Liya Yu — Neuropolitics. Literature. Activism.


Survivors’ Children

From my identityelements blog

For Lily Brett

I soak in the silence of the rectangular hall. The muted rooftop light trickles down gently on the black-and-white paintings and calligraphy scrolls that are hanging on the wall. I am in the main exhibition room at the Freer Gallery, one of the country’s most significant museums for Asian art, where Bada Shanren’s paintings are exhibited today. Bada Shanren, the enigmatic 17th century Chinese painter who began his life as a Ming Dynasty aristocrat and then became a Buddhist recluse for over forty years, paints as if no one is left to watch him – yet there is still an intentional tenderness in his minimalist, at times painfully deserted works, which seems to defy this belief.

Somebody with an incredibly posh English accent, reminding me of voices you would hear at a Christy’s auction in London, whispers excitedly to their neighbor “Bada was the Picasso of the East! He foresaw the development of Western modernity, unbelievable”. Then another voice cuts through the silence; it is that of my little son’s. He is asking a stranger to name all their body parts in great detail, from head to toe. The voice that responds to him is a female one. Patiently and with a slightly unusual seriousness, she responds to each of his questions without hesitation. I walk over, ready to apologize for my son disturbing her in this serene hall, but she brushes it away. All dressed in black, her eyes are filled with a curious mixture of humor and melancholy, and an almost childlike oblivion of social etiquette. It turns out she is Lily Brett, the New York-based Australian writer who has just won the Prix Médicis étranger literary prize for her novel Lola Bensky, which features her experience as a rock journalist in the 1960s, and most crucially, her identity of a child of Jewish parents who survived Auschwitz.

We sit down on the wooden bench in the middle of the hall; the room has found its equilibrium again. I tell her I am from Germany, to which she responds immediately “I was born in a displaced people’s camp in Munich, one year after the war ended”. I recognize this – the comfortable rehearsedness with which people who live in the unsettling place between identities have learned to present certain brutal facts of their life story, and yet the unrelenting ferocity with which that very fact still overwhelms them every time they put it into language. She must have told this sentence countless times to bureaucrats, strangers, potential friends and lovers in her life – and yet every time she utters is, the rawness around the pain and disbelief is still there. Our meeting touches me deeply, as a German (I used to feel personally responsible for the Holocaust as a teenager), as someone who occupied herself intensely with Jewish thought and identity, and as a person who is stuck between identities.

Sometime later, after I am back home in Virginia, I start reading her novel Just Like That, which is about a daughter and her survivor parents, who as the only family members – everyone else was killed – survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust. The daughter is a grown-up writer of obituaries, living in New York, with her own children, but the relationship between herself and her parents is unresolved, to say the least. It has not yet reached those borders of the country we call adulthood, where we do not let others question every single step we take, where we might have arrived at some kind of rudimentary certainty of who we think we are. Instead, the protagonist’s own sense of history and self is constantly undermined (as much as it is fed) by the past that her parents survived – a past that is not her own and yet has indelibly etched itself onto every life decision she makes.

Again, I recognize this. Lily’s writing – its honesty, how it describes fundamental human relationships in such a direct and unpretentious way, its humanization of survivors as both extraordinary and resilient, but also traumatized individuals who can hurt and leash out against their loved ones, and most of all, its humor in all of it – allow me to admit the many parallels to my own Chinese parents who survived the Cultural Revolution and things they have said to me (some phrases are almost identical to what the parents say to their daughter in Just Like That) over the years. I am a survivors’ child, I think as I keep circling the pages with my fingers.

In fact, I realize suddenly that many of my friends are in some way or another survivors’ children or grandchildren of the horrors of the 20th century – did we unconsciously gravitate towards each other because of that? When I speak to my Russian friend from Siberia, an inspiring member of the next generation of public intellectuals and activists in Moscow, she shrugs her shoulders and nods at the same time. “Sure, my family has seen starvation, pogroms, labor camps, ethnic cleansing. I guess you don’t take anything for granted knowing that.” We agree that survivors’ children have a special sensitivity towards the fragility of social bonds and the institutions that sustain them, the contingency of political stability and economic wealth, the atrocities that ordinary human beings can do to each other, the way how history continues to weave itself into the consciousness of those who should be free from the burdens of the past. Through their parents, survivors’ children are suspicious of the neoliberal belief – perpetuated by our elites today – that all of life’s success depends on individual attitude and motivation, and that if one has a dream, the failure of reaching it lies nowhere but with oneself. On the contrary, we know how our own parents’ fate was completely out of their control, how the possibility of a life’s dream could be wiped out by one political decision at the top, how my own mother was sent to the countryside for reeducation under Mao as a teenage girl, never knowing whether she would see her family again.

But most of all, survivors’ children carry the echo of a suffering in their chest (that’s the physical sensation I feel, anyway) that is at once overwhelming (knowing that your parents’ bodies, which nurture you every day in such a visceral way that is utterly devoid of history, are the same bodies that were once abandoned, ostracized, beaten, starved, and escaped death in periods that you read about now only in the history books) and yet so abstract (you were not there, you were saved, you will never know how it ‘really was’, you are spoiled because you don’t know, you are nothing because you have never ‘truly’ suffered).

