Category Archives: Brain and Society

What were the recent Hong Kong protests about?

When I left Germany – or to be more precise, when I left my German cultural bubble in Beijing for my life’s second journey to the Western world, I was idealistic, emotionally vulnerable, naïve and all of those things that one is at age 19. One thing, however, I was not: afraid of authority and superiors. In fact, my German education had instilled in me a natural suspicion of authority figures in any political and institutional setting and a subsequent duty to disobey them if necessary.

The final high school degree, the Abitur, is also referred to as the Reifeprüfung, which literally means a ‘test of maturity’ (I know – so serious, so German). The speeches given at the degree ceremonies – by both authority figures such as principals and teachers, as well as the students themselves – commonly center around the question whether the freshly conferred Abitur students have attained true maturity at the end of their educational journey: Are they critical members of society? Can they show civil courage when they see other people’s rights violated? And most important, can they respectfully stand up to authority and those in power? What is remarkable is that these questions are not just asked by students but by the authority figures themselves. My teachers and principal seemed to feel that they had done a good job if they had raised students that would be able to rebel against them.

I am thinking again about the question of authority and youth in the context of the recent Hong Kong democracy protests. The protests, which at their peak reached participation levels of 100,000 people, were marked by their peaceful, highly self-disciplined and ordered nature. Most of all, what surprised Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and outside observers alike was the overwhelming participation of young people, such as university and high school students. Without them, the protests would not have gained momentum and been sustained. The images of tear gas being sprayed into the eyes of Hong Kong’s students led to a huge outcry within the general population and drove more people into the streets. One of the main protest ‘leaders’, Joshua Wong, only just turned 18 this week and was a high school student until the summer.

Journalists such as Martin Jacques tried to dismiss the genuineness of the protesters’ demands for democratic elections and for freedom from Mainland Chinese control by suggesting that the underlying reason of the protests were not so much political, but stemming from an internal identity crisis, which in turn were fueled by arrogance and hubris towards China. Jacques is certainly not entirely wrong in observing that that a lot of Hongkongers perceive Mainland Chinese as poor and inferior, and that they identify more with a Western identity, even though many cultural aspects of life remain permeated by East Asian norms and aesthetics.

A study on global stereotyping shows that Hongkongers view Filipino maids and Mainland Chinese in terms of disgust (Cuddy, Fiske et al. 2009), the lowest possible category when it comes to stereotyping. We perceive people towards whom we feel disgust as possessing minimum human warmth and intellectual competence (Fiske et al. 2002, in a groundbreaking study on the mixed nature of stereotypes). Research in social neuroscience went further and showed that feeling disgust towards someone can disable core social brain functions such as being able to ‘mentalize’ how someone else feels – in the worst possible scenario, this can lead to dehumanization and treating this person as less-than-human (Harris and Fiske 2006). (Incidentally, in the US, people who fall into the disgust group are welfare recipients and the homeless. Hispanics, Muslims and Blacks are at the threshold.)

And yet, I don’t agree with Jacques on what fuelled the protests. When I was in Hong Kong last year to give a talk at Hong Kong’s City University, I asked the audience about their Hong Kong identity. I had discussed this question with some of the people in the audience already back in New York, when they had visited the States to witness the US presidential elections in 2012 with the New Youth Forum group, a civil society group organized by young Hong Kong citizens. The young Hongkongers in the audience said they felt distinctively ‘Hongkongnese’, but an unsure and awkward silence followed my question of what exactly this meant to them. I believe that the insecurity behind the silence was genuine and not primarily driven by disgust towards Mainland China. Similarly, during the protests this year, slogans and demands were not dominated by stereotypical disgust towards a backward China, but a sincere political voice trying to find its democratic identity.

Journalists like Jacques who try to portray the protests as an unpolitical identity crisis hidden under the disguise of democratic demands not only miss the birth of a new democratic identity that the young people of Hong Kong try to carve out of the hitherto confused silence that I met last year, but most important, he misses the emergence of a crucial dynamic that is the pillar of any well-functioning democracy: the relationship between a country’s youth with authority.

Germany arrived at its commendable cultivation of a critical relationship between youth and authority via a painful path (alas, as with pretty much anything else in Germany history and culture – maybe with the exception of music). The unconditional worship of Hitler and the Nazi regime by a vast majority of Germans, as well as the fanatic reverence of political and militaristic hierarchies by masses of young people during those dark years left a deep mark on Germany’s educational conscience. However, it was not until the 68’ student revolution (I accidentally stumbled across Rudi Dutschke’s grave in the St. Annen Kirchhof in Berlin Dahlem this year) and the efforts of that generation to confront the moral abyss that their parents and grandparents had left behind that teachers and authority figures adopted this new educational and political ideal, of which I am a product.

