Digging into the archaeology of the mind

For those of us who have grown up in a world dominated by Western thought, the prevailing mindsets available to us – scientific methodology, monotheism or some other dualistic belief – seem like the only ones to choose from.

In my blog entitled Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve described how our Western thought structure has led to an imbalance in our collective consciousness, whereby the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) – the part of the brain that mediates symbols and abstract values – has predominated over other aspects of our consciousness.

But it didn’t have to be this way.  And it doesn’t have to be this way.  There were other ways in which the pfc could have constructed its cosmology without seeing itself as an immortal soul separate from its own body and the rest of the natural world.  Without seeing its intellectual constructs as the only ultimate truth.  And there are other approaches we can use to construct meaning in a way that integrates with our bodies and with our animate consciousness, without having to reject the evidence of science.

Time to dig into the archaeology of the mind

To find these other approaches to meaning, we need to dig deep into the archaeology of the mind.  Back to the era of the ancient Greeks, when Plato first posited an immortal soul separate from our material bodies.  Only we’re going to look at another path taken by the pfc, a path that connects the pfc’s drive for meaning with the living, feeling reality of the animate consciousness.  It’s a path taken thousands of miles away from the Mediterranean, in a culture virtually untouched by the Proto-Indo-European mental structures that pervaded both Western and Indian cultures.  It’s a path laid down by the Chinese thought tradition.

When Plato was setting the foundations for mind-body dualism in the West, ancient Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, Lao-Tzu[1] and Chuang-tzu were offering very different viewpoints on the nature of the cosmos.  These masters were the mouthpieces for ancient traditions that had grown up over thousands of years, completely cut off from the other thought traditions of Western Eurasia.  Chinese scholar Chad Hansen describes how “early Chinese and Greco-Indian philosophical traditions materialized on opposite divides of a great physical barrier – the Himalaya mountains and Xinjiang barrens.”[2] This physical barrier led to a philosophical chasm: “early Chinese philosophers show startlingly little interest in the familiar staples of early Western thought” such as dualism of body and soul.

Joseph Needham (arguably the greatest 20th century scholar of Chinese scientific thought) describes the East/West dichotomy as follows:

Europeans suffered from a schizophrenia of the soul, oscillating for ever unhappily between the heavenly host on one side and the ‘atoms and the void’ on the other; while the Chinese, wise before their time, worked out an organic theory of the universe which included Nature and man, church and state, and all things past, present, and to come.[3]

Until the last few hundred years, China’s culture and civilization were more advanced than anything the West had achieved.  But something even more remarkable in Chinese culture is that it represents an unbroken tradition from our prehistoric indigenous roots.  We see in classical Chinese culture a sophisticated and complex cosmology, but one which evolved along a continuum from early shamanistic conceptions of the world.  In the West, by contrast, the confluence of ideas generated in Proto-Indo-European, Mesopotamian and Egyptian thought traditions led to the revolution in thinking that occurred in classic Greek culture: the ascendancy to power by the pfc in the form of dualism.

Classical Chinese and Western thought are built on different foundations.  The Chinese foundation connects all the way down to pre-agricultural shamanistic roots.  The Western foundation was reset in a new Platonic concrete over 2,000 years ago, providing a solid base for monotheistic and scientific thought, but creating a separation between our conceptual and animate consciousness, and between humans and the natural world.

Chinese culture connects to pre-agricultural shamanistic roots

And what we see in early Chinese thought is an approach fundamentally different from that in the West.  Instead of dualism there’s the polarity of yin and yang.  Instead of Heaven and Hell, there’s a harmonious interaction between different aspects of the natural world.  Instead of mankind’s separation from nature, there’s a complex, organic view of our connectivity with nature.  Instead of the pfc dominating human consciousness with its idealization of reason and the mind, there’s a harmonization between the pfc’s faculties and our animate consciousness.  Instead of God, there’s the Tao.

