The Geography of Thought: A Review

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
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The Geography of Thought: A Review


Richard E. Nisbett's book The Geography of Thought is a useful work in coming closer to having an understanding of the brain. In it, the author examines the ways in which Eastern and Western culture and perspectives of the world differ. In doing so, the book reveals the way we see the brain as constant among all people where it is clearly highly variable. Also, Nisbett's work demonstrates how elastic the mind is in that societal changes will inevitably affect the way the brain works.

The author begins the book by outlining some of the major differences between ancient "Western", specifically Greek, philosophy and "Eastern", Chinese philosophy. Although it may be difficult to relate to this information from a modern day standpoint, as the book unfolds it becomes clear that these philosophies provide an excellent framework for understanding cultural differences in the East and West. It is these philosophies which have endured and stood out in European and Asian history and even today their tenets are reflected in societal norms. Notably, I became more interested in the book as I read about the Eastern philosophy. I realized that the ideas of Taoism seemed incredibly unique to me and the provided the first clue that reading the book from the perspective of an American student would have an impact on how I would react to it.

After finishing the book, it is clear to me how important it was for Nisbett to outline ancient Western and Eastern philosophy since they have formed the backbone not only of how individuals relate to one another but also how they solve problems. The author wrote in his introduction that he became interested in researching the psychological differences among Europeans and Americans because of the comments of a student of his who was Chinese. His student said that the Chinese see everything as interrelated whereas Westerners are more likely to think within the scope of individual people or objects. Indeed, his studies consistently show that this is the case.

One particularly interesting point contrasts American and Chinese children's books. The famous lines "See Dick run..." are much different than those in the equivalent Chinese primer which doesn't describe actions by an individual but instead describes information about relationships between people; "Big brother takes care of little brother..." Later in the book, the author describes the way children in Asia, Europe and America are raised by their parents but also the ways that they create relationships between things. For example, when given a series of images to pair together, an Asian child is more likely to group a cow with grass because a cow eats grass. An American child would be more likely to pair the cow with a chicken because they fit into the same "taxonomic" category.

As I read this book, the evidence supporting the author's points became increasingly overwhelming and it began to seem more and more obvious. In fact, I wondered why it never occurred to me that humans living in different societies would have a different perspective about nearly everything. My surprise demonstrated just how much I had created my own idea of the brain based on myself instead of taking into account the differences other people exhibit. However, it also became clear that differences in culture are not black and white, East or West.

It should be noted that on several occasions the author states that his conclusions are based on significant trends in his studies and that there are certainly Asians and Europeans that do not fit within the models for which he argues exist. Indeed, when presented with some of the experimental questions and tasks I sometimes responded the way is was predicted that an Asian person might. Some of the most meaningful pieces of information presented by the author to emphasize that he is not simply acting in the "Western" way of categorizing his subjects into dichotomies are data collected from studies structured not only around Asians and Americans, but also Asian-Americans and even Americans living in Asia. In most cases, the data collected from Asian-American subjects fell in between the results from Europeans or European Americans and Asians. This demonstrates the degree to which environment can affect the brain as well as the fact that the author's argument does not neatly categorize groups of people.

It is this information which makes the book the most useful for understanding the way the brain works. Surely everyone would agree that no two people are alike and that different people are likely to approach problems from different angles or have different perceptions of relationships. Yet, when reading about studies in psychology, it is far too easy to assume that results are representative of all human brains. The author particularly examines the technique of testing intelligence with IQ tests. These tests often involve categorization, which has been shown to be a strength of Westerners. IQ tests are just one cultural phenomenon based on assumptions about what constitutes "intelligence." Nisbett provides insight for readers about the assumptions that we make and hopefully inspire a new way of thinking about the brain.

Even though this book focuses on difference based on geography, it presents the problem on a much broader scale. If we can assume that people in Asia, who have clear cultural differences from Americans, think the same way as people in the United States, we also must make the same assumptions our own neighbors. Many of the points made in the book can be applied to the way we see others in general and not only relevant to an East vs. West perspective. For example, the author discusses differences in education in Asia and the United States. In Asia, it is believed that skills in math, for example, is not a talent but instead something that anyone can work hard to attain. As a result, students work hard and there is more support for teachers. In contrast, Americans are much more likely to assume that a talent for math is something a student either has or lacks. Asian-American school children who have trouble recognizing cause-and-effect relationships can be labeled "learning disabled," when in fact changing educational techniques could provide the student with the same information in a more understandable format. Cases such as this demonstrate that we are constantly making assumptions about others and that life could be easier for everyone if we realized that the "individuality" that we embrace is reflected in the brain.

The Geography of Thought helps the reader to step back and examine the way we perceive the mind. Though we may think we understand that no two brains are alike, it is likely that this book will expose to the reader the extent to which we fabricate our own understanding of how the brain works and the way that we carry on daily activities based on the assumption that all humans think alike. Although the book itself attempts outline the differences between two groups of people, it certainly does not draw distinct barriers between groups. As a Western scientist, Nisbett actively resists the tendency to create dichotomies. As a result, his book provides readers with a new perspective from which to view the brain. Although it is impossible to separate our understanding of ourselves and our understanding of the brain, the information in this book serves as a reminder that we overlook differences from person to person every day and as we struggle to understand the brain, we must not let these assumptions overcome scientific inquiry.


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