Women and society: men really ought to understand
Can the Melanesian Way guarantee a good life?

How culture shapes brains & brains shape culture


Phil (crop)WHEN I LEFT PAPUA NEW GUINEA in the 1970s I began working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of Australia. After 40 years of doing that, and when people ask me to explain why Aborigines do certain things, I invariably have to admit that after all that time I still haven’t got the faintest idea what makes them tick.

A few months ago I was talking to a long-time friend and businessman in Port Moresby.  He is an ex-kiap, like me, but he stayed on to make a life in Papua New Guinea.

In the course of our conversation he said something along the lines of “I’ve been here for over 40 years and I’m married to a beautiful Papuan woman but I still don’t understand how they think.”

My son, who also occasionally works in PNG, sent me an interesting article from the American Psychological Association about the different ways people’s brains work in different cultures.

We all know that men and women’s brains are totally different, that women are from Venus and men are from Mars, but I didn’t realise this might be the case between cultures.

The Yanks reckon that by measuring brain activity in different cultures they have the evidence to show prove this hypothesis.  They call the new field Cultural Neuroscience.

These scientists say that when people from different cultures see the same stimulus their brains activate differently.  That is, people from different cultures see the world differently - and this can be picked up on brain scans.

There is also a biological basis for some of the differences.  Scientists have found, for instance, that people in collectivist cultures, like those in rural PNG, are more likely than those in individualistic cultures, like those in Australia, to have a form of the serotonin transporter gene that correlates with higher rates of negative affect, anxiety and depression.

However, in contrast to what you might expect, scientists also found that people from collectivist societies are less likely to be depressed.

That’s a bit counter-intuitive but the scientists suggest that collectivism, which tends to produce lower levels of negative affect, may have co-evolved with the gene.

In other words, societies of people with the gene developed a collective culture that reduced stress and, therefore, risk of depression by emphasising social harmony and social support.

The gene somehow interacts with the lives of these people quite differently from those in other cultures. That is, the gene actually forces these people to get on with each other better than people in individualistic societies.

Perhaps, when we Australians and Papua New Guineans are looking at something we might not actually be seeing and talking about the same thing.

Interesting eh?

You can read more at http://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/11/neuroscience.aspx


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Yvonne Hani

There you have it, scientific evidence proving that the collectivist Melanesian Way is less stressful and can promote social security and harmony in Melanesia.

Simon Kenema

That's what I thought Phil. An article with a bit of eugenics nuance. And a dangerous propositions that could quite easily be subverted to and justify biological determinism that locks people in a perpetual bondage of cultural difference.

It also reminds one of the dangers of bio-politics, the propensity to reduce the human behaviour and complexity down to the individual body (often through use of vague concepts like culture) and make that body a site of political and social engineering.

I guess the question one would ask is, just exactly where is the boundary (the fine line) between 'collectivist culture' and 'individual culture' located?

John Edgar

Good one, Phil!

Ha, ha, ha, ha.

Phil Fitzpatrick

To answer your question Geoff, I would suggest that when people move out of the collective environment of their villages into cities and towns they gradually lose that protective communal cocoon effect and their serotonin transporter gene kicks in raising their stress levels and rates of anxiety and depression.

This might explain the forlorn mental state of long-term residents of the squatter settlements.

Marlene makes a very interesting point in observing the internal cross-cultural effect. This might explain why Leonard Fong Roka, now he has finished his studies, has rushed back home to Bougainville.

Of course, since this is an American study, the pharmaceutical companies are probably developing a drug to treat it as we speak.

The other unnerving thing about the various studies is their vague aroma of eugenics. I hope they haven't got any genetical engineering in mind.

Harry Topham

Phil - You have raised and interesting conundrum as to the logical thought mindsets existing between those of differing nationalities.

I think the complexities of such an issue would defy any logical explanation as it similar to that age-old question of the varying differing communication levels that exist between men and women.

I think the experts, probably not wisely, try to explain such variations of opinion between males and females as being related to the left and right hand size functions of the old cranium.