The Hong Kong protests are dwindling down and we are left to wonder what is left behind. If anything, for a young generation of Hongkongers, it’s walking out of the silence of a complex identity crisis into the hum of political contestation of their uncertain future.


Cuddy, A. et al. (2009). Stereotype content model across cultures: towards universal similarities and some differences. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 1-33.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 6, 878–902.

Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuro-imaging responses to extreme outgroups. Psychological Science, 17, 847-853.




Can you add up identities like cabbages?

Just as summer is around the corner at the East Coast, I remember a conversation last year with the Princeton-based British composer Andrew Lovett on a hot, sultry day overlooking a small vegetable garden in New Jersey, on whether one could add up identities like, well, cabbages (the clumsy vegetable metaphor is mine, not his).

Andrew was telling me about a Yom Kippur service he once attended at Princeton, where four undergraduates were asked to use this occasion to publicly talk about their Jewish identity. Their speeches were moving and polished, and yet, one comment seemed odd. One of the young speakers talked about how he was glad that his Jewish identity allowed him to have two instead of ‘just’ one identity: almost as if one could arrange one’s identities in a row in a field, watch each of them sprout and then count them up neatly. (There is, of course, another implication in that young man’s comment about denying complexity and complication to secular identities, as if all non-religious identities were banally ‘simple’ and somehow a bit deficient – but this shall be the topic of a future blog post).

Studies on the bicultural brain by Joan Chiao (2010) and her colleagues at Northwestern University asked whether Asian-Americans would be able to activate the Western or East Asian aspects of their bicultural sense of Self respectively, when primed to think about themselves in one particular cultural manner. Basically, priming consisted in people reading a story and being asked to describe themselves in an either East Asian or Western way. I have written previously about measurable cultural differences in people’s brain mechanism in terms of an East Asian interdependent or Western dependent sense of Self. Chiao and her colleagues found out that bicultural individuals could in fact activate the two different cultural selves within them at the brain level, in response to targeted priming. It suggests that the activation of different identities at the brain level is a dynamic process and that the idea of drawing neat lines between our identities might not be possible. For me, the insight is that it is all happening within one brain, meaning, there are no cabbages for us to count up but only the enigma left of who it is that our brain is becoming as we continue to absorb more identities.

The dynamics of the multicultural brain are not the only way through which our lines of Self become blurred. Cultural neuroscientists also looked at the effects of cultural exposure over time and ageing. In Joshua Goh’s (2007) study on young and old Singaporeans, the East Asian preference for context-and background information in visual processing (versus the Western preference for central objects — basically this means that when looking at a picture of a helicopter flying over the Alps, East Asians will first notice the Alps and Westerners will focus on the helicopter) was more pronounced in older Singaporeans than younger ones. ‘Cultural differences became apparent only in older subjects who had had more exposure to their respective cultural environments than the young subjects had had’, pointing to the significance of experience over time and its effect on cultural identities within different generations.

On top of this, Goh’s study found that both elderly Westerners and elderly Singaporeans displayed loss of neural tissue in a brain area that usually engages in the representation of associative information, i.e. the process of linking central objects with their backgrounds in visual processing, making it harder as we get older to link the helicopter to the Alps…

So where does this leave us? Beyond cabbages and the neat adding-up of identities that are yet to come along my way, I am drawn to the fact that the ageing brain brings about changes in one’s perception that everybody will experience across cultures one day in their lives. In this light, the image of the vegetable garden and its seasonal changes of growth and decay and perpetual self-renewal seems rather appealing to dwell on as I lift the receiver to give Andrew that long-due to call to arrange for another summer day’s meeting in the thickets of New Jersey.


Chiao, J. Y., Harada, T., Komeda, H., Li, Z., Mano, Y., Saito, D., et al. (2010) “Dynamic cultural influences on neural representations of the Self”, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22, 1–11.

Goh, J. O., Chee, M. W., Tan, J. C., et al. (2007) “Age and culture modulate object processing and object–scene binding in the ventral visual area”, Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7 (1), 44–52.


