A Blank Slate? Brain science and cultures
Letter from Florence
April 4- 6, 2019

Here is my review of the conference and the three presenters I attended:

Florence, Firenze, Italy in the spring. What could be a better place to have the conference “Tabula Rasa? A Blank Slate: Brain science and Cultures” than this. Hosted by the Fondazione Intercultural, this conference had as its centerpiece the ever-expanding topic of brain research and in this case, culture.

The event was a big event, with speakers from the fields of psychology, philosophy, intercultural communication, religion and the language arts. There were consultants and trainers, diplomats, executives, program directors, university professors and non-profit representatives. Some of the presentations were in Italian and others were in English, with headphones always available for translation.

Igor Grossman, University of Waterloo
Culture, Intelligence and Wisdom

An entertaining speaker who makes you curious to learn more, Dr. Grossman explored the topic of “Culture, Intelligence and Wisdom” by asking the question “With all of the things going on in the world today, why focus on this?” It turns out that how we measure intelligence is culturally influenced. And when we speak of influence, we must also make the connection to bias. In this case, Grossman posits that the “IQ test” or the measurement of intelligence as we understand it, is obsolete.

To analyze this statement, we looked at IQ statistics worldwide (they have all risen significantly in the last 100 years, pointing at more knowledge acquisition but not necessarily more intelligence). We also gauged our own confidence in what we know (I got 1/5 estimates right, not a shining moment!) and learning about confidence bias: which says basically that the less we know, the more confident we are in our skills and knowledge.

All in all, useful, interactive learning that left me with the question, “How can we accurately measure intelligence, or can we?”

Sudhir Kakar, Psychoanalyst, Goa
Cultures and Psyche

Dr. Kakar used a lecture style to give us some thoughts on his current research in “Cultures and Psyche” as a psychoanalyst and novelist. His focus was on some comparisons of Western culture to Indian culture, his home culture. In doing this, he writes that he is trying to get beyond our research-based cultural research results, which he says are too focused on WEIRD, or “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic” groups of people.

Here he focused on the concept of “connectedness” and “sympathy”.

For example, how do we experience family? How do we experience connectedness within the family structure, which may be a “nuclear” family (mother-father-sister-brother) or the extended family (including more distant relatives and some who are not blood related, but also play a role in this family connectedness) and how does it differ or change our experience of the world?

This discourse on “connectedness” also includes the body. He drew resources from historical Indian literature, and finds the image of the body is connected to family and then to nature and the cosmos.

This was fascinating learning considering the many cultural circles in which we live made me wonder, what exactly is my family experience of connectedness?

Joseph Shaules, Juntendo University
A Deep Culture Approach to Intercultural Learning: Culture, Cognition and the Intuitive Mind

And Dr. Shaules did not fail to impress me, a first-time visitor to his presentations. In this session, he focused on the basics of living interculturally and intercultural learning while shifting the angle slightly to see it through the lens of neuroscience.

My favorite moment was when he did a self-role-play puzzling through intercultural patterns and our pull toward uniqueness: “But Japanese are shy”, he said, facing one direction. “But not all Japanese”, he says, facing the other direction. “But it’s cultural”, says his side self, “But we’re all individuals!” says his counterpart, until he faces the audience, with an energized face to say “this doesn’t have to be the conversation”.

And how could this conversation look? It lies in our choice in how to react within these cultural patterns, he says. The rest is in his book.

Steven Pinker was scheduled to speak, but unfortunately could not be present.

All in all, a beautiful, festive, delicious and extraordinary intellectual opportunity to learn and network with a group of “like-minded”? individuals. Carry on.