The Big Ideas of 2010

What Do You See?

Is your brain East or West?
Is your brain East or West?
IMAGES COURTESY TAKAHIKO MASUDA

A plainclothes cop walks into a diner and finds no less than five gun-wielding criminals holding up the crowded joint. “We’re not just going to let you walk out of here,” the cop says. “Who’s we, sucka?” says one of the criminals. “Smith and Wesson and me,” says the cop. He draws his Smith & Wesson and – in a crowded diner – shoots four of the criminals and advances on the last gunman, who’s holding a pistol to a hostage’s head. One itchy trigger finger and the hostage could be dead. The cop glares at the criminal. “Go ahead, make my day.” The cop is “Dirty Harry” Callahan, but really he could be any Hollywood hero. The movie is Sudden Impact, but really it could be any movie or book or manifestation of Western culture.

With a few modern updates, Western culture has been re-creating the same story over and over again since Homer collected The Odyssey more than two and a half thousand years ago. Since the Greeks, the ideal of the unique and strong individual has become so prevalent in Western culture that we have stopped realizing that it is even part of our culture. Often we mistake our perceptions of the world for how the world really is.

Psychologists have long known that North Americans overestimate their own distinctiveness, especially in comparison with East Asians. When asked to describe themselves, Americans and Canadians tend to talk about their individual personality and personal outlook more than Japanese do. North Americans tend to settle arguments in terms of right and wrong, whereas East Asians tend to seek compromises. Dirty Harry is an extreme and violent example, but he is emblematic of Western culture and he sums up our single-minded, goal-oriented behavior with aplomb. “When I see an adult male chasing a female with the intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That’s my policy.”


New research shows that culture even affects our cognition. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology claims that Americans and Japanese intuit the emotions of others differently based on cultural training. “North Americans try to identify the single important thing that is key to making a decision,” explains Dr. Takahiko Masuda, the study’s author, over the phone from his office at the University of Alberta. “In East Asia they really care about the context.” He studied the eye movement of Americans and Japanese when analyzing a picture of a group of cartoon people. When asked to interpret the emotion of the person in the center, the Japanese looked at the person for about one second before moving on to the people in the background. They needed to know how the group was feeling before understanding the emotion of the individual. The Americans (and Canadians in subsequent studies) focused 95% of their attention on the person in the center. Only 5% of their attention was focused on the background, and this, Dr. Masuda points out, didn’t influence their interpretation of the central figure’s emotion. For North Americans the foreground is all-important.

Dr. Masuda is quick to point out that Americans and Japanese are physiologically the same. The difference in eye movement is tied to the roots of our respective cultures. When trying to explain the natural world, the Ancient Greeks – the founders of Western civilization – tended to focus on central objects and sought to explain their rules of behavior. Funnily enough, Aristotle thought a rock had the property of “gravity.” It didn’t occur to him that a system was working its powers on the rock. The Chinese on the other hand took a more holistic approach. They believed that everything occurred within a context, or a field of forces, and thus they unraveled the relationship between the moon and the tides.

These differences in philosophy can be explained, at least in part, by the environments that spawned them. “We are surrounded by socially created information, which affects our perception,” Masuda explains. And perception affects our culture. Research shows that North American cities are less cluttered than East Asian cities, which means that North Americans can spend more time considering salient objects. When Americans or Canadians visit East Asia, they are often overwhelmed by the amount of information they have to process. I have experienced this phenomenon personally. The first time I bused from Incheon Airport into Seoul, South Korea, I was dumbfounded by the number of buildings, advertisements, lights, cars and people and had to turn away from the window to stop my head from spinning. Dr. Masuda first arrived in North America when he was 26. Compared to Japan, which was crowded with people and objects and “complex pieces of information,” he felt North American cities to be lonely places.

Masuda stresses that no way of perceiving the world is better than another and refuses to interpret his studies too broadly. He has yet to conduct his tests in Africa or South America. But it seems to me that Masuda’s study is important: It reminds us that there is more than one way of seeing the world.