In a psychoanalytic study of intergenerational trauma called Landscapes of the Chinese Soul: The Enduring Presence of the Cultural Revolution (2010), a German team of psychoanalysts trains Chinese psychologists to counsel both the immediate survivors of the Cultural Revolution and their children. There are many parallels to Lily Brett’s protagonist and her parents, but of course, there are things specific to China. Up until today, there is little awareness in China of the individual, familial and collective traumas produced by war and civil war – for obvious political reasons, but also, because culturally China is not used to work through trauma in an individualistic way (other than through the work of individual poets, artists and recluses in Chinese history). You owe your duty and your sense of self to your elders and parents, but what if, as during the Cultural Revolution, those fundamental relationships between parents and children, or teachers and students, were violated, betrayed, and brutalized? How do you come out of that? How can you rebuild trust in society, if that very society turned so heartlessly on you?

As I wonder about this, I make a new friend that week – Helen Verdeli, the director of the Columbia Global Mental Health Lab – and I know almost instantly when we first talk on the phone that she, too, is a survivors’ child. She is originally from Greece but has been in the US for a long while. Her lab studies vulnerable populations in war zones and developing countries, most recently, the mental health of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Her studies show that adolescent survivors of war in Uganda suffer from a range of depression symptoms (Bolton et al. 2007), and in a 20-year study, she shows that the offspring of depressed parents are at much higher risk to suffer depression themselves, especially between the ages of 15-20 years (Weissman et al. 2006). Lily Brett writes about how survivor parents can cope with their children’s physical pain, but are unable to admit and accept their mental and emotional suffering. It brings survivors back to that place that they wanted to escape, where they themselves were utterly helpless, where they were degraded to something less-than-human. They want protect their children from that place, but history, mercilessly, moves on.

Lily is back somewhere in New York and I am writing this surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, to which I have become addicted in the past months (not so much as a climber but as an onlooker soaking up that special blueish glow that emanates from its ridges at dusk). I think back of the hall where Lily and I met, of Bada’s paintings of rocks, lotuses, ducks and fish. It suddenly comes to me that Bada himself, of course, was a survivor, too. He was only a teenager when the Ming Dynasty collapsed and the Manchus overtook major cities, starting with the Yangzhou massacre in 1645. The city was looted and the population killed and raped. It was to serve as an example to other cities not to rebel but succumb to the new rulers. Shortly afterwards, Bada, the descendant of a Ming prince, joined a monastery to become a Buddhist recluse – escaping political turmoil and the pleasures of this world.

And yet, showing both the resilience and brokenness that marks survivors, Bada left the monastery after 40 years and pursued his painting and calligraphy, which are now seen as some of the most enigmatic masterpieces of Chinese and world art. He was said to have had many mental breakdowns in his life, especially shortly before and after he left the monastery. His paintings, as I said in the beginning, are painted as if there is no one left to watch him – a cultural audience and world that had vanished from his life after the fall of the Ming. And yet there was something still, despite the brokenness and grief and years of solitude where he could live without anyone, which he still wanted to communicate to us. It is exactly this irrational, ridiculous, life-saving urge to communicate after all that our parents and we have survived that makes it possible to live on.


Bolton, J. Bass, T. Betancourt, L. Speelman, G. Onyango, K. Clougherty, R. Neugebauer, L. Murray, H. Verdeli (2007) ‘Intervention for depression symptoms for adolescent survivors of war and displacement in Northern Uganda: A randomized controlled trial’ The Journal of the Medical Association 298 (5): 519-527.

Plänkers, ed. (2010) Landscapes of the Chinese Soul: The Enduring Presence of the Cultural Revolution. London: Karnac.

Weissman, P. Wickramarante, Y. Nomura, V. Warner, D. Pilowsky, H. Verdeli (2006) ‘Offspring of depressed parents: 20 years later’ The American Journal of Psychiatry 163 (6): 1001-1008.

And all that’s left of me is for you

Where have I been?

A flashback from last summer comes to me. I am standing at a small window on the 15th floor of a modern hospital building in Taipei. The sweet smell of yeast wafts through the corridor. Outside the small window, the magnificent 七星山 Seven Star Mountains stretch out in front of me like a sleepy giant in the dusk. I am visiting the ‘Brain and Mind lab’ of cultural neuroscientist Joshua Goh, whose research on the differences of perception and decision-making between East Asians and Westerners, and on cultural distinctions within the aging brain, I have discussed in previous blog posts.

The smell of yeast, Joshua explains, comes from a colleague’s lab, from feeding fruit flies. Joshua walks through the corridor with swift, bouncing steps. His eyes are alert and restless. You would not be able to tell from his humble demeanor that he is currently directing one of most challenging scientific projects in East Asia: creating the first biomedically comprehensive database of the aging East Asian population (starting with Taiwan) and devising meaningful experiments based on the collected data. We sit in his sparsely decorated office, outside of his window is a bustling, tree-lined street filled with food vendors selling all kinds of delicacies. We talk about how to incorporate the findings of cultural neuroscience into the Western-biased, rational-choice dominated social science discourse; we talk about the future of Taiwan after the upcoming elections and its relationship with China, about the identity dilemmas faced by both young Taiwanese and Chinese visiting students on National Taiwan University’s campus.

From time to time, our conversation is interrupted by a lengthy announcement from a loudspeaker from the ceiling; they are installed throughout the university including in private offices, reminding us that perhaps Taiwan’s 20th-century authoritarian past has in many ways not been shaken off completely yet. As I leave Joshua’s office, I stop briefly at the small window again, sensing the contours of the mountain in the darkened sky.

