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Culture as Sculptor
Powerful as our patterning instinct is, there is an even more potent force shaping the particular patterns we perceive around us. It’s what anthropologists call culture.
Just as language shapes the perception of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, so the patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child constructs meaning in her world.
Every culture holds its own worldview: a complex and comprehensive model of how the universe works and how to act within it. This network of beliefs and values determines the way in which each child in that culture makes sense of her universe.
Clearing a trail
To see how this happens, we need to understand how an infant's brain matures. In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that early brain development is essentially a pruning process. In the embryo and newly born infant, massive amounts of neuronal connections, known as synapses, form spontaneously.
As the infant gets used to certain behaviors, such as grasping, nursing or cooing, the synaptic junctions that enable a successful behavior get strengthened by increased usage. The connections that are never used gradually wither away. As the infant grows, this synaptic reinforcement continues until some pathways are massively strengthened while countless others that turned out be useless have died out.
A useful analogy is an uncultivated field of tall grass through which people begin walking to get to various places they need to go. At first, everyone's beating about the bush, but after a while, certain trails appear in the grass, as the most successful routes become more popular causing the grass to get flattened down, until eventually clear pathways emerge through the field. The clearer the pathway, the more likely it is to be used by the next person, thus leading to a positive feedback cycle.
Culture as sculptor
Because of this process of synaptic pruning, a human born in the modern world might be virtually identical genetically to one of our ancestors born before the Upper Paleolithic revolution, but if a brain scan could be performed on both individuals at maturity, they would look very different. The differences would not be in the general layout and gross structure of the brain, but rather in the fine, dense mesh of synaptic connections that have been systematically pruned and shaped since infancy.
It’s through this process that we arrive at the notion of culture as sculptor. We can think of each distinct culture as the cumulative network of meaning constructed by countless generations of minds within a given tradition. The neural network of each person born into that tradition is sculpted by the previous accumulation of meanings, and then may contribute its own unique interpretations to modify the culture incrementally for the next generation. In this way, the relationship between an individual and their culture is, to a certain degree, mutually interactive, although the impact of the culture on an individual is far greater than vice versa.
Every human interaction subtly shapes the neural network of a growing child as she learns to integrate into her culture. The words her parents speak to her, their responses to different behaviors, the games she plays, the rituals she participates in, are all continually sculpting her own perception of the world, shaping how she patterns meaning into the universe.
This process takes place mostly below the level of conscious control. Rarely does someone consciously try to explain their worldview to the infant, and rarely does she consciously try to make sense of it all. However, in a process known as deep enculturation, she inevitably grows up with a set of beliefs and values about the world embedded within her unconscious, which shapes how she conceptualizes virtually every aspect of her experience.
We can thank this process of deep enculturation for the entire spectrum of human progress since homo sapiens first evolved. Without enculturation, no human being would be capable of staying alive for long, and even a community working together could barely survive without the inherited wisdom of its cultural traditions.
The integration of symbolic meaning between individuals and their culture has allowed the human race to effectively “pool their cognitive resources” both from each other and from the past, and thus achieve the dominance over the rest of the world that we experience today.
Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 3, "The Rise of Mythic Consciousness"