North Americans have a tendency toward isolating singular goals and working doggedly towards them. And we have achieved some remarkable accomplishments. We put a man on the moon, invented the telephone and the airplane and achieved a thousand more seemingly impossible tasks. We congratulate ourselves on our individualism in our movies, our art, our personal relationships and, of course, our politics. But as we do so, we perpetuate this trait – perception informs culture, culture informs perception – until we mistake the way we see the world for the only way to see the world.

As alluring as the Dirty Harry approach may be, is it time to put away our Smith & Wesson and start considering the other customers in the diner? The problems we face today – the environmental degradation of our planet, global recession, religious fundamentalism – don’t fit inside borders or simple categories. Context is unavoidable. We need to start looking for it.

66 comments on the article “What Do You See?”

Displaying 21 - 30 of 66

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rusl

Wow, Kevin Costner! He isn't exactly an NDN hero. He made 'Dances with Wolves' after all. That Hollywood Oscar Winner preports to be pro-native but actually perpetuates all the same Noble Savage stereotypes that movies always do. As a side note, the new movie Avatar is a rehashing of the same paternalistic colonialism of Dances with Wolves.

So how is 500 nations provocative? Is it about guilt and disappearing lost utopia or is it better than that?

For more information on the problems of the Noble Savage myth see Gerald Vizenor's writing on PostIndians. Also The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King is an excellent Massey Lecture series that takes on some of these topics.

I would be really interested if Masuda would study the perceptions of NDNs vs 'white' North Americans because I have a hunch the cult of the self is going to be apparent there too in contrast to an indigenous family based community perspective.

I was listening to a Feist interview last night and she made a really interesting comment about how her upbringing was not very musical but her Grandmother was an excellent singer. Her comment was that to her Grandmother's 1930s generation singing was just music you shared with people and not the big "church of the self" as it is for us now --- with nearly all musicians making a brand identity of their self to sell the music.

rusl

Wow, Kevin Costner! He isn't exactly an NDN hero. He made 'Dances with Wolves' after all. That Hollywood Oscar Winner preports to be pro-native but actually perpetuates all the same Noble Savage stereotypes that movies always do. As a side note, the new movie Avatar is a rehashing of the same paternalistic colonialism of Dances with Wolves.

So how is 500 nations provocative? Is it about guilt and disappearing lost utopia or is it better than that?

For more information on the problems of the Noble Savage myth see Gerald Vizenor's writing on PostIndians. Also The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King is an excellent Massey Lecture series that takes on some of these topics.

I would be really interested if Masuda would study the perceptions of NDNs vs 'white' North Americans because I have a hunch the cult of the self is going to be apparent there too in contrast to an indigenous family based community perspective.

I was listening to a Feist interview last night and she made a really interesting comment about how her upbringing was not very musical but her Grandmother was an excellent singer. Her comment was that to her Grandmother's 1930s generation singing was just music you shared with people and not the big "church of the self" as it is for us now --- with nearly all musicians making a brand identity of their self to sell the music.

rusl

great article! (finally)

I would recomend Adam Curtis's BBC Documentary 'The Century of The Self' for a more geopolitical look at this topic. It is also a theme in his other work, though the comparison isn't Asian, merely the individualism of America/"West."

rusl

great article! (finally)

I would recomend Adam Curtis's BBC Documentary 'The Century of The Self' for a more geopolitical look at this topic. It is also a theme in his other work, though the comparison isn't Asian, merely the individualism of America/"West."