How does this difference translate into daily life?  For starters, as environmental philosopher George Sessions notes, the contrast between these two thought traditions shows up in their relationship with the natural world.  Sessions observes that “while Taoism and certain other Eastern religions retained elements of the ancient shamanistic Nature religions, the Western religious tradition radically distanced itself from wild Nature and, in the process, became increasingly anthropocentric.”[4]

But the difference goes even further than that.  It’s so pervasive that, even after hundreds of years of Western cultural impact on East Asia, and modern education systems that prioritize scientific-based thinking, the traces of a different conceptual blueprint show themselves in an individual’s self-definition.  Research findings by psychologists Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama have identified a difference between a Western-oriented “independent self” versus an East Asian sense of an “interdependent” self, which arises out of a more holistic view of integration with nature.  Here’s how they describe it:

The notion of an interdependent self is linked with a monistic philosophical tradition in which the person is thought to be of the same substance as the rest of nature.  As a consequence, the relationship between the self and other, or between subject and object, is assumed to be much closer.  Thus, many non-Western cultures insist on the inseparability of basic elements, including self and other, and person and situation.  In Chinese culture, for instance, there is an emphasis on synthesizing the constituent parts of any problem or situation into an integrated or harmonious whole.

They contrast this with the “Cartesian, dualistic tradition that characterizes Western thinking and in which the self is separated from the object and from the natural world.”[5]

This difference extends to the very way in which we conceptualize the world existing around us.  Psychologist Richard Nisbett and colleagues have reviewed multiple research studies showing East Asians emphasizing relationships and similarities between objects and events, in contrast to Western subjects focusing more on categories and rules for particular items.  They see this difference as arising from the cultural foundations of Chinese thought.  In contrast to the ancient Greeks who were focused on the “object independent of its context,”

… the Chinese were convinced of the fundamental relatedness of all things… It is only the whole that exists; and the parts are linked relationally, like ‘the ropes in a net’[6]

These differences in cognition can literally be seen in the neural connections activated by people raised in East Asia versus those raised in the West.  Multiple functional neuroimaging studies have identified these differences.  In one study, led by Trey Hedden, participants were asked to perform “absolute” and “relative” conceptual tasks.  Westerners had to use more of their frontal brain regions (i.e. had to work harder) on “relative” tasks than “absolute” tasks.  East Asians showed the opposite effect.  Thus, they concluded, “the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.”[7] In a survey of such studies, Shihui Han and Georg Northoff conclude that “one’s cultural background can influence the neural activity that underlies both high- and low-level cognitive functions.”[8]

The implications of these differences in East Asian and Western are enormous, but are frequently misrepresented in the political tug-of-war arising from such research.  Much of the debate centers around nature/nurture issues such as “Are Westerners hard-wired to be more creative?” or “Are East Asians hard-wired to be meeker?”  I believe that these issues are relatively fruitless to pursue and tend to be used by people to buttress their own prejudices.

Instead, I think these findings offer a path to much richer pastures.  I propose that those of us who are Western-educated can learn something invaluable from the classical Chinese thought traditions.  We can discover different ways of thinking about ourselves and the world, which have the potential to lead to a more integrated sense of ourselves, and increased harmony with the natural world.

Is our Western thought structure on shaky foundations?

But, as anyone who has done foundation work on their house can attest to, it ain’t easy.  Digging down below the floorboards can be messy and painful, and can turn up long-forgotten buried secrets.  It can also, though, be essential for survival.  If the foundations are not rooted well into the soil, a bad storm or an earthquake can cause devastation.  There’s a growing awareness that our society has created its own perfect storm in the form of global climate change, resource depletion and species extinction.  At this point, I think our conceptual constructs could gain a lot from a tradition that’s rooted to the earth, that’s founded on an organic unity with the natural world.

In future postings, I’ll look in more detail at the cosmology of classical Chinese thought, and explore its direct relevance to the scientific and spiritual views of the 21st century.  Let’s get digging!


[1] Most modern scholars question whether the Tao Te Ching was actually authored by one individual.  However, for convenience, virtually everyone remains comfortable referring to the author(s) as Lao-Tzu.

[2] Hansen, C. (2000). A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation, New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Needham, J. (1969). The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[4] Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[5] Markus, H. R., and Kitayama, S. (1991). “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation.” Psychological Review, 98(2), 224-253.  It should be  noted that, while Markus & Kitayama focus their analysis on East Asia, they extend their view of an “interdependent self” to other “non-West European” cultures such as in Africa and South America.

[6] Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., and Norenzayan, A. (2001). “Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition.” Psychological Review, 108(2), 291-310.

[7] Hedden, T., Ketay, S., Aron, A., Markus, H. R., and Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2008). “Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control.” Psychological Science, 19(1), 12-17

[8] Han, S., and Northoff, G. (2008). “Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: a transcultural neuroimaging approach.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 9(August 2008), 646-654.