I have come to develop a tremendous admiration for Taiwanese society during my extended stay there, as a place where Taiwanese people effortlessly go about their Western, Japanese, Chinese and Indigenous influenced identities, something that I have not encountered anywhere else in East Asia. Young and old Taiwanese browse effortlessly through Chinese Mandarin, English and Japanese books in their ridiculously well-stocked and culturally comprehensive ‘Eslite’ bookstores; in one of the many winding small city alleys you can find a haphazardly set up street eatery selling authentic Italian pasta and house-made ravioli, and right next to it, an eatery that offers hand-pulled noodles and steamed dumplings. This is a place where public transport supersedes Germany in its accessibility and efficiency, where the constitution lays down that 15% of the national government’s budget has to be used for education and culture, and where one can arguably find one of the highest levels of freedom of religion in the world (even the English Anglican Church has made it there somehow).

It is a precious place, a place where a new future for Asia is made possible, a place that shows that in Asia, political and cultural identities can reinvent themselves into novel and original ways of being.

Where have I been?

Another flashback from the summer comes to my mind. I am sitting on a wobbly plastic stool in the living room of an apartment somewhere in the suburbs of Guangzhou, one of the largest cities in Southern China, with a Chinese-edition Bible in my lap. I am looking straight into the face of a young Chinese woman with a delicate, sensitive face. She talks about Jesus and brotherly love, and how God has changed her life. She opens the Bible with a tenderness as if she were caressing a small animal. She begins to read passages out of the Old Testament, closing her eyes mid-sentence. Sweat pearls begin to form on her forehead. Then, suddenly, she stares at me.

“Without the words of the Bible in my life, I couldn’t stay sane. There is so much pressure in Chinese society today. There is nowhere to talk about it. Everyone always has an excuse for all the pain. You have to wait, my teacher told me, then you’ll see where China’s path is leading. But I am hurting now. The Bible and Jesus give me the words to describe my pain. They make me feel that I can bear my life.”

Others in this small, secret Evangelical house church congregation murmur “Amen” in response. I am reminded of the poignant scene in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, where the protagonist’s son, Nwoye, describes the motivation behind his conversion to Christianity. It is the empathetic Christian language of pain and suffering that draws the young boy away from his father’s tradition, which he experiences as too brutal, too raw to fit his sensitive temperament and his longing for understanding what this world has done to him.

China, of course, has a long tradition of poetry that captures individual suffering caused by the ruling government, social hierarchies and natural disasters. China’s language of individual suffering, you could say, is one of the richest and certainly one of the oldest in the history of world literature, starting with the Book of Songs and reaching its pinnacle with poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu. Yet this young Guangzhou woman cannot take solace in it – the effects of the brutalized, dehumanizing version of capitalism that reigns in China in its mega cities and the industrialized countryside, paired with China’s recent political past, are too overwhelming to capture in a language that this young woman could make her own.

I am in China on a trip to investigate the explosive growth of Christianity, both state-sanctioned and most of all secretive, which is potentially turning China into the largest Christian nation by 2030. In the adjacent room, a congregation member is teaching a children’s Bible class to a group of giggling, restless children who are glimpsing out of the window, fantasizing about playing games under the blossoming pink branches of the Kapok trees on the street, instead of reciting passages about Jesus.

Where have I been?

I am sitting in a wood-paneled seminar room in Columbia University, still stuffy from the group before us, with a group of extraordinary undergraduate students, from Native American, Latina, Black, Asian and low-income backgrounds. We are trying to write a coherent manifesto based on the ongoing, much misunderstood student diversity movement (more details in a future post) currently gripping US campuses nation-wide.

What kind of humanity do we envisage on campus? How do we want to feel humanized and included by the ideologies, world views and actual people who teach them? How can low-income students balance krass choices between a daily meal, rent costs, and tuition fees? How can we stop living in double realities? How can campuses begin to represent the enormous demographic changes the US and much of the Western world are experiencing, where more and more people have multilingual, hypermobile and diverse backgrounds? How can we create a new language for this generation, with which it can talk about this experience?

I look at these students, some of them whom I’ve taught over the years, and feel an incredible tenderness and pride. Their resilience, humor and vulnerability moves me deeply. I was by far not as articulate and mature about my identity dilemmas at their age.

Where have I been?

A flashback from the fall. I am in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. A blueish hue emanates from the mountain ridges on some days. This is where the anti-slavery Abolitionists hid away in 1859, waiting for the next fight in the valley.

I am sitting in a room in an old stone-brick house that overlooks the mountain tops and some pine trees. I am writing a feverish letter to my Zwillingsheimatland, my twin homeland, Germany. I am trying to remind Germany in the current refugee crisis that amongst the fear-mongering, this does not have to mean the end of ‘European identity’, on the contrary, it might signal a new beginning. Using the example of my own family and myself, I try to tell my homeland that immigrants can actually end up contributing to their host country in economic, cultural and human ways. I point out the sociopolitical and economic self-confidence Germany has gained in the post-War years and how it should feed from this now in a time of anxiety fueled on by a growing extreme Right, and that a liberal democracy, unlike totalitarian society, can choose to face the future with confident uncertainty.

The letter could have been written to an enraging lover, an estranged parent, a long-lost friend – such is the intensity of my scribbling that I feel dizzy and nauseous after I finish it.

Where have I been?

I am at home, with my real lover and our very young child. I am lying on the floor, unable to move due to sheer exhaustion from the sleepless nights tending to this little human animal who does not know the sleeping and waking hours of the civilized world. I thought I knew what tiredness and despair meant, but really I didn’t.

