There Is No Brain on Earth Quite Like the Chinese Brain, And Given the Coming Importance of That Brain, We Need to Understand Everything We Can About It

I have come not to bury the Chinese brain but to praise it. And to warn neuroscientists, particularly in the West, that they need to devote substantial resources to studying it, and do so urgently. There are bigger issues afoot than simply what we can learn by turning our fMRI beams on the brain tissue of people who grew up speaking the standard Beijing dialect of the Mandarin language.

But does it matter whether the newly proliferating “neuro lab rats” study Chinese brains, American brains, Luxembourgian brains or Sri Lankan brains? Isn’t a healthy human brain a healthy human brain wherever it is found? And isn’t the whole idea of focusing on brains in one country versus brains in another country a slippery ethical slope that could easily dump the whole scientific neuroenterprise in the lap of—yes—racism or worse … gasp! … a kind of eugenics profiling?

Well, first off, it is already clear that studying one country’s brains doesn’t count for studying them all. That idea flies straight into the headwinds of some of the latest neuroscience. One of the very first faceoffs between brains made in America and brains made in “East Asia” revealed that, in terms of similarities, something was rotten in Denmark.

Moreover, what Professor John Gabrieli at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT discovered speaks directly to my primary thesis: the Chinese brain is like none other. And in a century that is merely a decade or two away from China inexorably beginning to rule the world, the rest of us should hasten to understand the differences.

Surprised by the role that culture plays
You can get more details on Professor Gabrieli’s experiment here. Suffice it to say, it was the findings that should raise eyebrows. Brains made in America must work harder to make judgments for which society’s answers aren’t that clear. Brains made in East Asian must work harder to make judgments where society’s stance is not in doubt.

That outcome surprised the researchers. “Everyone uses the same attention machinery for more difficult cognitive tasks, but they are trained to use it in different ways, and it’s the culture that does the training,” Dr. Gabrieli said.

In other words, it is often the culture that shapes the brain, and differing cultures shape differing brains. The reason why the Chinese brain is like none other is in sizable measure because the Chinese culture is like none other. Again, you may beg to differ. And, again, I ask that you accompany me to an expert.

Meet Martin Jacques. He’s the author of When China Rules the World. I spotted him again the other day in Macleans, the Canadian news weekly. He was explaining why China is soon going to be the world’s pre-eminent economic, political and cultural superpower. I can remember only one other newsmagazine analysis that riveted me as much as this one (that was a Newsweek piece in the summer of ’74 showing how Watergate’s corruption reached the very top of American politics).

Jacques says the Chinese don’t represent a country, or nation-state, so much as a civilization, and he marvels at its “powerful centripetal quality.” He notes—and worries about—the centrality of race in the thinking of the Chinese people and their assumption of cultural superiority. He comments:

“I mean, 92 per cent of them think of themselves as of the same race. While this is clearly not true—the Han Chinese are in fact descended from many different races—it gives a kind of biological reason for Chinese unity. And you can see it in their attitude toward those within China’s borders who have not been integrated in this way. The Tibetans or the Uighurs in Xinjiang province, for example, are regarded as needing to be helped up to the level of the Han Chinese. It’s a patronizing and very assimilationist attitude.”

More than just a country called China
Part of it is the Chinese language, Jacques believes. And the Confuscian values as applied to society and governance. And above all, the notion of the state as family—as the guardian of civilization. Not even the “Century of Humiliation” dating from the Opium Wars, not even Mao, with all his ruthlessness, could dislodge the Chinese from these beliefs. “It is a very remarkable characteristic,” says Jacques.

It is very much a postmodern biological “Great Wall of China,” a neurological Maginot Line in the brains of 1.4 billion people. It is one that is ordained to shape the brains of nearly every yet unborn child of China because of a culture that has been increasingly fabulously successful at seeing itself as a civilization, not just a country.

Do I skate here on thin ice? Not if you are willing to be informed by the work of Bruce E. Wexler at Yale University. He published Brain and Culture a couple of years ago.

B&C is, in my judgment, an exemplary piece of research and argumentation that, at its simplest, says this: Up to young adulthood, the brain puts its neurons together based in no small part on what its environment is telling it. After that, the brain works mightily to shape its environment based in no small part on the way its neurons suggest it ought to be.

Each generation thus acts to shape the brains of the next generation of its offspring, and this is where the Chinese civilization excels. Nor does the adult brain stop there, Professor Wexler says. Going forward, it hungers to lay the reality it constructed in those formative, neuron-linking years on all kinds of individuals, kin or not. And this is a quality that concerns a lot of people, including Martin Jacques. And I might add people like Australian Brian Hennessy, who has taught the past three years at the Chongqing Medical University and is currently providing psychological assistance to survivors of the Sichuan earthquake.

Segueing from a crime to cultural imperatives

The other day Hennessy says he had his wallet pick-pocketed near his home in Chongqing. When he reported the incident to police, he says he and his wife became the targets of the police investigation. He says they were hassled for hours. At first Hennessy says he didn’t understand. Then he realized it was as simple as realizing that the neighborhood police officers interrogating him and his Chinese-born and Chinese-speaking wife had lost face.

You’ll need to read this with a grain of salt because these are the words of an angry man and words that I can’t check for accuracy. But in the context of what veteran China observers like Martin Jacques believe and brain researchers like Bruce Wexler have reported on, it has the ring of reality.

Hennessy says the moment of truth for him arrived when he pointed out that the theft occurred in the police precinct’s “own backyard.” The policemen’s faces froze, he says.

“Suddenly, everything that I had read about and experienced in China gelled into a one brief moment of enlightenment: I understood clearly what was really going on around me. Thank you, Buddha,” he writes. “A foreigner had been robbed in their area of responsibility, and embarrassing questions would be asked by their superiors. Institutional cultural imperatives as well as traditional cultural imperatives were guiding the behaviour of these investigators.”

Yes, Mr. Hennessy, that is also my point. Neuroscience has already shown us that the brain and its culture are inextricably linked. In some cultures more than others. In terms of internal coherence, the culture of China is perhaps the most powerful extant on Earth today. It believes itself to be superior to all other cultures. There is no reason not to believe that it believes the brains it produces are superior to all other brains.

A source of home-grown brain tissue only
Five years ago, first brain bank specializing in the study of Chinese brains was established at the Xiangya Medical School of the Central South University of China. One of the reasons given by the project’s sponsors was that “the western based brain banks do not have an adequate supply of brain tissue from Chinese subjects.”

This time, the Chinese can be forgiven some of their self-preoccupation. Their brain is different. In ways that already matter and are about to matter more, the Chinese brain has done extraordinary things over the centuries. It is doing things today that are without peer (its brilliant economic strategy of the past few decades, for example). For all its challenges, it shows every promise of having its best days ahead.

But it is a brain formulated by five hundred centuries of a civilization unique unto itself. Where the rest of us stand in the estimate of that civilization we have yet to have clarified. To say it one more time, it is absolutely critical that we know as much as we can about how the neurons work in a brain that may be about to rule the world.

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