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