I feel such a strong universal sympathy and companionship with all parents of this world, and yet never have I felt so isolated and alone. I have the reached the limits of what my body can do but my child is relentless in its need for physical proximity, for care. There comes a point where every parent has been – you float above your body, you could be in another world, you want this pain to end. You loose a sense of who you are, of who you might still be.

That’s where I’ve been. In all of these places where one feels confused and yet strangely complete. I am still full of rage and tenderness towards this world, and I made it back to this blog from there, with more stories to be told.

And all that’s left of me, dear reader, is for you.

The mystical, magical negro who threatened me

I write this with some urgency, that’s why this post is more hastily written than usual. As you surely have heard, the US is gripped by a wave of police brutality ending in the tragic deaths of young black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and most recently, Eric Garner in New York. Right now, people are protesting in the streets of New York against the acquittal of the police officer who killed Garner with a chokehold.

In the stilted and nonchalant seminar proceedings at Columbia University’s Political Science Department, the current protests are hardly mentioned (maybe not incidentally, black Ph.D. students and faculty are severely underrepresented there), but sometimes, a comment still crops up in a way that makes you realize that this uncomfortable reality is nonetheless on people’s minds, especially those who might have brothers, nephews and cousins who are potential targets of that very police brutality.

I have written before about dehumanization of out-groups and how the way we stereotype the lowest social groups through disgust reactions. Social neuroscientists have subsequently shown that disgust towards ‘the lowest of the low’ can lead to dehumanizing them, and that this dehumanization can be detected at the brain level. The groundbreaking work done by Susan Fiske and her colleagues at Princeton on stereotypes shook up the psychology world because it showed that stereotypes are often mixed, whereas people previously assumed that stereotypes were straightforwardly negative.

For example, in the US, Asians and Jews are perceived as low in warmth but high in competence, putting them into the ‘envy’ category of stereotypes. You might have encountered a situation like this yourself: someone treats you based on your skin color, gender or nationality in a way that could be interpreted as complimentary, but it just makes you feel awkward and sometimes even angry. Stereotyping is such a slippery social phenomenon because it often appears as a mixed bag of simultaneously negative and positive ascription of traits.

It’s important to point this out because otherwise, stereotyped or even worse, dehumanized groups, can quickly be silenced in their protest against mistreatment by telling them that someone ‘meant well’ with that comment. One of my students who grew up in Kansas as a Chinese-American told me that her classmates and teachers often portrayed her as a kind of clever and efficient machine without feelings (this is actually called mechanistic dehumanization; Asian Americans are usually targets of this, see Haslam 2006). On top of this, one of the social behaviors resulting out of envy is aggression. So even if a stereotype contains ‘positive’ elements, it can still lead to actual treatment of the stereotyped person that is far from benign.

How is all of this connected to the police brutality committed against Brown, Rice and Garner? Coinciding with the violence committed against these young African-American men, social psychologists at Northwestern University have discovered something called superhumanization, which Whites commonly ascribe to Blacks. Previously, the film director Spike Lee has criticized the depiction of the “mystical, magical negro” in films and popular culture. Now, this new research shows that White Americans like to ascribe supernatural, magical, or paranormal characteristics to Blacks, and as a result of it, deny them feelings of pain (Waytz, Hoffman, & Trawalter 2014).

If you look at the testimony of Darren Wilson, the White police officer who shot the unarmed Michael Brown eight times, superhumanization is written all over it. Wilson describes Brown as this abnormally tall Hulk Hogan with a face that looked like “a demon” . In his description of the incident, Wilson repeats over and over how supernaturally tall Brown appeared and how he was intimidated by the sheer appearance of this ‘superhuman’. You can imagine how the ensuing denial of pain by Wilson towards Brown might have resulted in the excessive and cruel firing of so many shots.

Following from this, it’s important to realize that dehumanizing, just as stereotyping, doesn’t manifest itself always in a straightforward way. People who are being superhumanized will probably be told that this is meant as a compliment, that they shouldn’t take it so seriously. The cognitive research on this shows though that even seemingly complimentary perceptions of an out-group can result in hurtful and even violent treatment, and that what we have to look out for in situations of exclusion and discrimination – beyond the grand ideological debates on the Left and Right on what constitutes exclusion, racism etc. – is whether someone is able to see us as fully human.


Haslam, N. (2006) Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10, 3, 252-264.

Waytz, A., Hoffman, K.M., & Trawalter, S. (2014) A Superhumanization bias in Whites‘ perception of Blacks. Social Psychological and Personality Science, published online 8 October, 1-8.


Equality in America or The Thoughtful Eugenicist

(a longer post than usual, please forgive!)

The dim, old-fashioned street lights scattered around Independence Park glow into the night like lighthouses in a pitch-black sea.

I am in Philadelphia on a research trip to the American Philosophical Society, where I have been pouring over the archives of 20th century American eugenicists. Yes, eugenicists: those people associated today with Nazism, discredited population control programs, scientific fanaticism and general nuttiness. But the truth, as I was finding out during my day at the archives, is less simple than that. You can find eugenicists in pre-and post-War America amongst respected academics, scientists, law makers, Ivy League trustees, feminists, Leftist Progressives and Conservatives, and even Democratic Presidents – in short, not amongst people whom you would commonly think of as evil and crazy.

