Our ideas about ourselves and the world around us – who we are and how we fit in – arise out of our relationships with our parents in our toddler years. If parents are suffering from the pain of traumas past, that can easily be passed onto the toddlers they nurse and, before they know it, the child will have developed whole ways of thinking and being in the world that has incorporated that pain.
Because of this, our general cultural background has an enormous effect on our psychology. Everything from the way we celebrate success, to the way we mourn our dead to the way we cope with illness is substantially influenced by cultural norms, as well as the way we perceive the world around us and, indeed, the way we perceive ourselves as individuals. The extent to which our cultural heritage plays into our own self image is often underestimated – it’s almost like the invisible elephant in our psyche.
People who have been raised in countries where the state operates through suppression and propaganda and shuns openness – such as the former Soviet bloc, for example – can develop a mechanism of emotional suppression that might carry through generations, even for years after the state has itself changed its modus operandi. In countries blighted with poverty and fear, that same fear and insecurity about the world can continue to pass through family dynamics, even after the family has immigrated away from the region.
For the first time now, some of this is actually passing beyond the realms of hypothesis and into the domain of scientific proof. One example of culturally carried differences in self perception is the way in which people in the East see themselves as more closely a part of a wider family unit. In the West there is a greater sense of individual autonomy, while in the East there is a greater sense of kinship with and responsibility for the extended family. This was actually measured in a recent experiment where subjects underwent brain scans that monitored the degree of activity in different parts of the brain. It has been long established that the part of the brain that is activated when we are aware of the concept of “self” is just behind the forehead – an area known as the medial prefrontal cortex. Experimenters observed this area in a series of volunteers – some were from the West and others were Chinese – as they considered a list of words. Both groups showed increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex when words relating to themselves as individuals were shown. The Chinese group, however, also showed increased activity when they were shown words relating to the concept of their mother. In other words, to them the sense of “me” and “mum” overlaps in a substantial way, almost to the point of being indistinguishable. These are very contrasting ways of seeing the world.
All of this, then, makes the world a rich tapestry; one in which not only do people look different, talk, eat, work and play differently, our very sense of who we are and how we fit in differs from one culture to the next. Understanding these differences helps us fashion a richer life for ourselves, our families and our world. The starting point, however, should always be a better understanding of ourselves and the impacts our own backgrounds have had on us.
About the Author: Dr Russell Razzaque earned his medical degree from the University of London and he is a practicing psychiatrist based in London. If you liked this article then you'll likely benefit from Sileotherapy; a FREE stillness based online self help program in which Dr Razzaque teaches people to go beyond thought and realise their true potential: http://www.meditation-therapy.net