Jason Patent, Ph.D.
God bless parents, especially moms. At least, especially my mom. Just after I turned 24, in 1992, I returned to my parents’ home in Missoula, Montana, USA, after having spent the academic year teaching English in a medium-sized industrial city in the far, far northeast of China. “Reverse culture shock” is a term I may or may not have heard before that homecoming. Either way, I was utterly unprepared for what was about to hit me…and my mom.
“Reverse culture shock” is a term I may or may not have heard before that homecoming. Either way, I was utterly unprepared for what was about to hit me…and my mom.
I was rude, insensitive, and sometimes even cruel to my mom, who only wanted to welcome her son home and make me feel at home. Nothing she did was enough for me. She tried to empathize, she tried to nurture, she asked questions. Nothing worked. I was just too jumbled. My case may be extreme, but I know that the general sense of instability, of not feeling quite right, is common for people just back from big adventures in new places. And it turns out that the brain has a lot to do with it.
Please indulge me in doing a brief exercise. Hold this page at arm’s length. Now, while keeping your left eye closed and your right eye laser-focused on the plus sign, slowly (slowly!) move the paper closer to your face. At some point something will happen to the dot. (If the paper ends up at your face you’ll need to try again. It’s crucial to start with the paper far away, to keep your right eye squarely focused on the plus sign, and to bring the paper in very, very slowly.)
How could the dot just disappear like that? It turns out that each eye has a blind spot, where the visual field is blank. The retina gets no information from this part of the visual field. Why don’t we see some kind of hole or emptiness where the blind spot is? Because the brain invents something to “put” there—in this case, the color or pattern of the paper around it.
Volumes of evidence from vision experts have proven that the world we see is a massive illusion.
How does this work? The brain just invents it. Volumes of evidence from vision experts have proven that the world we see is a massive illusion. Just twenty percent of visual information comes from the retina; the remaining eighty percent is pure fiction, manifested by the brain in order to create a sense of coherence. Think about that: four-fifths of what we see is just the brain’s best guess. It’s not actually there.
I love this simple exercise because it gets right to the heart of two key issues when it comes to human identity. First, reality is a product of our own brains, based on our particular set of experiences. Second, our brains have a primal need to create coherence. They are doing this constantly, in the background, completely out of our conscious awareness. Another thing our brains do all the time, automatically, is warn us of threats in the environment. One part of the brain in particular—the amygdala, or “lizard brain”—gets highly active when it thinks we’re being threatened. And when the amygdala is active, it inhibits activity in the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain that govern our “higher” functions. The amygdala is fast but coarse: it knows nothing about nuance or subtlety.
In one important sense this is a good thing: it keeps us alive. If a tiger jumps out of the bushes, we really don’t have time to consider the tiger in all its uniqueness. We just need to know right away that it’s a tiger and that it’s dangerous.
The problem is that the amygdala does its thing even when we don’t need it to. It sees almost anything new as a potential threat, and since difference is a form of novelty, we tend to see people different from us as threatening.
This leaves us with a rather bleak picture of humanity: If our brains are busy inventing coherent realities about the threats posed by groups of “other” people, then we don’t stand much of a chance of getting along. And isn’t this, when it comes down to it, the story of humanity’s dark side?
Now for the good news: we can relate to difference in ways that aren’t dominated by threat. It just takes a lot of awareness and hard work.
We can relate to difference in ways that aren’t dominated by threat. It just takes a lot of awareness and hard work.
When I returned from China in 1992, I had a lot going on in my brain. During my year in China, my brain had started out in full-on threat mode, reacting negatively to the confusing behaviors all around me. Over then next nine months, my brain gradually created a sense of coherence, as I began to understand all the new patterns I was seeing, and to empathize with the people around me. I was starting to understand why people did what they did, and even though it was different from what I was used to, I could at least see the logic. New worlds were opening up to me, and it was thrilling. I was a new person in a new world, eager to return home and share my bounty.
But when I came home I found a place that looked exactly as it always had, inhabited by people whose worldviews hadn’t budged an inch. The “mistake” I made is a common one for returnees from abroad: I had replaced a single view of the world with a different, single view that I’d judged to be better than the “old” view.
The “mistake” I made is a common one for returnees from abroad: I had replaced a single view of the world with a different, single view that I’d judged to be better than the “old” view.
And this is where the brain’s good news begins to come in handy. Thankfully, we’re not slaves to the amygdala and to our brain’s tendency to create a single, coherent story. As humans we have the ability—thanks to the prefrontal cortex and other more recently evolved regions of the brain—to see the world from multiple perspectives.
And it turns out that this is the key to reintegration—indeed, to what reintegration is all about. Joseph Campbell wrote, “‘The Cosmic Dancer,’ declares Nietzsche, ‘does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another.’” We don’t have to fear “other” ways of being. Fear is natural, but we don’t need to let it rule us. What we need is to thank our amygdala for keeping us alive, and to ask it to please quiet down while we listen and look for what there is for us to learn.
What we need is to thank our amygdala for keeping us alive, and to ask it to please quiet down while we listen and look for what there is for us to learn.
We all can, in Walt Whitman’s famous words, “contain multitudes.” Indeed the future of our species depends on it. So let’s keep asking, keep reaching, keep learning.
JASON PATENT, Ph.D., is a leading cultural interpreter on China-related issues and previously served as American Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, China. He is a former Dragons instructor (China ‘98-’01) and co-founder of the Dragons China Semester Program. Currently Jason is Chief of Operations and Director of the Center for Intercultural Leadership at UC Berkeley’s International House. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife, Colette Plum, and their two daughters.