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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Courageous Insights Relevant to Every One of Us
The study of psychology has traveled down some interesting roads during the last century. After the long flirtation with the fascinating but flawed theories of psychoanalysis, a dominant theme became the idea that humans were no more than programmable robots. By way of a dozen detours, we then arrived at a new type of robot, one that was pre-programmed by his or her genes...
Published on July 2, 2007 by Dr. Richard G. Petty

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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars great primer in socio bio morality
Nice start. A bit technical and a rather odd global finish. Well worth the read and a good discussion with friends.
Published 5 months ago by J Revhouse


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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Courageous Insights Relevant to Every One of Us, July 2, 2007
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The study of psychology has traveled down some interesting roads during the last century. After the long flirtation with the fascinating but flawed theories of psychoanalysis, a dominant theme became the idea that humans were no more than programmable robots. By way of a dozen detours, we then arrived at a new type of robot, one that was pre-programmed by his or her genes with environment contributing a little or a lot, depending upon our own beliefs about human nature. For that was always one of the problems: beliefs, biases and politics all played with the findings of psychology and neurology. For the totalitarian state, the idea that all people are born biologically equal and that, with the right prodding, they could be guided to be good citizens, became an article of faith in some parts of the world. Research, often only half understood, lead to grotesque attempts at social engineering.

Now the pendulum has swung again. Genes do not so much determine our behavior but influence our responses to the environment. During childhood our brains are incredibly plastic. The developing brain requires the right mix of nutrients, sensory, emotional and intellectual stimulation to realize its potential. The lion's share of higher cortical functions are dedicated to social functioning, and children first learn to develop in order to learn the social rules that help them to conform. During adolescence and early adulthood, this conformity is usually replaced by increasing individuality and drives to leave the parental nest. This leads to gradual attempts to shape the environment to fit with the structure of his or her brain and mind. Yet some plasticity remains throughout life, and we are likely able to create new neural connections and even new neurons into old age. And these new neurons and connections develop not only in response to the external environment, but also in response to our thoughts and emotions.

To these three findings - that genes predispose but do not determine; that our brains are malleable and plastic throughout life and third, the impact of our thoughts and beliefs on our brains - we can now add a fourth: the interplay of culture and society on our minds and genes, and the effects of our minds and genes on society.

This is one of a number of recent books that has begun to explore these important themes. Our genes lead - but do not force - us to create our world, and the world that we create has a powerful impact on the development of the next generation, who in turn create the world in their image.

Bruce Wexler is a Professor of Psychiatry at Yale and also directs the Neurocognitive Research Laboratory at the Connecticut Mental Health Center. He has been known for years as one of the most original and creative thinkers in his field. It shows in this book. It is just over 300 small pages and is crammed full of interesting ideas. The book is divided into two sections and five chapters:

Section I: Background: Some Basic Facts about the Human Brain
I. Transgenerational Shaping of Human Brain Function
2. Effects of Sensory Deprivation and Sensory Enrichment on Brain Structure and Function
3. Effects of the Social Environment on Brain Structure and Function

Section II. The Neurobiology of Ideology
4. Self-Preservation and the Difficulty of Change in Adulthood
5. The Meeting of Cultures
After which there is an Epilogue, References and an Index.

Bruce offers a neurologically based hypothesis that may go some way toward explaining some of the sectarian strife that has plagued so much of the world throughout history. He talks about the "neurobiology of ideology," to capture the process by which the human brain molds itself to its environment. Input from the world around us helps fashion our brains, and we in turn shape the world around us, which again shapes and changes the brain, leading to an endless dance between the brain, the mind and society.

This model helps to explain why it is that early life experiences can make it difficult to deal with unfamiliar events, emotions and situations later in life. But the argument also has a small hole in it. The author is an expert in human pathology, so he is interested in the way in which, say, "programming" in childhood may create problems later in life, as the individual encounters new challenges for which he or she is not prepared. As an example, if we think about an individual who was abused in childhood, he or she may have problems accepting and trusting a loving relationship as an adult. The disparity between the new environment and the developed brain may become a potent cause of distress and dysfunction. But that fails to answer another question: why do some people and some societies become distressed by novelty, while others delight in it?

