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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The East and West Brain

The “East” Versus “West” Brain
M. Bakri Musa

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            Cross-cultural studies using f MRI are even more fascinating. When American and Mainland Chinese subjects were shown pictures of giraffes on a savanna (their natural habitat), the active brain areas in both groups were comparable. When shown pictures of giraffes on a football field (an unnatural environment), the response among the Americans remained unchanged. For the Chinese however, a different part of their brain became activated, the area associated with fear and anxiety.

            The interpretation here is that Americans readily accept “unnatural” or unfamiliar situations. To the Chinese, such instances provoke fear and anxiety.

            Even with doing simple additions and subtractions, Chinese brains behave differently from those of Americans. Hence the popular characterization of East and West brain. Similar differences are seen in boys’ and girls’– blue and pink brain.

            There is a profound twist to this East and West brain. The Chinese have a higher incidence of a genetic variation that resulted in reduced amounts of serotonin, a major neurotransmitter, predisposing them to depression. Depression is treated by giving drugs that inhibit the uptake of serotonin, thus maintaining its high levels.

            You would therefore expect the Chinese to have a higher incidence of depression because of this genetic variation. Far from it. What gives?

            The Chinese have developed over the ages a social system that is supportive and collectivist. Westerners, spared this genetic predisposition, have little cultural incentive to do likewise. Their society tends toward rugged individualism, with personal liberty a premium. As a consequence of this lack of cultural support, depression is more frequent in the West. An instance where biology impacts culture, and culture ameliorating the potential impact of genes.

            Another insight from fMRI is mirror neurons, brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action but also when he sees someone else doing it, as with soccer fans kicking in response to the action on the field, or boxing fans throwing punches in sync with the fighter.

            This phenomenon goes beyond merely mimicking the physical movements. The observer could also anticipate the purpose of the action, whether the glass is grasped to drink from it or to throw it at someone. In each case, different mirror neurons would be activated.

            Mirror neurons provide the neurological basis for empathy. They also play a significant role in the transmission of cultural rituals and values through facilitating horizontal (between members) learning within a society. Mirror neurons are also important in language acquisition in babies, as the movements of the mother’s lips and tongue are mirrored in the baby’s brain.

            Cross-cultural studies on mirror neurons are even more intriguing. Gestures meant to communicate emotions particular to a culture, as with thumbs up to signal approval, would trigger the firing of the corresponding mirror neurons only in those who share that culture and thus understand the gesture. Outsiders who do not understand the symbolism would not. If someone from other than that culture were to use that signal, the mirror neurons of the native observer who understood its cultural meaning would fire, though not at the same intensity had the gesture been displayed by a fellow native.

            Hence the difficulty non-Indians have in comprehending when Indians shake their heads. Is it in agreement or disavowal?

            Studies in cognitive psychology are even more illuminating. Adults who were bilingual from an early age and those who acquired it later in life were shown different colors and told in one language to translate the color into the second language. Those bilingual from a young age showed brain activities in only one area while those who became bilingual later in life showed activities in two. The brain of the former is more efficient, better at translating or integrating diverse information.

            Consider those familiar only with either Centigrade or Fahrenheit. When told it is 25C, she would first mentally convert it to 77F before pronouncing, “It’s nice and warm!”

            There are other advantages, cognitive and otherwise, to being bilingual. Bilingual children are better at multitasking and prioritizing information, discerning “signals” over “noise,” a valuable skill. Bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It also enhances your marketability, quite apart from increasing your potential sources of information. As language is closely related to culture, knowing a second language enables you to understand and appreciate that culture. That is always an advantage, more so in a plural society. Only those with closed minds would be against learning a second language.

            There is a loud chorus in Malaysia today to do away with race-based policies. Any policy, more so political and socio-economic, that does not factor in the various values and norms is bound to fail. And both values and norms are tied to race. You ignore race and culture at your own peril.

            The central theme of economics may be “people respond to incentives, and the rest is commentary,” to quote Lands ebrg in his eocnomcis for Dummeies but what makes that commentary so thick is the core observation that incentives to some may be disincentives to others. The noble objectives of the NEP are reducing poverty and the “identification of race with economic activities.” Gambling and opium smoking were once the scourge of the Chinese, with which the British nearly destroyed their civilization. Not so today. For Malays, what makes us poor is our obsession with the Hereafter. It still is today. Drugs were non-existent among Malays of yore. Now it is our curse. Corruption is endemic because to Malays it is rezki and borkat, gifts from Allah! Najib received billions from the Saudis. How much closer to God can that be!          

            Today the Chinese clamor for more government aid. Beware what you ask for! Penang’s Chung Ling School currently has over 90 percent of its students pursuing STEM, far exceeding the government’s 60:40 objective precisely because the school is spared the “advice” and “help” from Putrajaya. Get more public funding and watch Chung Ling degenerate into another Malay College.

            The centrality, necessity and nobleness of NEP’s objectives remain. The failure is with not recognizing the core corruption and structural ineptness of the policy’s implementation. We cannot resolve the first if we continue viewing such corrupt practices as other than that, and we cannot improve the policy’s execution if we continue relying on the corrupt and the incompetent. Even if we were to eliminate the race factor in NEP, but with the corrupt and incompetent implementers executing it, the results would be no different.

Next:  Race, Sex, and the Brain


Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

1 Comments:

Blogger k said...

Dr. Bakri, I have been following your blog since I don't remember when but I listen keenly. I am deeply fascinated by the Chinese vs American brain and consequent social structures that came out from overcoming genetic predisposition. Can you refer me to some sources and readings where I can find more information? Thank you kindly

10:48 AM  

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