The problem with eugenics is that as an idea, it is seductive. Frederick Osborn, the influential proponent of ‘positive eugenics’ in the post-war period, was at pains to resuscitate eugenics as a respectable science and political ideology. He wanted to rid eugenics off its association with racism and authoritarianism and reinvent it as a plausible idea that would be accepted by any rational and moderate person concerned about the future of society. He called this reinvented vision ‘the thoughtful eugenicist’.

How did Osborn go about doing this? First of all, he stressed that eugenics was not a racist ideology. His new eugenics would have nothing to do with ‘negative eugenics’ practiced in places such as Nazi Germany and supported by pre-war US eugenicists, where the goal was to forcefully eradicate the unwanted from the gene pool. Incidentally, that day in the archives I stumbled across a diary entry by Osborn describing in hastily penciled entries how he witnessed the liberation of the concentration camp in Dachau in May 1945. He had been there, faced the emaciated figures staring speechlessly back at him, and was bewildered by a fellow US officer who kept praising the German troops for their superior discipline in the middle of those eerie surroundings.

Osborn proclaimed that ‘positive eugenics’ would not be centered on heredity and racial cleansing, but on the effect that social environments have on people’s intelligence and success in life instead. The point was to improve urban development (the urban poor are the modern eugenicist’s worst nightmare), childcare, welfare and education, so that the environment would improve people and naturally select those who were more able. The final goal was for the successful class to have more children than the less intelligent and poorer classes. In Osborn’s fantasy, the world would then gradually become a place populated only by superior people.

Osborn’s big dreams sound chillingly seductive in our overpopulated, neoliberal world. As I step out of the doors of the American Philosophical Society, a relentless wind blows across the historical pebble streets. There are only two tourists scuffling along in the dark. The police officers guarding Independence Hall tonight discuss their weekly shifts and girlfriends with ears reddened from the cold. In the distance, Liberty Bell is illuminated like a lonely, cracked soul.

I look back at the compact square, the small alleys, the humble two-level building that is Independence Hall itself. It is difficult to imagine that one of the most influential Declarations in history was signed in this humble place with its neat little window frames. It is even harder to imagine how the people who occupied these buildings in the 18th century would have understood Osborn’s fears and appreciated his fantasy of the genetically perfected society. One knows this, of course – how pre-modern horizons were different from ours and so on, but for me, being physically in Philadelphia’s deserted town center in this very moment, the chasm between the differing ideas of equality in the course of this country’s history strikes home with me with particular force.

Osborn’s ideas were neither as benign as he presented them, nor were they marginal in their political impact, as many Americans would believe today. New historical research revealed that state-led sterilization of the ‘feebleminded’, urban poor, marginalized, and mentally ill continued into the post-War years in the US, as late as into the 1970s (King and Hansen, 2013). The idea behind those traumatizing and physically abusive sterilizations was derived from the ‘positive eugenics’ proposed by people like Osborn. By barring these particular people from having children, eugenicists believed that society was protecting itself from unwanted traits, urban crime and general decay.

Today, state-led sterilizations are still wide-spread. In our overpopulated, global warming-ridden, increasingly class-divided world, competition over resources is putting huge pressures on governments to at least pretend to be doing something. Sterilization of the poor, the mentally disabled and women (male sterilization is much less invasive, however, women are the ones that are usually targeted) can appear like a quick fix out of the misery. Only when things go wrong, like the deaths following the botched sterilizations in India recently, do sterilization policies make news headlines.

I step into the warm entry hall of one of the buildings on Chestnut Street. I have arrived at the book launch of Danielle Allen’s new book on the Declaration of Independence, which she reinterprets as a defense of equality (instead of liberty, as is usually the case). Danielle Allen is probably one of the most powerful political philosophers in this country: a Princeton professor and trustee, she chairs the Pulitzer prize committee and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

She embodies the story of American inequality in her own family – her mother is from a WASP background, her father’s ancestors came to the country as slaves from the Caribbean. And indeed, her book, although mainly an eloquently argued and insightfully analyzed piece of one of the most revered and yet still insufficiently read texts in US history, is really a book about identity and racial inequality. In the front, you can see two pictures provocatively lined up against each other. One is of a drawing of the founding fathers, immersed in discussion in a wood-paneled room in Independence Hall, the other is a photograph depicting a class room in which the students are mostly black.

This classroom was the place where Allen led a sort of double-identity when she was teaching back at the University of Chicago. In the day time, she would teach a young, mostly White undergraduate elite population; at nights, she taught night courses to financially struggling, adult students with kids and insecure jobs, who were mostly black. With both, she read the Declaration. But the night students were the ones who responded to the Declaration in a deeper existential way, reading it as a treatise of self-empowerment and a defense of equality, above all.

The room is filled with members of the American Philosophical Society. With Allen standing on the stage, it is hard not to notice the unequal representation of America amongst the audience itself: most people are White and old – in other words, people who have the leisure and confidence to attend a book launch in prestigious settings on a weekday night. You can feel how pleased the audience is to see a successful black woman speaking to the Society; behind me, I hear comments such as “She is really smart, isn’t she!” which, between the lines, reads as “How lovely to have a black woman speaking tonight!”. As much as Americans love to perpetuate the myth of equality, they equally love to congratulate themselves on diversity.

Race comes up again, like a curse. A man in the first row raises his hand to ask a question. “If we really implement the political equality that you demand, we could be hurting ourselves because some people are simply not equal. I am not making a racial point here –“, he smiles conspiratorially at Allen, “but a biological point. Some people are born with disabilities and other defects. Letting them participate equally in decisions that require rational intelligence is maybe…unwise.” I cannot believe my ears. Here sits Frederick Osborn reincarnated, or at least, I am witnessing for the first time a thoughtful eugenicist!

