When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he had to work in an awkward position for months with his head thrown back looking up. In addition to the serious neck cramp which I’m sure he developed, his brain rewired itself to see in that upside down way all the time and upon finishing the chapel, took several months to return to normal.

Not only does man’s brain shape and make culture, but a person’s culture shapes and makes their brain because of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change form and function in response to repeated behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. Like Michelangelo’s painting posture, the life you live shapes your brain.

In Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, he tells of a group of nomadic people, the Sea Gypsies, who live on the tropical islands off of the West Coast of Thailand. Sea Gypsies learn to swim before learning to walk and live over half of their lives in boats on and in the water learning to dive to great depths without any equipment. Their bodies have learned to adapt to this life by lowering their heart rates allowing them to stay under twice as long as most people.

Amazingly, their eyes have also adapted to see under the water clearly without goggles. Under the surace of the water, light is bent so that it does not land on the retina in the same place as on land, and the Sea Gypsies have learned to control the shape of their lenses and size of their pupils to account for this. Didge tells that in studies, other people have also been able to learn to do this which is an example of the nervous system and brain rewiring itself according to the demands of its environment.

Your body and brain adapt to how you live your life. Studies have shown that musicians who play stringed instruments develop larger brain maps for their active hands. Brain scans of London taxi drivers reveal that the more years a driver has on the job, the larger the area of their brain that handles spatial relationships. Meditators have proven to have denser parts of the brain which are activated when paying close attention.

The cultural modification of man’s brain can make for some trying and humorous situations when someone moves to a new country because the native culture is learned and literally wired into their brains. What may seem natural in one culture – how close we stand to each other, how loud we speak, the length of pauses in conversations – are all learned. Culture shock really is a brain in shock.

Immigration to a new country involves more than simply learning a new language and ways of a different culture. For example, at six months a Japanese baby can hear the English r-l sound distinction. At one year old, they no longer can distinguish between the sounds because of massive rewiring and pruning of cortical real estate that has taken place over the prior six months in their brains. Even much smaller changes, such as moving to a different living space, changing jobs, or learning a new skill result in the brain rewiring itself.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/121091151@N02/

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  1. Hiya Debbie,
    I love reading posts and articles about neuroplasticity. It's incredibly interesting to me and I think about it a lot of the time. As I'm currently trying to improve my body and mind's functioning, I'm constantly aware that the situations I put myself in could result in good (or bad) changes in my brain.

    The examples you discuss here are superb. I live in the US currently, but lived in Europe in my 20s — it certainly was culture shock but I loved it. Trying to learn mannerisms and tease apart intended meanings even in small conversation were quite difficult at first.

    Great discussion, great writing (again!) and thanks for delving into my favorite topic.

  2. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Nueroplasticity is truly amazing stuff and really gives us so much power over ourselves and our realities. I always feel it is like someone has given me a secret super power even better than X-ray vision.

    It is gonna happen for good or for bad whether we are conscious of it or not. Good for you for bringing it into your awareness and utilizing it.

    As much as I have disliked change in the past, I am embracing now because I know how good it is for my brain. I don't think I will move to another country anytime soon though! How brave you have been!

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