Last December, I closed 2022 with a post about the best books I’d read that year. This year, one book I read stands out above all the others, so that’s the focus of this post.
One of the books I read and recommended in 2022 was Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain* (2020). After I finished it, I quickly went out and bought Barrett’s earlier (and more in-depth) book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain* (2017). Based on the title, I thought it might not be as relevant to intercultural learning as her other book. Boy was I wrong! I’ve now read both books through twice, and taken extensive notes.
I’ll forewarn you that many of Barrett’s findings about the brain may seem, well, a little mind-blowing. They did to me at first (and many still do)! It’s worth noting that Dr. Barrett is a neuroscientist and psychologist who’s been studying the brain and mind for over 30 years. She’s among the top 1% most-cited scientists in the world and has won a number of highly-regarded awards and fellowships for her revolutionary research in these fields. A Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, she’s also held appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
I can’t possibly summarize here all the important ways this book can inform intercultural teaching and learning. Instead, I’ll share a brief overview of a few key take-aways. If these ideas intrigue you in any way, I strongly encourage you to get the book.
Our brains get wired to our world during infancy and throughout our lives.
Our brain is a complex network, composed of over 128 billion interconnected neurons that operate as a single, massive, flexible structure. Barrett explains how our neuropathways get tuned and pruned during infancy and throughout our life and influence the ways we experience and make meaning of the world. Basically, what she’s talking about is the process of being socialized within our cultural groups.
We construct our social reality.
Barrett explains how we, along with other humans, create our social reality, using concepts and categories. She writes:
“Make something up, give it a name, and you've created a concept. Teach your concept to others, and as long as they agree, you've created something real. How do we work this magic of creation? We categorize. We take things that exist in nature and impose new functions on them that go beyond their physical properties. Then we transmit these concepts to each other, wiring each other's brains for the social world. This is the core of social reality.”
- Barrett, 2017, p. 134
As an example, Barrett points out that muffins and cupcakes are highly similar in their make-up, yet one is considered a breakfast food and the other is not. She explains, “this difference is entirely cultural and learned, not physical” (Barrett, 2017, p. 39). The same goes for concepts such as money, countries, and race. We each participate in the construction and co-construction of social reality, even if unaware we’re doing so.
Barrett outlines how even our emotions and our “self” are constructions! Like I said, mind blowing. Refer to the book for further explanation.
We are not simply experiencing the world as it is, but actively predicting everything we experience.
Perhaps the most fascinating insight from the book is that the brain is not a reactive organ, but a predictive one. We are not taking in the world as it is, but actually predicting our experiences. Our brain is constantly engaged in multitudes of tiny prediction loops. The image below is Barrett’s model of a prediction loop (2017, p. 63):
Barrett explains how we learn concepts and categories (see previous quote) through socialization, and then use those to simulate experiences before they happen and thus predict what we experience before we even technically experience it. She writes:
“Simulations are your brain's guesses of what's happening in the world. In every waking moment, you're faced with ambiguous, noisy information from your eyes, ears, nose, and other sensory organs. Your brain uses your past experiences to construct a hypothesis—the simulation—and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses. In this manner, simulation lets your brain impose meaning on the noise, selecting what's relevant and ignoring the rest.”
- Barrett, 2017, p. 27
The vast majority of the time, this occurs completely outside our conscious awareness. What’s more, our brains are wired to initiate actions based on these predictions before we’re even aware of them. Our brains predict, make a choice, take action, and then justify this action.
In other words, we have all developed mental models of the world, and any incoming data gets compared with that model. When the incoming data doesn’t “fit” our prediction, our brains make a choice. They either make adjustments to our model, or they adjust the incoming data to fit our current model.
Conclusion: Importance of taking a constructivist approach to intercultural teaching and learning.
To summarize, our brains are highly influenced by our environment and social surroundings from a young age and throughout our lives, creating many different kinds of minds. Together with others around us, we construct, uphold, or potentially alter our social reality—often without even realizing we’re doing so. Then our brains actively predict our experiences, based on how they’ve been wired and our social reality, and align incoming data with our expectations. This is critical to understand and explore if we’d like to learn to engage more effectively, appropriately, and authentically with people who are different—whose minds have been wired for a different social reality.
I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of taking a constructivist approach to intercultural learning and teaching. For me, Barrett’s work sheds new light and understanding on why that’s so critical and how we as educators might do so.
If you’re an educator interested in intercultural learning and teaching, I encourage you to get a copy of Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain*. Once you’ve read it, please share your own insights in the comments section below.
*Please note that if you make a purchase using any of these links, I may earn a small commission.
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