The eyes have it

Lynne McTaggart

Recently, a team of British scientists at the University of Liverpool discovered that eye movement patterns of the Chinese, born and raised in China, are completely different to that of white people living in Britain.

The study aimed to investigate eye movements between the two cultures to examine brain mechanisms controlling the eyes and the way they compare between different populations.

Recently, a team of British scientists at the University of Liverpool discovered that eye movement patterns of the Chinese, born and raised in China, are completely different to that of white people living in Britain.

The study aimed to investigate eye movements between the two cultures to examine brain mechanisms controlling the eyes and the way they compare between different populations.

In the study, the British team, working with researchers at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, were examining rapid eye moments, called saccades, by asking participants from the two cultures to react to spots of lights as they appeared suddenly to the left or right of their line of sight.

Up until now, researchers assumed that the reaction time of fast eye movements was universal – unvarying among different populations – and approximately one-fifth of a second. So rare is any deviation from that reaction time that anything faster is considered to be evidence of altered brain function – usually from injury or disease.

Although 97 per cent of the British participants registered the fifth of a second delay, some 30 per cent of the Chinese participants reacted in a tenth of a second. Furthermore, as these participants were healthy and had normal vision, this pattern was discovered to be common in the Chinese.

Although the researchers only speculated about why the different cultures see so differently, the reason for the differences is obvious.

When human beings look at the world out there, not all of us see the same thing. Our individual culture teaches us how to look and what to see, and by recognizing this, we can learn to take a larger and more all-embracing look.

Richard Nisbett, a professor of social psychologist at the University of Michigan and author of The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners See Things Differently and Why, has made a life study of cultural influences on methods of thinking. It is Nesbitt’s contention that thought processes – and even perception itself – are not universal, but a cultural phenomenon.

People do not perceive the world in the same way in different parts of the world – they don’t even see the same thing. Nisbett’s extensive work in that area, which he terms the ‘geography of thought’, clearly shows that different cultures develop a very different style of thinking. It starts with the very way that we’re taught to see.

If you are older than 50 and raised in America, Dick and Jane was the first book you read – and it described a perfect American fantasy. It recorded the comings and goings of the rosy cheeked, brother-and-sister duo, their little sister Sally and their black-and-white spaniel Spot. They inhabit a Leave-it-to-Beaver world, with a dad who sports a suit, even on weekends, and a mom who wears a pretty pastel day dress, even in her own kitchen. The narrative always focuses on one of them getting up to something. “Look, Jane. See Dick. See Dick run”, as he tears across the lawn.

Books like Fun with Dick and Jane (and their British counterparts Janet and John) did not just teach us how to read. We also learned fundamentally how to see the world. In the world of Dick and Jane, and ultimately in the Western world, a child learns to zero in on the individual.

What we do by ourselves – what we get up to, how we feel, what we achieve by ourselves — is central, the very point of our existence. Through our parents and our schooling, in which individual excellence is emphasized over all else, we learn that we are the subject and everything else is the object. We see the rest of the world entirely as it relates to us. We are taught – encouraged – to be separate, the central point of the story.

The late anthropologist Edward T. Hall calls this kind of thinking the outcome of a ‘low-context’ society, by which he meant that our identity is independent of our context. We view ourselves as an unfettered free agent; take you or me out of our society, plant us somewhere else, and we will still be the same person. It is these overriding, atomistic ideas — that our identity is autonomous, that we are the master of our universe — that informs how we interpret and relate to the riot of sensation and stimulus pouring into us at every moment.

East Asian children learn to read with very different ideas. In one of their first reading books, a little boy is sitting on the shoulders of a bigger boy: “Big brother takes care of little brother. Big Brother loves little brother. Little brother loves big brother.”

An East Asian only understands himself in terms of his relation to the whole, whether that the whole is represented by his family, his neighborhood, his culture, the Tao or even his sense of consciousness.

As children, East Asians (and also many indigenous cultures) are brought up with such a strong sense of connection to others that they can only see the self (and objects) in relationship to their context. Because Easterners define their world so differently, they have learned to view it with a different pair of eyes. In the East, a child learns about the relationship and its primacy —that he and someone else are a unit, an indivisible Bond.

Consequently, Eastern cultures actually think differently than we do in the West. The Chinese (whose culture has influenced many others in the East) have learned to understand things only in regard to other things. They see life only in relationship to a field of forces and understand matter in the universe not as a set of discrete objects but as mutual, continuous and interpenetrating. The world, to the Chinese or to native cultures, is in flux, ever mutable and in the process of becoming. The Eastern or indigenous mind has learned to see the world far more holistically from the moment it is born.

The stories we tell ourselves about how the world works ultimately govern what we perceive. After a while we see only what we are taught to see. Scientists now understand there is a phenomenon in the brain they refer to as ‘kindling’, discovered and named by a Nova Scotian neuroscientist named Graham Goddard, who first accidentally discovered the phenomenon in 1967 after bungling a cruel experiment with a set of laboratory rats. Goddard was fascinated by the neurobiology involved in learning and wondered whether electrostimulation might improve matters. In his experiment, Goddard electrically stimulated the brains of a group of rats every day to see if this had any effect on their ability to learn tasks.

After some days, Goddard noticed something completely untoward: the rats began having seizures even when the electrical current and charge applied to their brains were far too low to provoke a seizure. Somehow, he’d trained their brains to become epileptic by using a series of small electrical stimuli. As a result of Goddard’s work, modern neuroscientists believe that, like a coal fire that blazes more easily when first ignited with small pieces of wood, so pathways within the nervous system become sensitive to certain connections if they are reinforced early on, after which they begin to occur more easily or with greater frequency in the future.

The theory of kindling has been applied to bipolar disorder and depressive illness: it’s now believed that the more depressed someone has been in the past, the more easily he gets depressed in the future. From our understanding of brain plasticity, we also realize that kindling is a feature of perception. Over time, a pessimist can only see the negative, and the optimist can only
see the positive benefit of any situation. For us in the West, so used to picking out individual things in our world, the center of the picture is now all we can see. We are always looking for the star of the show.

Even with burgeoning capitalism now rampant in China, there may be a reason that they are so successful. No matter now much they embrace capitalism, they may believe – and see – things more for the good of the whole than we do.

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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