I can see that Allen is clearly uncomfortable, not sure what to respond. She gives an eloquent, abstract answer about how equality applies to everyone and should be understood in a very broad sense. But then she says something that amazes me. “But you do have a point, sure. A drug user for example would pose a problem for collective decision-making, since they cannot make rational decisions themselves.” I am amazed because Allen has unconsciously picked a group that is commonly grouped within the disgust stereotype group in the US, and therefore one of the most dehumanized groups in society (I have written previously about the stereotype content model and dehumanization).

I realize suddenly that equality is a very difficult cognitive feat for anyone, whether for our thoughtful eugenicist or brilliant Ivy League professor. We wish we could see everyone as equal, but dehumanization of others is lurking behind our most base fears and anxieties, as well as our most noble dreams and social visions.

I escape the cheese and wine reception (since we are in the US, they also offer Mountain Dew to accompany your Roquefort) and step back onto the dark streets of Philadelphia. The police officers have moved to another spot. The wind has calmed down, but it is still bitterly cold. I should go back to my hotel, but I begin walking slowly towards Liberty Bell and its surrounding lights.


What were the recent Hong Kong protests about?

When I left Germany – or to be more precise, when I left my German cultural bubble in Beijing for my life’s second journey to the Western world, I was idealistic, emotionally vulnerable, naïve and all of those things that one is at age 19. One thing, however, I was not: afraid of authority and superiors. In fact, my German education had instilled in me a natural suspicion of authority figures in any political and institutional setting and a subsequent duty to disobey them if necessary.

The final high school degree, the Abitur, is also referred to as the Reifeprüfung, which literally means a ‘test of maturity’ (I know – so serious, so German). The speeches given at the degree ceremonies – by both authority figures such as principals and teachers, as well as the students themselves – commonly center around the question whether the freshly conferred Abitur students have attained true maturity at the end of their educational journey: Are they critical members of society? Can they show civil courage when they see other people’s rights violated? And most important, can they respectfully stand up to authority and those in power? What is remarkable is that these questions are not just asked by students but by the authority figures themselves. My teachers and principal seemed to feel that they had done a good job if they had raised students that would be able to rebel against them.

I am thinking again about the question of authority and youth in the context of the recent Hong Kong democracy protests. The protests, which at their peak reached participation levels of 100,000 people, were marked by their peaceful, highly self-disciplined and ordered nature. Most of all, what surprised Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and outside observers alike was the overwhelming participation of young people, such as university and high school students. Without them, the protests would not have gained momentum and been sustained. The images of tear gas being sprayed into the eyes of Hong Kong’s students led to a huge outcry within the general population and drove more people into the streets. One of the main protest ‘leaders’, Joshua Wong, only just turned 18 this week and was a high school student until the summer.

Journalists such as Martin Jacques tried to dismiss the genuineness of the protesters’ demands for democratic elections and for freedom from Mainland Chinese control by suggesting that the underlying reason of the protests were not so much political, but stemming from an internal identity crisis, which in turn were fueled by arrogance and hubris towards China. Jacques is certainly not entirely wrong in observing that that a lot of Hongkongers perceive Mainland Chinese as poor and inferior, and that they identify more with a Western identity, even though many cultural aspects of life remain permeated by East Asian norms and aesthetics.

A study on global stereotyping shows that Hongkongers view Filipino maids and Mainland Chinese in terms of disgust (Cuddy, Fiske et al. 2009), the lowest possible category when it comes to stereotyping. We perceive people towards whom we feel disgust as possessing minimum human warmth and intellectual competence (Fiske et al. 2002, in a groundbreaking study on the mixed nature of stereotypes). Research in social neuroscience went further and showed that feeling disgust towards someone can disable core social brain functions such as being able to ‘mentalize’ how someone else feels – in the worst possible scenario, this can lead to dehumanization and treating this person as less-than-human (Harris and Fiske 2006). (Incidentally, in the US, people who fall into the disgust group are welfare recipients and the homeless. Hispanics, Muslims and Blacks are at the threshold.)

And yet, I don’t agree with Jacques on what fuelled the protests. When I was in Hong Kong last year to give a talk at Hong Kong’s City University, I asked the audience about their Hong Kong identity. I had discussed this question with some of the people in the audience already back in New York, when they had visited the States to witness the US presidential elections in 2012 with the New Youth Forum group, a civil society group organized by young Hong Kong citizens. The young Hongkongers in the audience said they felt distinctively ‘Hongkongnese’, but an unsure and awkward silence followed my question of what exactly this meant to them. I believe that the insecurity behind the silence was genuine and not primarily driven by disgust towards Mainland China. Similarly, during the protests this year, slogans and demands were not dominated by stereotypical disgust towards a backward China, but a sincere political voice trying to find its democratic identity.

Journalists like Jacques who try to portray the protests as an unpolitical identity crisis hidden under the disguise of democratic demands not only miss the birth of a new democratic identity that the young people of Hong Kong try to carve out of the hitherto confused silence that I met last year, but most important, he misses the emergence of a crucial dynamic that is the pillar of any well-functioning democracy: the relationship between a country’s youth with authority.