Who am I between the cultures? Cultural neuroscience’s new questions for the Self

I stand at the iron-cast main gate of Columbia University and look back one last time onto the snow covered campus before I take down the stairs to the 116th Street subway station. Today was one of those days again on which I did not have to ask myself perpetually who I am. In the seminar rooms, the library, the food halls and rambling corridors of Morningside campus’ pre-war buildings, the peculiar combination of my Chinese looks and British English with a German accent passes without comment. Rather, in the good old New York convention of unshakable indifference and mild impatience, people focus on the essentials: their response to my comments on the seminar text, my overdue library fees, my signature for the Earl Grey tea bill…

It has been a good day for me. This way, I could also focus on the essential part in me. But what does it mean, to be oneself? This question jumps at me the moment I leave the snow covered campus and walk into the noisy subway train filled with identities and chatter from everywhere. Whereas on campus it’s all about the distillation of the thinking Self (and the apparatus that keeps it running), outside of it, we are thrown into expressing, negotiating, enjoying and suffering at the hands of our identities and self-experiments, in wrapping yet another one of those countless cloaks of cultural norms around what we call the Self.

But is the idea of the cloaked Self not in itself a naïve fiction – as if there were something at our core that is awaiting to be peeled out and distilled? Is it possible at all to distinguish a specific Self from all the cultural identities that make up who we are? How far, in Hegel’s sense, can Sitten and Bildung permeate us? Are we literally our cultural customs or is there something that can escape these cloaks? Who am I when I move effortlessly over the snow-muffled Columbia campus and think and talk without having to constantly be reminded of my skin color, my whimsical biography and my language barriers, and who am I indeed when I feel so deeply touched by the snippets of Chinese, German and English that fly across the subway train?

Research in the novel field of cultural neuroscience is asking exactly those questions. Studies have shown that the influence of cultural practices can lead to profound differences in brain mechanisms – affecting how we perceive objects, colors, other human beings, ourselves, and even the way how we reason mathematically (Ames and Fiske, 2010). For example, both Western and East Asian people display activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex when asked to think about themselves (Kelley et al., 2002; Zhang et al., 2006), but only East Asian people exhibit activity in the same regions when asked to think about their mother (Zhu, Zhang, Fan und Han, 2007). What this means is that East Asians have a distinct conception of Self that includes not only themselves but also immediate others – the Self is not understood in an isolated fashion but in a relational manner to others and society.

Cultural psychologists have been claiming cultural differences in one’s sense of Self for some while. The evidence at the brain level confirms psychological theories of the independent Western and interdependent East Asian Self developed by Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama (1991). This theory is based on the hypothesis that cultural influences such as Confucianism contribute to East Asians viewing themselves as socially contextual beings who mainly make sense of themselves through their ties to family and friends. Unlike in the West, the East Asian Self is not treated as an independent entity. Other cultural psychologists studying Western and Japanese children’s idea of self were able to show that this dichotomy might be flawed, since Japanese children could make self-descriptions in both independent and interdependent styles (Killen et al. 2002). However, the brain evidence from cultural neuroscience is still compelling – it shows that at least once people reach adulthood, cultural influences can be powerful enough result in distinctly different brain mechanism during self-processing.

Cultural neuroscientists have also looked into the effect of religion on our sense of Self. For example, only Christians exhibit brain activity in their dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area engaged in third-person perception, when thinking about themselves (Han et. al 2008). Once again the brain evidence confirms psychological theories; previously, we assumed that Christians judge themselves through the eyes of God and that this affected from which perspective they viewed themselves. Buddhists, however, in accordance with the Buddhist principle of “anatta” (i.e. no-self), do not exhibit brain activity in the typical regions when thinking about themselves – through repeated religious practice of self-denial, they have managed to modify their neuronal dynamics altogether (Wu, Wang et al. 2010). Curiously, the experiment on the Christians and Buddhists were conducted at Beijing University with Han atheists, Han Christians and Tibetan Buddhists, reminding us that differences in self-perception do not just appear between different cultural societies but also within one society.

This kind of intercultural variation in our self-perception opens a host of hard philosophical questions. It certainly throws the universal application of the Western liberal model of Self in a critical light. In John Stuart Mill’s famous work On Liberty (1859), only “cultivation of individuality brings humans nearer to the best thing they can be” because only the individual Self that has freed herself from society’s restraints can find true happiness. Although Mill does take into account the significance of society’s influence and the need to consider our fellow human beings in the ultimate quest for individuality, his message is clear: we can only become full human beings when we are our own last judge and have emancipated ourselves from our surrounding cultural norms. But in light of cultural neuroscience’s discoveries, Mill’s thesis becomes questionable. Are East Asians or Buddhists unable to attain true happiness because their cognitive experience of Self is not based on Mill’s ideal? Can we only find happiness and true humanity in the cultivation of Western individuality?