This is an important, fascinating and thought provoking book that may provide answers to some of the problems that we see around us. We just need two more things: proof of his hypotheses and a way of using the model. That being said this work is already changing the way in which we see ourselves, not as the victims or beneficiaries of our genes, but as participants and co-creators of society and ourselves.

Highly recommended.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why we try so hard to make everybody be just like us, December 6, 2008
By 
Karen Chung (Taipei, Taiwan) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (Paperback)
This book makes a deep examination of the fundamental social, political, religious, and personal issue of why we try so hard to make others think like us. It has huge implications for interactions between different races and cultures, Muslims, Christians and atheists, and between McCain and Obama supporters.

Wexler starts off the painstaking development of his arguments by outlining the need of the brain for stimulation in order to develop properly, echoing Norman Doidge in his The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books), the book through which I learned about this volume. Wexler describes in concrete terms how parents guide children to be functioning humans, and to be much like they are. He addresses groupthink, how we are influenced by others, and how the plasticity we enjoy as children is sharply reduced after we enter adulthood. He also points out how we tend to like things simply because they are familiar. Changes in our worlds, such as the death of a family member, or moving to a new culture, seriously challenge our ability to adjust and cope. This all leads up to an exposition on how we try to change the world when we find it is not in line with our personal internal reality. This for me was the most revealing and useful concept I took away from this book.

This book's one major drawback for me was its dry academic style. Like in many such works, this is certainly due to a conscious effort to appear and be rigorous, but it made this book really difficult to get through, in spite of my deep interest in what it had to say. I did however finally manage to finish it, and am very glad I did. I recommend the book highly if you have a bit of patience and are interested in exploring some of our most basic inner workings, and perhaps in being better able to step back a bit and apply an increased understanding of the neurological and psychological basis of our own and others' motivations in everyday interactions, especially when everyone seems to be getting incurably mulish about pushing through their version of the ways things "just are" or "have to be".
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A neurological underpinning of sociology, June 8, 2009
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This review is from: Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (Paperback)
Wow! The research described here by author Wexler really explains some fundamental aspects of human behavior. I should note that this is not the only book out there on this subject, but most of this material hasn't yet made it to the popular press, and so most people, even academics, are likely as unaware of it as I was.

Essentially, Prof. Wexler notes that human beings go through a lifelong process of matching our internal representation of the world to what the real world is actually like. When we're very young, this process consists largely of neural pathways in the brain developing according to sensory input. (Neuro-plasticity.) An extreme example of this is someone blind at birth who never develops the brain functions to process visual input, or the visual memory to retain that input. As babies get most of their sensory input from their parents, and particularly their mothers, the particular culture of the mother actually affects brain development.

As we get older, our neural plasticity decreases, i.e., our ability to learn new things, so this internal representation becomes harder and harder to change. But we're still trying to match internal and external, and so we shift to making the real world look like what we think it should be. And if we can't do that, then we interpret the real world in a way that makes "sense" to us. From this we get popular expressions like "we see what we want to see". Or, as a sociologist would put it, we see what we've been socialized to see.

Anything that doesn't fit our conception of the world takes us out of our comfort zone. For instance, immigrants to the US, entering an environment that may be vastly different than the one they're comfortable with, will try to create their own little corner of their old world in the new one.

"Brain and Culture" reports extensively on neurological and psychological research in this area -- and explains it well, without getting overly technical. Plus it offers some interesting historical examples of the meeting of cultures. While Prof Wexler is careful to say that neurobiology is far from the only thing underpinning human behavior, it becomes clear that this book is a huge help in explaining the conflicts among cultures and belief systems.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, June 19, 2013
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This is the best summary I have found of the connections between neurophysiology and sociology. A difficult read, and disturbing in places, but full of insight.
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5.0 out of 5 stars fantastic book, January 20, 2013
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This review is from: Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (Paperback)
Accessible language and references to research. One of the few books that I want to return to, but someone borrowed it and is not giving back. :)
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16 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How do we overcome childhood inculcation?, July 25, 2006
By 
Paul Carleton (White Lake, Michigan USA) - See all my reviews
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I purchased Wexler's new book to further my understanding of the process thru which a person sheds obsolete religious beliefs -- such as those that were inculcated in childhood -- and then adapts present-day, non-theistic beliefs such as those described in my book "Concepts: A ProtoTheist Quest for Science-Minded Skeptics." I was hoping for a neurobiological elaboration of MD Faber's "The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief" (see my Amazon review of it) but I was only partially gratified.

