The Science of Cultural Perspective
Illustrations by Shivani Kapoor
Perspective as a noun is defined as the appearance to the eye of objects in respect to their relative distance and positions.
Did you know your brain holds three different degrees of perspective, or ways of seeing the world—primary, secondary, and tertiary?
For a moment, reflect on the feeling of hunger or the sensation of your own heartbeat; that’s an internal sensation about yourself. Now think of someone within reach and notice the awareness you have of their presence. That is a local sensation about what is close at hand. Last, think of a person you would have to travel far distances to see. That tertiary awareness is a global sensation about what shapes the “big picture” and defines larger culture.
Primary relates to the awareness and sensation of ourselves and our own bodies. Secondary relates to the awareness or sensation of loved ones/others within reach. Tertiary relates to the awareness or sensation of everyone else/others out of reach.
These three perspectives in the brain enable you to acknowledge and engage with yourself, your immediate communities, and the world at large. And since your brain can’t tell the difference between perspective and reality, and every decision your brain makes is on mission to survive, this means one of the most vital sets of skills you have, literally and metaphorically, is perspective.
Culture as a noun is defined as the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.
Also in your brain is something called the “mirror neuron” system. This is a hard-wired system that helps you learn to walk, communicate, build cultures, nurture empathy, and yawn when you see others yawn. Ever wonder why this happens? Maybe you even yawned reading this sentence about yawning. Research in neuroscience discovered that thanks to mirror neurons, your brain, for a moment, has difficulty discerning who’s really yawning—you or the person you’re observing. The brain asks itself, “Do you see that? Do we need to do that? Are we doing that right now?” and before you know it... you’re yawning too.
For millennia, humans have been learning to increase chances of survival by adopting, integrating, and passing on what is vital. Much of this is possible because of mirror neurons. On a global scale, our mirror neuron system has enabled us to understand each other, express ourselves, and build perspectives and cultural norms shared by large groups of people. Individually, your mirror neuron system allows you to develop the skills and language necessary for communicating and understanding what is best for yourself and those around you. The mirror neuron system cultivates culture.
Culture as a verb is defined as fostering the growth of, seeking the society of, or making friends with.
I was born in a rural part of South Africa called Benoni, and my family immigrated to the U.S. in the early 90s from Zaire to the mountains of northeast Tennessee. Calling this experience a culture shock wouldn’t do it justice. My dad spoke 13 languages, nine of them tribal, and we spoke French and Afrikaans fluently as a family. When we children walked into McDonald Elementary School in Mohawk, Tennessee, we fully learned that our cultural experience was very different than that of our peers. Not only were the languages we spoke different, but the English we spoke was a different dialect, we had different accents, and as a result, many things were lost in translation for us kids. In part, my brothers and I have mirror neurons to thank for our ability to adapt. Over time we built culture and language based on our experiences and perspectives, just like you and everyone else.
Language is a powerful tool for understanding and communicating new ideas—it isn’t meant to be a barrier to entry. Consider the way you might raise your voice, cock your head, or shrug your shoulders when you encounter a language you don’t understand. How do you speak with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you? Even those of us who speak the same language have a hard time understanding each other. What is your strategy when you want to translate a new idea to your team or partner?
What if we had a translation tool that would allow us to bridge the gap in our understanding with those around us—even when they speak the same language?
Fortunately, we have one. Take a look at the thesaurus exercise to create a lexicon of words that will help you engage with yourself (internal), those close to you (local), and your larger communities (global). Because when we consider internal, local, and global perspectives, we increase our capacity to effectively see, understand, and subsequently engage in our world with greater empathy and awareness. When is the last time your perspective changed about yourself, those close to you, and the world at large? What did that experience teach you?
Thesaurus Exercise (Practice)
We each have experiences—positive, neutral, and negative—that shape our language and trigger associations with the words we use. One of the most powerful tools we’ve uncovered from our model of The Brain-Based Enneagram is the ability to develop a relevant vocabulary that encourages engagement, safety, and understanding. Our goal here is to help you craft your own:
Optimize Your Language (Enneagram Natures used for reference/examples)
1. Break Out of the Norm
Using an online thesaurus, type the nature-word of each number into the search bar.
- NATURE WORDS:
2. Follow What Feels Safe
Once you’ve typed the first word, hit search. When the list populates with synonyms, notice how many of the words feel unsafe and how many feel safe. Click the word that feels safest or most enjoyable to you.
3. Keep Going
When the list populates again, click the word that feels safest or most enjoyable to you. When the list populates again, click the word that feels safest or most enjoyable to you.
4. Review the List
If all or most of the words feel safe and enjoyable to you, you’re done! The word at the top of the page, because it carries positive associations, can be integrated into your personal Enneagram vocabulary instead of (or in addition to) the original “nature” word for this number.
5. Here’s an Example
Search “Disrupt” (the original “nature” word for 8).
- If the list feels primarily unsafe, select the safest, most enjoyable relevant word. Perhaps “Shake.”
- If the list is still largely unsafe, select the safest, most enjoyable relevant word. Perhaps “Move.”
- If the list still feels primarily unsafe, select the safest, most enjoyable relevant word. Perhaps “Advance.”
- Results: “Advance” can stand in place of “Disrupt.” Without changing the nature of the number, you can eliminate trigger words and create a language that invites positive engagement.
Repeat this process for each number until you have a lexicon of positive terms. Feel free to use this exercise for any word in this document that stimulates a negative response.
*Caveat: Be sure to follow a trail of relevant words. For example, you wouldn’t click “Disrupt > Shake > Twitter > Teehee” since “Teehee” isn’t likely going to be a helpful substitute for “Disrupt.” Instead, select the safest, most relevant words. For even better results, select words that are personally relevant to you as well. Identify and select the words that evoke strong positive responses or are connected in a personal way to your lived experience. If necessary, click through the tabs at the top of the lists to select the word bank that most closely resembles the nature of the original word.