidification of an internal compass that should have had a biological advantage becomes an impediment in the meeting of very different worldviews, and increasingly, a cause of violent conflict. Dr. Wexler illustrates this in the various efforts adults make to match the external world with existing internal structures. He considers bereavement and immigration where the arduous task of restructuring an adult brain becomes necessary, and segues to consideration of the meeting of cultures and belief systems. He gives neurological credence to our observations in the modern era, in which changes, even when positive, are met with resistance and radical attempts at reversion to some familiar past: religious fundamentalism in our society attempts to replace with literal belief what Jean-Paul Sartre called “the God-shaped hole,” where God had always been; Islamic extremism decries the West as “the camp of unbelief ” and vows to destroy the doubters, as if that could destroy the doubt; racism and genocide spread throughout many regions, so that the West described in Sven Lindquist’s book by a line from Joseph Conrad, Exterminate All the Brutes! seems only the harbinger of a worldwide trend. With the insights gained from Brain and Culture, one comes to see these events under new light and with a deeper understanding.

My one criticism is that Dr. Wexler could have illumined more of the psychological to complement the biological (neuroscientific) and social (sociological, cultural, and political). Granted, psychological dynamics are complex and may warrant a whole other book, but they may also have a crucial role in neurocognitive structures and their articulation in human affairs: for instance, while neural structures solidify at a consistent age range, we see younger children experience change as trauma when nurturance is inadequate and older adults who have great tolerance for dissonance and uncertainty, sometimes even a welcoming acceptance of diversity and change. There seem to be factors that make individuals capable of surmounting the challenges that external circumstances and neurological requirements pose, not to mention preventing the largely human-induced destabilization from happening in the first place. Although how exactly policies might be an instrument to enhance a population’s collective emotional health has yet to be explored, adequate distribution of education, healthcare, wealth, and security may be a start (this has been done in Western Europe after World War II). Perhaps religion could also help inform, for religious experience (as distinguished from religious ideology) represents a highest state of emotional health—or, religious role models exemplify what one is capable of doing (e.g., treating others, even enemies, with genuine and abundant love, compassion, and respect). Religion and science together show that the individual has agency, greater co-creative powers than initially apparent, and perhaps a larger part in the mechanism by which “Verbum caro factum est.”

In Classical times and in Ancient China, scholars engineered and determined the course of society, and until recently in the developing world, teachers, university professors, and physicians inspired the public with their moral authority far more than could force or propaganda. In our troubled times, when politicians are too entrenched in special interests to be able to provide alternative visions, perhaps it is again time for scholars and religious leaders to become a prophetic voice. Dr. Wexler does so in his unassuming way, implementing the concern and compassion that come through in his book through actions such as his founding of A Different Future. By educating the public across cultures to see each other as human, and that we all desire peace, he himself embodies an example that shows how we can use our newfound knowledge and power to shape our future.

Bandy Lee serves as assistant clinical professor in the Division of Law and Psychiatry Department of Yale University.