Germany arrived at its commendable cultivation of a critical relationship between youth and authority via a painful path (alas, as with pretty much anything else in Germany history and culture – maybe with the exception of music). The unconditional worship of Hitler and the Nazi regime by a vast majority of Germans, as well as the fanatic reverence of political and militaristic hierarchies by masses of young people during those dark years left a deep mark on Germany’s educational conscience. However, it was not until the 68’ student revolution (I accidentally stumbled across Rudi Dutschke’s grave in the St. Annen Kirchhof in Berlin Dahlem this year) and the efforts of that generation to confront the moral abyss that their parents and grandparents had left behind that teachers and authority figures adopted this new educational and political ideal, of which I am a product.

The Hong Kong protests are dwindling down and we are left to wonder what is left behind. If anything, for a young generation of Hongkongers, it’s walking out of the silence of a complex identity crisis into the hum of political contestation of their uncertain future.


Cuddy, A. et al. (2009). Stereotype content model across cultures: towards universal similarities and some differences. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 1-33.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 6, 878–902.

Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuro-imaging responses to extreme outgroups. Psychological Science, 17, 847-853.




Nomadic minds, music and concert halls

In our times, concert halls for classical music are strange places. Why do we still frequent them if we could listen to the same piece, in a more superior sound-quality recording, at home? I know, you could potentially say the same for pop concerts. But there, the focus is decidedly on the performing star, whereas in classical music concerts, people at least pretend to be there mainly for the music itself (in New York, there are of course those Upper East Side ladies that come to check out whether Anne-Sophie Mutter looks as stunning in person in her Dior gowns as she does in the pictures – but that’s New York for you).

I was confronted again with this question last week when I went to my first concert at the Lincoln Center since I had returned to New York. I hadn’t been to many concerts in Europe this year and was thirsty for music – that day, they played Mahler’s tortured First Symphony – and drank up every note with my eyes closed. I still couldn’t help noticing the anthropological differences in concert behavior of the New York crowd to Berlin though (or indeed, Beijing, but that’s for another post), not least because New Yorkers are fantastically noisy.

Our grand German writer on Kultur, Thomas Mann, claimed that the Western theatre and concert hall manners are a secularized version of Christian church mass rituals: the performers stand on the sacred stage in the front, the audience is asked to be quiet and reverent, the performance is not to be interrupted by individual outbursts of emotion from the audience, and the at the beginning of the performance, a besinnlich, a kind of reflective and introspective silence is supposed to be taken up by each audience member. All of this is very hard for impatient, impulsive and constantly fiddling New Yorkers, but they really do try (during my visit though, they still couldn’t help clapping sporadically in between the movements).

Most of all, what I realized this time is that New Yorkers and possibly Americans in general, are nervous about their own cultural self-identity in concert halls. Actually, they are not just nervous, they are terrified. They know that they are ‘doing’ a cultural event right now, that this is Old Europe and they are supposed to know it, that there are social norms and rules of restraining one’s usual behavior in this setting, but at the same time, they cannot help feeling out of place in some profound way. Some will flick restlessly through the program notes and study the pages with the fundraising party photos that display botoxed Upper East Side ladies (there they are again!) sipping champagne a tad too long. Others will simply join the Platinum Circle with a hefty yearly donation that makes them feel like they own the place.

I don’t mean to be unkind here. There are also those who carry some of that nervousness to a level where they become open to the music in a naïve, sensual way, and of course, there are those who don’t experience that nervousness at all. I always feel more comfortable in New York concert halls than in Berlin or elsewhere in Germany – exactly because there is so much insecurity about Western identity hovering around, Americans don’t have a rigid conception of who should attend the concert with them. I don’t get strange looks with my Chinese appearance, or if I occasionally turn up in traditional hanfu clothing.

In Berlin, it’s another story. There, I am almost bound each time to get benevolently condescending comments and looks about my ‘Asian’ presence there. At a performance by the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, people will ask whether I am Japanese (despite the fact that Uchida grew up in Vienna with Japanese diplomat parents and speaks perfect Wienerisch), in a way that makes me feel as if I am a cultural tourist at this concert where usually only the ‘real’ Germans are allowed to go. Because I am not white, people will address me in English (from the ticket booth person to the person who seats me and my neighbor in the row) because they assume that the possibility of me living and having grown up in Germany and of me deciding to attend a concert with them and needing to hear this music just as much as they do is a sheer impossibility.

And yet, despite all the sensory and emotional distractions that I await me (and that I dread) each time I visit a concert hall, I keep going back. There is something about being physically present in the auditory range of the music that is deeply compelling, both intellectually and sensually. There is a communication that happens between the musicians and the audience that is hard to put into words. Indeed, Gao Can, a renowned young Chinese violinist and old family friend, told me that when he performed this year in the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, he experienced an incredible kind of dialogue with the audience – they seemed to anticipate and understand each musical turn – that he had rarely encountered in other concert halls before. That’s Old Europe for you, too.

One could of course take a different approach to these distractions and like Sviatoslav Richter, one of the great pianist maestros of the 20th century, demand in his old age that performances should take place in small, darkened rooms where the audience could not see the performer’s facial expressions and movements. But I believe that being able to visualize the moving music through the bodily movements on stage gives us a particular cognitive satisfaction. Recent brain research on the neuroscience of music discovered that listening to (classical) music is vitally connected to mental state attribution of others and our social brain functions, and that the ability to recognize emotional intentions in music can potentially hold off dementia (there will be a dedicated post in the near future about the neuroscience of music, so I’ll stop here). In that light, being able to see who performs the music and how they perform it is an integral part of the social aspect of our musical experience.

