I love looking at brain development through a cultural lens. So much of what we think is innate or automatic is actually culturally dependent or is highly influenced by culture. The following article talks about the influence of culture on mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are pathways in the brain that help you to learn from someone else's actions. For example, if you watch someone shooting a basketball, mirror neurons are helping you to learn how to perfect your jump shot even without physically practicing it. The same neurons fire when you are shooting the ball. Mirror neurons also fire for other actions such as gestures and expressions. Many neuroscientists believe that these neurons are the basis for empathy in the brain.
However, not all actions are created equally when it comes to mirror neurons. As the article points out, it depends who performs the action as to how the neurons fire in the brain. If you perceive the person performing the action to be someone who shares your culture, then there is a higher level of mirror neuron activity. So if neuroscientists are correct, this essentially means that we empathize more with someone of our own culture. I would argue that it is also true that we learn better from someone of the same culture.
So what does this mean for children? Well, what if your child has a teacher that does not look like him or her; that is not of the same culture? Does that mean that your child will have a harder time learning from them? What about learning from peers? If a peer of a different culture does something really well, is it less likely that your child will learn from their actions? I am not sure that anyone has the answers to these questions yet, but they are important ones to ask.
So what can you as a parent do? Help your child to see the similarities between themselves and others and not just the differences. It appears that the more we identify with someone, the more we can empathize with them, and (I would argue) the more we can learn from them. You do not have to say that everyone in your child's life is the same-that would be disingenuous. But you can talk about what unique things you share in common. A common family set-up, a common interest, a common background, a common language or dialect. Help your child to see that we are all diverse and different. And that is part of what binds us together.
This series will be ongoing. There may not be a post every week, but we'll keep it going for as long as people have questions that need to be answered! Leave a comment below, fill out the interest survey, or contact me. What questions do you have about diversity and the brain? What would you like to know more about? How does this all relate to your children? I can't wait to hear from you!
Did you enjoy this post? Sign up for our newsletter! Instead of having to remember to check out the blog, you will get great information delivered right to your email. Tips, strategies, articles, and videos so you don't have to figure it all out yourself! When you sign up, you will receive a useful book list for kids of all ages-babies to teens. Enjoy and let us know what you think!
Dr. Sweeney is a licensed school psychologist and cultural competence expert. Here are her musings on life in a multicultural world.
Interested in writing a guest blog post? Contact me for more information!