Cross-cultural immersion – brain is like a cultural sponge, the organ of culture

By MIhaela Iordache, guest writer

Inteligence is not fixed, so it is the obvious conclusion that you can change age as you learn for example. Knowing how you learn gives huge insight and implications for people of any age. The brain is flexible, we call this trait ‘brain plasticity’.

Cultural IQ for Global Leadership 

In today’s business world it is critical to understand the way how the business function relates to cultural and social influences. The way to develop this competence is quite provocative at least.

Leaders are expected to be able to adapt to change rapidly and handle the complexity of interpersonal relationships in order to minimize the ambiguity of cultural differences in values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.  We now talk in terms of Global leadership, about CQ, or cultural intelligence also known as intercultural competence.

We talk about intelligence of course we talk about brain.  We are happy to see a growing research and recognition of brain’s plasticity and of the coevolution of culture and the brain makes it clear that cultural and neural processes are interrelated.  The neuroscience of culture is here to make clear that the brain is wires to enable social behaviors and to adapt to new social models and patterns.  The brain wiring or rewiring is a result of the coevolution of culture and brain. How? Well if a cultural practice must adapt to your neural constrains, and then also the brain adapts to the specific cultural practice. It’s a party in your brain as other circuits are wired as a result of learning – adapting is learning- and particularly implicitly learning. The brain is like a cultural sponge, the organ of culture.

So what does this mean? Is the brain made of plastic?

Well no. The plasticity or neuroplasticity is the process that reorganizes the neural pathways in the brain. For example, this happens when you learn new things or memorize new information.  Neuroplasticity means new neural connections and the ability of the brain to change itself.  Your brain is like the command center that mediates your everyday experience.  It changes throw experience, learning and behaviors. So everything you do repeatedly and continuously over time, commonly known as habits (of behavior or thinking), are built in your brain as a neural path.

Culture modifies the brain

“Neuroplasticity research has shown us that every sustained activity ever mapped – including physical activities, sensory activities, learning, thinking, and imagining – changes the brain as well as the mind.” (Norman Doidge in “The Culturally Modified Brain” in The Brain That Changes Itself)

For example, if a child is transferred from a city to another city, and then to another continent and another city between birth and age 8, he developed his emotional intelligence and communication skills. Young children are exposed to new connections more than adults.

Being multicultural literate is also a great advantage of raising children in different cultural environments, I believe more opportunities are offered both on personal and professional levels.

Neuroplasticity and Cultural Tasks

Patterns of brain activity change when the person actively engages in certain psychological tasks on a regular, repeated basis. For example, Tibetan monks who are highly skilled in a meditation practice involving “unconditional compassion” show a strikingly greater volume of a high-frequency brain wave. Similarly, driving a taxicab in a complex, European city like London without any modern navigation devices year after year increases the volume of the posterior part of the hippocampi (the area in the brain that plays a crucial role in spatial navigation). This is remarkable because hippocampi are known to “shrink” as one gets older. Culture plays a critical role in all of these tasks.

It provides insights into the complexity of the brain and helps us to understand why so many questions and problems related to our brain remain unresolved.

However, relating what we know about neuroplasticity to metacognition, and understanding what is required to build and maintain brain fitness enables us to apply that knowledge to our everyday lives and personal goals. The rewards are life-changing.

CQ for everyday life

Cultural intelligence goes further. CQ is described by the ability to function skillfully in a different cultural context.

A person that is able to empathize and work well with others from different cultures, acknowledging different values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in order to anticipate, act and react in proper ways, is a culturally intelligent person. CQ has three critical elements in order to build effective intercultural interaction: cognitive, motivational and behavioral. It is more that adapting to different cultural norms and values (motivation), more than adapting to an unfamiliar environment (interest and curiosity),  in order to respond to ambiguity and engage effectively and appropriately in intercultural interactions.

CQ motivation is a person’s interest in engagement with people and the culture itself – the CQ motivated person enjoys learning and applying what she has learned with interest and confidence, gets comfortable with ambiguity that comes when crossing cultures. CQ behavior is the person’s ability to engage with others through language and nonverbal behavior that is developed through trial and error.

The process of cultural intelligence is important as it focuses on the experiential aspect of what one learns and re-learns after reflecting on the experience.