The Merchant of...

the above point of view is totally irrelevant

what's relevant is morals

morals is basically who you choose to identify yourself with

you cannot identify yourself with humanity, that's nonsense

you identify yourself with the group you belong to

the group you will look to in times of war

whether that group is based upon culture, socioeconomic standing or simply: race... racism is natural.. we look to our own kind in times of war

individualism goes against morals, individualism goes against community and creates alienation...

an alienated individual will seek to identify him- /herself with things instead of people, ultimately people become things, i.e. prostitution - here we have it : the perfect consumer

feel free to censure those words which you find dangerous

The Merchant of...

the above point of view is totally irrelevant

what's relevant is morals

morals is basically who you choose to identify yourself with

you cannot identify yourself with humanity, that's nonsense

you identify yourself with the group you belong to

the group you will look to in times of war

whether that group is based upon culture, socioeconomic standing or simply: race... racism is natural.. we look to our own kind in times of war

individualism goes against morals, individualism goes against community and creates alienation...

an alienated individual will seek to identify him- /herself with things instead of people, ultimately people become things, i.e. prostitution - here we have it : the perfect consumer

feel free to censure those words which you find dangerous

Sanyu

"you cannot identify yourself with humanity, that's nonsense."

You got that right Merchant, it is nonsense. In fact, the above sentence is one of the better contradictions I've come across from a decidedly ignorant mind.

That being said, are you a homo sapien sapien? (NOTE THE SAPIEN SAPIEN)

Because if there is one thing a homo sapien sapien should be able to identify with, it's the fact that it's conscious. Meaning that it's future is decided by its understanding, which it forms from its perception of the past and present. THINKING, PERCEIVING, and CREATING (evolving for our species...do morals allow for that theory?) are what separated the homo sapien sapien's from the neanderthals. Homo sapien sapien's come in all pigments and variations, like any smart evolving species knows to - variety is key to adaptation! It's what took hu(man) beings from beasts in the wilderness to people in societies. THEREFORE, if there is one thing that an INDIVIDUAL can IDENTIFY WITH it is MOST DEFINITELY their HU(MAN)ITY. If an individual can't identify with the fact that they are hu(man), they usually commit suicide....or turn into animals.

In Merchant terms, racism is f*cking stupid.

Yes, our greeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaattttttttt ancestors needed it because their sphere of understanding was the size of their village. But today, in 2010, we have things like the internets to EXPAND our KNOWLEDGE of THE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW in an ACCELERATED fashion. Not to mention "white" people are only 10% of the population, and darker /pigments/ mix, so our species legacy is evolutionarily destined to be a species of "mutts." (Or we can start that whole cave person thing over...any volunteers? Merchant?)

After all the BS you just wrote up there, you then have the audacity to call yourself a Merchant of "the World." By your own confession you've clearly only identified with a minority, so stop speaking for everyone. You're not my bloody merchant, dunce.

Sanyu

"you cannot identify yourself with humanity, that's nonsense."

You got that right Merchant, it is nonsense. In fact, the above sentence is one of the better contradictions I've come across from a decidedly ignorant mind.

That being said, are you a homo sapien sapien? (NOTE THE SAPIEN SAPIEN)

Because if there is one thing a homo sapien sapien should be able to identify with, it's the fact that it's conscious. Meaning that it's future is decided by its understanding, which it forms from its perception of the past and present. THINKING, PERCEIVING, and CREATING (evolving for our species...do morals allow for that theory?) are what separated the homo sapien sapien's from the neanderthals. Homo sapien sapien's come in all pigments and variations, like any smart evolving species knows to - variety is key to adaptation! It's what took hu(man) beings from beasts in the wilderness to people in societies. THEREFORE, if there is one thing that an INDIVIDUAL can IDENTIFY WITH it is MOST DEFINITELY their HU(MAN)ITY. If an individual can't identify with the fact that they are hu(man), they usually commit suicide....or turn into animals.

In Merchant terms, racism is f*cking stupid.

Yes, our greeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaattttttttt ancestors needed it because their sphere of understanding was the size of their village. But today, in 2010, we have things like the internets to EXPAND our KNOWLEDGE of THE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW in an ACCELERATED fashion. Not to mention "white" people are only 10% of the population, and darker /pigments/ mix, so our species legacy is evolutionarily destined to be a species of "mutts." (Or we can start that whole cave person thing over...any volunteers? Merchant?)

After all the BS you just wrote up there, you then have the audacity to call yourself a Merchant of "the World." By your own confession you've clearly only identified with a minority, so stop speaking for everyone. You're not my bloody merchant, dunce.

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