After a brief description of the human brain, Wexler distinguishes two phases in the development of a person's brain (in my words, not his): In childhood the `seedling' neurons are searching out stimuli that `feed' their growth; what they obtain is how their brain gets `wired' ("our brain is what it eats"). As adults, this `wiring' not only influences what their brain looks for (gestalt) but how it interprets what it finds (projection); we try to reinforce what we learned as children and to adapt our environment to conform to our expectations. What doesn't conform to our mindset is routinely ignored or rejected. So as adults, one has to very deliberately maintain an open-mind to consider ideas that don't conform to one's early mindset, and the more the ideas stretch our mindset, the greater our tendency to reject them. Wexler elaborates extensively on this process citing research to back-up his contentions and examples of the consequences.

What Wexler doesn't elaborate to my satisfaction is how one overcomes the beliefs inculcated in childhood to achieve an unbiased understanding of today's world -- how one `rewires' their brain which can be an arduous process. Better yet would be ways of perpetuating the youthful growth of neurons into adult years to the extent possible (he alludes briefly to this on pages 242-3). He aptly describes immigrants' disorientation even as their children have an easier time adapting. And he describes how the loss of a spouse takes a year or so to accommodate. But he doesn't go into how today's media are affecting our openness to new ideas and other cultures. So I can recommend Wexler's book as a good introduction to the process but I'll have to keep looking for ways folks can let go of obsolete religious beliefs and replace them with an up-to-date ideology.

In Wexler's final chapter he discusses how indigenous and national cultures are being overwhelmed and extinguished by the global reach of the US's culture. But the rapid advances in today's technology are not entirely the doings of the US -- Europe, Japan, Australia and even India and China are encouraging this inevitable juggernaut (as he calls it) while Islamic cultures are resisting, often violently. To avoid violent confrontations he envisions a campus-like model (he's at Yale) where individuals can be exposed to unfamiliar cultures in least threatening ways. Wexler's book is well worth while but its overprice will discourage sales.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars great primer in socio bio morality, February 1, 2014
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Nice start. A bit technical and a rather odd global finish. Well worth the read and a good discussion with friends.
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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars culture is not a bounded whole, March 8, 2013
This review is from: Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (Paperback)
i wrote an earlier review that was perhaps too ironically negative as it did received too many acrimonious responses. i deleted it. i'm back, b/c i still feel like i ought to fly the banner of an alternative view of culture. This book uses what has, i think accurately been discarded as a useful view of culture by most if not all socio-cultural anthropologists--that culture is a bounded relatively homogeneous whole largely coterminous with ethnicity, national boundaries, or language. Gupta and Ferguson (1999, I think) wrote the definitive critique of this position. within national boundaries even homogeneous ones there is great variety. Donald trump, a billionaire in India and another in Brunei have more in common with each other than they do with members of their own culture who are middle class, homeless, farmers etc. simialrly farmers and homeless across these boundaries have more in common with each other than they do with members of their own "culture." There are atheists and fundamentalists, even warmongers and peace-nicks living cheek to jowl in the streets of NYC and Mumbai, not to mention Cochin and Peoria. the culture of a classroom is distinct from that of a cocktail party which is distinct from that of a frat part or orgy. we live in microcontexts as randall collins once wrote and cultures are constructs that help us maneuver appropriately in those microcontexts. Like genes (which i know little about) these microcontexts are discrete-that is the values, behaviors and embodiments of gesture, tone of voice, closeness of participants, and so on varies in unpredictable ways from one context to another, even for the same person. Yet while i buy the authors major premise--that the brain seeks to hone in on an accurate mapping of the territory outside through the senses; i don't buy the conception of culture that the author uses. it seems to me simply wrong, he may call it "nationalism" and then i find his argument more worthwhile, but he is not, from the perspective i outlined above, talking about the brain and culture. there is no simple melding between brain and culture, there are tremendous amounts of disjunctions between one microcontext and bit of life and others and the mental algorithms for moving between these have to be extremely complicated as they are also contingent (one doesn't go through the same proverbially stream twice in the same way); we can change them (as noted by the author) but he uses a bludgeon for a job that requires microsurgery together with a level of complexity that is not represented here.
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Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change
Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change by Bruce E. Wexler (Paperback - August 29, 2008)
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