A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

The brain develops in interaction with culture

Pär SegerdahlThe brain develops dramatically during childhood. These neural changes occur in the child’s interaction with its environment. The brain becomes a brain that functions in the culture in which it develops. If a child is mistreated, if it is deprived of important forms of interaction, like language and care, the brain is deprived of its opportunities to develop. This can result in permanent damages.

The fact that the brain develops in interaction with culture and becomes a brain that functions in culture, raises the question if we can change the brain by changing the culture it interacts with during childhood. Can we, on the basis of neuroscientific knowledge, plan neural development culturally? Can we shape our own humanity?

In an article in EMBO reports, Kathinka Evers and Jean-Pierre Changeux discuss this neuro-cultural outlook, where brain and culture are seen as co-existing in continual interplay. They emphasize that our societies shape our brains, while our brains shape our societies. Then they discuss the possibilities this opens up for ethics.

The question in the article is whether knowledge about the dynamic interplay between co-existing brains-and-cultures can be used “proactively” to create environments that shape children’s brains and make them, for example, less violent. Environments in which they become humans with ethical norms and response patterns that better meet today’s challenges.

Similar projects have been implemented in school systems, but here the idea is to plan them on the basis of knowledge about the dynamic brain. But also on the basis of societal decision-making about which ethics that should be supported; about which values that are essential for life on this planet.

Personally I’m attracted by “co-existence thinking” as such, which I believe applies to many phenomena. For not only the brain develops in interaction with culture. So does plant and animal life, as well as climate – which in turn will shape human life.

Maybe it is such thinking we need: an ethics of co-existence. Co-existence thinking gives us responsibilities: through awareness of a mistreated nature; through awareness of our dependence on this nature. But such thinking also transcends what we otherwise could have imagined, by introducing the idea of possibilities emerging from the interplay.

Do not believe preachers of necessity. It could have been different. It can become different.

Pär Segerdahl

Evers, K. & Changeux, J-P. 2016. “Proactive epigenesis and ethical innovation: A neuronal hypothesis for the genesis of ethical rules.” EMBO reports 17: 1361-1364.

This post in Swedish

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


  1. MicFar

    Nice post Par! I’m particularly intrigued by the conclusion: necessity and possibilities. Do you think they exclude each other? For instance, neuroscientists tends to conceive the brain as a stochastic deterministic system, which seems to suggest a balance between necessity and possibilities…Also the concept of emergence is very intriguing, and not necessarily free of deterministic declination, rather quite the opposite.

    • Pär Segerdahl

      Thanks for comment and good question! I was thinking mainly about our own thinking, about our own expectations (or lack of them). And the example I had in the back of my mind was ape language research. The bonobo Kanzi (and his half-sister Panbanisha) acquired language spontaneously, growing up in a bi-species, ape-human culture. In fact, he (they) acquired more than language: a whole array of bi-species ways of functioning that transcend common expectations about ape cognition and behavior. An excellent example of how cultural interaction can shape brain development, supporting the notions in the article. Critics doubt that these developments could have been driven by culture; doubt that they could have occured “in the interaction,” and speculate that Kanzi must have been a genetically unique ape. They doubt “becoming”; doubt that new traits can emerge without training in an ape’s daily interaction with humans. Kanzi therefore must have been genetically unique, since he could so easily learn to fake human traits that simply don’t belong to the behavioral repertoire of a bonobo! (Necessity preaching, cowardice in the face of becoming.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.