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Brain, Culture and Identity: Beyond the Third Culture Kid Paradigm

17 Oct 2020 4:21 AM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)

What does the biology of the brain have to do with culture and identity? Dr. Richard Pearce explored this question at an FIGT Research Network Affiliate event on 25 September 2020.

Blog title banner: Brain, culture & identity. 25 Sep 2020 virtual seminar.

The FIGT Research Network (FRN) Affiliate held an online seminar on 25 September 2020 with Dr. Richard Pearce to explore what the brain has to do with culture and identity. What if the biology of the brain and its mechanisms was the real architect of our values, which in turn direct our behaviour, shape our culture and form our identity? Dr. Danau Tanu, Co-Chair of the FIGT Research Network, hosted the event.

Dr. Richard Pearce, who has been involved with international schools for over 50 years including doctoral research on the adjustment of internationally mobile children, drew on a number of different disciplines to present a biologist’s view of how humans decide what to do, a look at why it does not feel like this in our lives, and some suggestions for further research.

How the brain decides what is good vs bad, right vs wrong

The first point Richard made was that the brain works partly consciously and partly unconsciously. Much human decision-making is intuitive, as psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated. 

Antonio Damasio, a neurobiologist, has shown that the internal conditions like body temperature which we regulate automatically can also be detected consciously, as “gut feelings,” telling us whether conditions are right or wrong.

This kind of signal of right or wrong can also become linked to conscious ideas, so that we feel emotionally that they are good or bad. This, he claimed, is the function of the emotions, to tell us what is good or bad to do.

Richard explained that as we go through life, we accumulate memories with positive and negative labels, and add to them by conversations, storytelling, print and digital records. These memories build up to become a collection of images of good and bad, which we call “culture.” 

The first memory we absorb is the attachment to the person or people who we feel are good—this feeling, we call love, affection, membership, loyalty, belonging. And we accept the things that these people close to us teach us as good or right. In this way, we collect images of what is normal and much more strongly held images of what is morally right. 

This ... signal of right or wrong can ... become linked to conscious ideas, so that we feel emotionally that they are good or bad.

These are adopted with the authority of those important people: norms are approved by people we are weakly attached to, while moral values have very strong authority associated with ancestors, family, or divinities.

When we debate a course of action in our minds, these powerful authorities are difficult to argue against, giving us a strong moral compass. 

Richard suggested that the self-comparisons we make with the various authorities are best termed “identification” and that this process is real, whereas “identity” is just an impression that we have (a reification). In this account he used the word “values” quite loosely, noting that normative and moral values differ in their importance.

Richard explained that we don’t think how we make decisions because our conscious mind is a passenger inside the human machine, and it would be distracting to be aware of its workings.

What we need are clear impressions of the world and a sense that we know, absolutely, what is right or wrong, together with a feeling that we must do and approve what feels right.

Unfortunately we often extend this certainty to a conviction that everyone must feel the same, and this causes problems.

Our lists of right and wrong and culture shock

Thinking about how we compile our list of right and wrong, Richard explained that each new experience, whether first-hand or heard from other people’s stories, will be tested against our existing account of the world.

If it matches, it will be added. If it is impossible to ignore but doesn’t fit, the system must adjust, by redefining or reprioritizing experiences. In extreme cases, a new parallel system of labelled images will be developed, which will be used only in this setting.

In this process of digesting a new experience, the person on whose authority we judge the experience is very important. If we identify strongly with them and they have powerful authority in our minds, we will do our best to accommodate the new value. 

If we have adapted well and adopted many of the new values abroad, we may feel a shock when we come home. People staying at home gradually update their views as they grow older, and the home country changes, too.

The expat has missed out on this so they have trouble fitting in at home, and they also have recent experiences which are not valued by their new peers. This is the original TCK experience.

Directions for research

Addressing the researchers in the FRN, Richard offered a lengthy list of topics which might be illuminated by such an approach. Because human value systems are so complex, he proposed that case studies were more likely to be helpful than quantitative research. He summarized the new insights into cultural misunderstandings in three ways: 

  • What are the different meanings we attach to a situation?

  • Whose authority makes us believe our own interpretation? 

  • How important is it to us? 

Research into meanings could explore social imaginaries of two societies, or concentrate on the quality of communication, particularly where one or more is using a second language.

He suggested that the relative salience of the authorities who validate one’s values may differ widely and in ways invisible from the outside. This may become more important as English is used as a global second language in ever more situations.

Finally, he proposed that a growing question is the relative salience of first-hand and online information. 

Richard closed with a plea for research on long-term diasporic communities, to explore how they comfortably accommodate the alien values of host communities.

If you would like to join future events organized by the FIGT Research Network (FRN) Affiliate, please go to the FRN webpage to find out how you can stay informed.

How to cite this webinar

Pearce, Richard. (2020) Brain, Culture and Identity: Beyond the Third Culture Kid Paradigm. Families In Global Transition Research Network Affiliate. [Virtual seminar, 25 September 2020.]

Useful references

Brubaker, R., and Cooper, F. (2000). Beyond “Identity.” Theory and Society, 29, pp. 1-47.

Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., and Klein, D. J. (1992). “What Is an Emotion? The Role of Somatovisceral Afference, with Special Emphasis on Somatovisceral ‘Illusions,’” in M. S. Clark (ed.), Emotion and Social Behaviour. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Damasio, A. R. (2018). The Strange of Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. New York: Pantheon Books. 

Frith, C. D. (2013). How the Brain Creates Culture, paper presented to the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina Annual Assembly 2013.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. London: Allen Lane.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Allen Lane.

Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mischkowski, D., Crocker, J., and Way, B. M. (2019). A Social Analgesic? Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Positive Empathy, Frontiers in Psychology, 29 March 2019. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00538 accessed 27 January 2020.

Weinreich, P. (2003). ‘Identity Structure Analysis’, in P. Weinreich and W. Saunderson (eds.), Analysing Identity: Cross-Cultural, Societal and Clinical Contexts. London: Routledge.


Profile photo of Richard PearceRichard Pearce, PhD, is British, and has worked in the UK and the USA and researched in the Netherlands. At the International School of London his roles included Director of Admissions.

Though he was trained as a biologist, this close contact with mobile parents led to his doctoral research through the University of Bath on how mobile children adjust.

Richard now writes and lectures on International Education, Culture and Identity seen through the lens of Cross-Cultural Psychology. He is the editor of the book, International Education and Schools: Moving Beyond the First 40 Years, and has contributed to Migration, Diversity, and Education: Beyond Third Culture Kids.

Profile photo of Danau TanuDanau Tanu, PhD, is the author of Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School, the first book on structural racism in international schools and a contributing author to Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids.

She is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Social Sciences of the University of Western Australia and was recently awarded a postdoctoral fellowship by the Japan Foundation to commence at Waseda University in 2021.

Danau has published ethnographic studies on Third Culture Kids and mixed-race identities. She is a Co-Chair of the FIGT Research Network and Co-Founder of TCKs of Asia.

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