For example: The other night my wife and I were out to dinner with my German domiciled sister and her husband.

The time for ordering came and the waiter asked my brother in law what he would like, sweet and sour chicken came the reply to which my sister commented, "You always order that”.

Order taken, the waiter then asked my sister what she would like. “Still making up my mind” came the reply.

My turn came next, and the sweet and sour chicken sounds good enough for me I replied.

My wife then ordered the fish of the day to which my sister then retorted, "I’ll have the same as Anna."

So Phil, work that one out- left hand/right hand mind games in play or not?

So after some 40 odd years of marriage the answer still remains unanswered.

Marlene Dee Potoura

True Phil....but listen to this.....with the different cultures in PNG, then just imagine the difference in the way we think and do things.

As a Bougainvillean I had some real 'culture shocks' for 9 years, as my partner is from another province in Papua New Guinea.

And also every day, I find some amusing things here (Lae), which is easily accepted, but from where I come from, it is unacceptable!

Might sound funny to you, but sometimes it's just so darn difficult finding out what makes people tick!

Chris Overland

I have long believed that a good historian refers to the facts, and the facts alone, in analysing and interpreting history.

This fits in perfectly with the way in which "Western" thought has developed since the beginning of the enlightenment. Let the facts speak for themselves we say.

I am slightly embarrassed to say that it took a fair while to dawn on me just how important it is that historical facts are understood within a broader socio-cultural context. In truth, the facts sometimes don't speak for themselves or, if they do, what they are saying may be true but misleading.

It therefore is a relief to learn that there may even be some genetic influence on how people think about and respond to issues and events. This at least partly explains why it is sometimes so hard for we humans to understand each other.

Of course, it remains the case that in our dealings with others we are adept at rejecting "their" reality and substituting our own. A great deal of loud, declamatory and ultimately pointless political discourse and argument arises from this incontestable fact.

In a PNG context, it is therefore utterly unsurprising that the western concepts, ideas and institutions effectively imposed upon the country have not necessarily worked as expected or planned, often with lamentable consequences.

If there is indeed a "Melanesian Way", based on what Phil has written, it is reasonable to infer that it involves some form of collectivist thinking and action.

This does not square with the western emphasis (undue as it is) upon individualism, which underpins most of PNG's current political, economic and legal framework.

This being so, it is up to Papua New Guineans to redesign their institutions and laws in ways that work for them.

If China can invent "socialism with capitalist characteristics", then surely PNG can have liberal democracy with Melanesian characteristics?

Lindsay Bond

Automobiles became more user-friendly with the bolting on of headlamps and mirrors. Likewise humans are aided with added technologies, though grafts and implants are less referred to as 'bolted on'.

Personal communication devices (mobile phones) are soon to incorporate more facility in aural language interfacing, yet societal complexity is of an order that is neurally diverse, so far defying efforts to bolt on a form of 'ready reckoner'.

Historic hand-tools are still in use, namely patience, tolerance, and the continuum of love, which work well where one's reward is surprise.

Thank you Phil, the topic is central.

Geoff Hancock

It would be interesting to know what effect the movement of people from their traditional lifestyles in the villages, where they have their cultural support, to the cities and other parts of the world, where that support is lacking, has on their mental state.

Mrs Barbara Short

Living closely, in Sydney, with Koreans and Chinese people, has made me well aware of the differences in culture, but, over time,I'm sure we are slowly growing to understand each other.

A Chinese man has just apologized to my husband by email .. "I'm sorry if I treated you harshly this afternoon..." My husband just laughed. Some misunderstanding at a church meeting.

A group of lovely Korean young people watched as my brother-in-law died in front of them yesterday at the nursing home, and they were very moved and upset.
I felt very sorry for them. It was the first time they had ever seen anyone die.

Now my husband has just told me that an older Chinese man told him that he often picks up our newspaper from the footpath in the mornings and put it on the fence post for us. A kind gesture.

So, even if our brains work differently and we don't really understand this, and we are steeped in different cultures, we are all learning how to get along together in this multi-cultural Australia where there are now many more Asians.

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