The Echoes of the Mind – Culture


A culture is not a static affair but a live process, like a river which moves but still keeps to a recognizable form. ~ Kurt Lewin

A culture is a system of shared abstractions, beliefs, values, folkways, and rituals. A common culture delimits a tribe.

All cultures seek to constrain the raw selfishness of human nature through the establishment of unwritten moral rule, to affirm an ethical code by simple habituation. ~ Francis Fukuyama

Cultural inculcation is mainly an implicit, nonverbal transmission, learned through observation and imitation rather than explicit instruction or expression.

Culture takes tangible form through various expressions, including personal styles of looks and clothes, artifacts, and adopted technologies. But culture’s potency is ultimately nonmaterial.

Culture illustrates the power of abstraction in human existence. Its strongest expression is in ideology, which is a sociopolitical belief system intertwined with worldview. Religion often forms the foundation of an ideology. Group conflicts are commonly ideologically based.

The way of life that typifies a culture is emblematic of the values carried within. The divergence between espoused cultural values and what is practiced depicts the hypocrisy and corruption of a tribe.

We are so dependent upon our culture’s symbols that we take them for granted. We become keenly aware of the importance of a symbol when someone uses it in an unconventional way. ~ John Macionis

Cultural Perception

Cultural process can reshape the pressures facing individuals and so favor the evolution of behavioral traits. ~ German evolutionary ecologist Charles Efferson et al

Cultural influence extends to the way in which the world is perceived. One of the more subtle aspects of cultural perception lies in the boundaries between focal awareness and contextual awareness. It has long been observed that Easterners and Westerners have different cognitive styles: the analytic West and holistic East.

In a study designed by American social psychologist Richard Nisbett, American and Japanese students were shown color animations representing scenes of swimming fish. Each scene featured a “focal” fish among a group of other fish. The focal fish was bigger, brighter, moved faster, or was otherwise outstanding among the other fish.

When asked to describe a scene, the Americans pointed out the focal fish. 70% more often, the Japanese also described the other fish, or the background rocks and plants – that is, the overall environment.

The students were then shown objects that had been in the scenes by themselves, in isolation. American students readily recognized the objects, while the Japanese were better able to recognize an object when it had been in the holistic scene.

The study measured how quickly objects were recognized: a test of autonomic perception, beyond conscious control. When the objects were placed against a new background, not part of an original scene, Japanese students made mistakes. Americans did not.

 Sea Gypsies

The Moken tribe, sometimes called the Sea Gypsies, ply the waters among the hundreds of small islands that dot the coast of Myanmar and Thailand, leading out to the Andaman Sea. The Sea Gypsies are a nomadic water tribe: learning to swim before they can walk, living much of their lives in the water, making their living from the sea by harvesting clams, sea cucumbers, and other aquatic bounty.

Moken children dive to collect marine life morsels, often to a depth or 30 feet. Learning to lower their heart rate, the divers can stay underwater twice as long as an ordinary swimmer of another culture.

Sunlight passing through water is refracted: the light bent so that a normal human eye suffers a sense of object displacement. To adjust for light conditions the pupils reflexively dilate underwater.

Swedish zoologist Anna Gislén found that Moken children were twice as skillful in reading underwater compared to European children. The Moken learned to control both the shape of their eye lenses and constrict their pupils underwater.

Gislén taught Swedish children how to do it. What had been thought a fixed, innate reflex can be controlled and changed to a different reflex.

On 26 December 2004, a gigantic tsunami, caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, killed hundreds of thousands. The Moken perceived the early warning signs: the sea receding strangely, dolphins heading into deeper water, elephants stampeding for higher ground, the cicadas falling silent.

Acting on holistic perception, the Sea Gypsies survived. Local Burmese boatman, who also knew the sea, didn’t see it coming, and perished. A Moken was asked about it: “They were not looking. They don’t know how to look.”


Culture is a social extension of the tendency to identify with the familiar and reject the strange. Ethnocentrism is the judging of another culture solely by the standards and values of one’s own culture. However natural a proclivity, ethnocentrism is the source of prejudice against other cultures.

Unless we can see ourselves as others see us, we take for granted that our own cultural traits are natural and proper, and that traits that differ from ours are unnatural and somehow wrong. ~ William Kornblum

Conflicts between peoples typically begin as a clash of cultural values.