A rejection of these questions points to the field of postmodern critical theory and its questioning of the liberal idea of Self. Postmodernists argue that non-western and pre-modern societies deserve at least the same level of recognition and consideration as the prevailing post-Enlightenment, modern Western ideal of society. Critics of postmodernism object that this kind of perspective can lead to the circumventing of important normative questions, and even a kind of moral relativism in relation to universal values such as human rights.

An unexpected dissenter of this postmodern turn is V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidadian writer and literature Nobel prize winner, who himself is a traveler between the cultures of his birth place Trinidad, his Indian heritage and his self-chosen home of England. In a speech given at the Manhattan Institute of New York (1992), he pleads for the ideals of a ‘universal civilization’, which he describes as

“(…) the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery (…) I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But is it known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

For Naipaul, this ideal could not be found within the cultural confinements of his birth place Trinidad, but only in the Great Britain – and particularly London – of his time. Sure enough, Naipaul mocks the flawed self-conception of the people in the Trinidad of his childhood with a tenderness and empathy that at once forgives and understands them for who they are – yet he is certain that as a writer, he could have only flourished in the societies of Western modernity.

Naipaul’s unusual biography of arriving in 1950s England as a dark-skinned young man from a small postcolonial Caribbean island would not surprise us that much anymore today. In our current hypermobile world people travel and immigrate – whether that is due to economic or political pressures or due to the privilege of socio-economic resources – from non-Western peripheries to the centers of the Western world all the time. So many unforeseeable identity cloaks will be put on within a lifetime. It gets increasingly more difficult to draw clear lines between Western and non-Western narrations of ourselves and within self-conceptions at the brain level. I and other people who are moving along Columbia University’s campus and in the streets of New York are witnesses of this new experience of carrying multiple cultural identities within one brain.

Naipaul’s position has been rightly attacked for many reasons (I cannot help admiring him for doing such an excellent job at being loathed though – it would be much easier to make himself being loved by the postmodern crowd): the arrogance and arbitrariness of his cultural judgments, his limited and unfair depiction of pre-modern and non-Western societies, his haughtiness, his glorification and misconstruction of modernity and Western ideals. And yet, when he speaks of the ‘universal civilization’ in this still crisp talk in New York over 20 years ago, I knew immediately and exactly what he was referring to. It is this experience that I encounter on Columbia campus and many places within New York – but sadly not in my twin homeland, my Zwillingsheimatland, Germany, where I am always the perpetual foreigner to too many Germans – this experience of partaking in what feels like a universal way of being human together, which becomes the basis of a precious sense of freedom. I would counter Naipaul however that this freedom is not necessarily particular to a specific culture but can blossom wherever people find ways within their culture to humanize the foreign Other.

The German original of this blog post can be found here at the Hannover Philosophy Institute’s blog.


Ames, D.L. & Fiske, S. (2010) Cultural Neuroscience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13 (2), 72-82.

Kelley, W.M., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C.L., Caglar, S., Inati, S.&Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the Self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14 (5), 785-794.

Killen, M., McGlothlin, H., Lee-Kim, J. (2002) Between individuals and culture: individuals’ evaluations of exclusion from social groups, in: Between Culture and Biology (eds. Keller et al.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Markus, H.R. & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98 (2), 224-253.

Mill, J.S. (1993) On Liberty, London: Orion.

Naipaul, V.S. (2002) Postscript: Our universal civilization, in: V.S. Naipaul, The Writer and the World, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wu, Y., Wang, C., He, X., Mao, L. & Zhang, L. (2010) Religious beliefs influence neural substrates of self-reflection in Tibetans. Social and Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 5 (2-3), 324-331.

Zhang, L., Zhou, T., Zhang, J., Liu, Z., Fan, J. & Zhu, Y. (2006). In search of the Chinese self: An fMRI study. Science in China Series C: Life Sciences, 49 (1), 89-96.

Zhu, Y., Zhang, L., Fan, J. & Han, S. (2007). Neural basis of cultural influence on self-representation. Neuroimage, 34 (3), 1310-1316.