When talking about the social aspect of music, I am reminded of the way how music was performed in Ancient China. Apart from the more formal performances in Confucian temples, where music was an integral part of the religious ceremonies, musical performances in Tang Dynasty China, for example, were highly intimate and informal occasions. A handful of scholars and poets would gather around the musician, get drunk on rice wine, philosophize, and write calligraphy and poetry on the spot. The famous Tang poets Li Bai and Bai Juyi, for example, discuss music in many of their poems – music serves as poetic inspiration, melancholic expression of exile and home, and has an undeniable sensual-erotic aspect as well.

This is why when I see someone playing the Ancient Guqin string instrument at ‘Chinese Culture Weeks’ in Western-style concert halls today, I always feel that the setting is way too vast and formal. This problem cannot be alleviated simply by moving the Guqin player to a smaller stage and room, because, if you remember Thomas Mann’s analysis, the dynamics there between the musician and the audience are meant to be more hierarchical and rigid. The Chinese Tang musician, however, has to be able to pick up their instrument, carry it for miles and up mountains, and set foot wherever the next occasion of a meeting between nomadic minds arises…


Reunion at Cambridge

I apologize for the sporadic posting lately. I am working on a couple of posts at the moment, all related to the neuroscience of dehumanization and empathy. I am also drafting one post in my mind about the identity sensations of returning to New York after a summer back ‘home’ in Europe.

Meanwhile, I have found one poem that I wrote this summer for an old friend, who, though having lived in England for most of his life, resides culturally in his mind in those parts of the world where osmanthus trees are blooming right now…

If only one had a whole other life to sit down and write those endless letters that keep rushing through one’s brain when one returns to one place, just to leave it for the next.


Reunion At Cambridge       

                                                         For J.H.Coates

The wanderer does not care to return
Yet I have come back
At spring’s last bud’s fall
To meet you in the place where
no cypresses stand, no osmanthuses blossom
no cicadas chirp.

Silence between us tells more than sound
Memory of past talk soars
in my mind
like the rising beats
of Muyu drums –
A flock of fenland birds
releases into the sky, clearing our heads at once.

I leave yet again
before summer’s crisp heat sinks
down on the bridges.
Lines and lines of letters to you
rush through my ear like an endless stream.


Driving our identities through East Germany on a hot summer’s day

On our drive back to Berlin from a short holiday at the German Baltic Sea, the Ostsee, we have stopped in Pasewalk.

The whole town looks as if the stifling summer heat has frozen it. Even the flies that linger around the entrance to the Asian noodle bar seem confused by the brute midday heat, not sure where to land. The town center is desolated. Only one small café, a newsstand, and the Asian noodle bar are open. Except for one store that sells bulky and dated looking television sets, the surrounding shops are closed, even though it is a weekday. An old German couple sits on a bench underneath the modest shade of two trees, staring intently onto the square. But there is nothing to see. The square is empty.

Pasewalk is the infamous town in the Vorpommern region of Northeast Germany where Hitler was once treated for temporary blindness during WWI. Allegedly, it was here where he learnt of Germany’s capitulation in the war and resolved to rectify Germany’s grand humiliation by joining politics. Afterwards, the Vorpommern region became part of East Germany under the former DDR. Today, this area is a major stronghold of the German Neonazi Party, the NPD.

We order our lunch at the Asian noodle bar. It’s hot and the flies have moved inside. A young man is running it by himself. It turns out he is Vietnamese and has been in Germany for 17 years.

“Too long”, he says with a wry smile. His wife and son are in Berlin. He goes there every weekend.

“How’s it like here?”, my parents ask. Really, they mean to say ‘How bad is it here for an Asian-looking foreigner, an Ausländer?’.

My parents always have that particular sense of uneasiness in East Germany. They suddenly become very self-conscious about their Chinese looks and Bavarian accent (which of all possible West German accents signals most clearly to East Germans that they are privileged and arrogant ‘Wessis’) and are terrified of running into Neonazis at every street corner.

That’s only one part of the story, though. I think that what really sets them at unease is that they are in a former Communist country, especially since East Germany’s Communist past can still be felt acutely in the region today. Having escaped their own Communist past in China through immigration to West Germany, working again in a dizzyingly transformed China after Mao, and simply through the general passing of time, they have been able to shake off the trauma of those years – the food deprivation, the intellectual deprivation, the cruelty of the political campaigns, the general terror – almost completely, or so it seems. It just doesn’t seem right, or at least absurd, that the country that became their refuge and new home, the country that is miles and miles away from a nightmarish China should contain a place that reminds them so much of what they tried to escape and forget.

“Well, it’s not Berlin”, the Vietnamese guy says laconically.

“This is the town center” He looks behind his back. “Pretty sad, huh? It’s not the Neonazis that are the biggest problem. It’s the drug users. Unemployment is very high. You almost feel like every young person is a junkie. And it doesn’t help that we are only 40 kilometers away from the Polish border.” He throws in the last phrase as if the open EU border to Poland can account for all the misery.

“It doesn’t feel here how Germany should feel like.” My parents and the guy nod empathically at each other.

It takes three Ausländer who came to Germany from two Asian Communist countries to appreciate the full meaning of this sentence. The desolation, the sense of abandonment, the mutual mistrust, the acute sense of scarcity (though one could not point exactly to what it is), the silence – heightened today by the numbing summer heat – that looms over this town, all of this is too reminiscent, too universal, and does not fit into the immigrants’ (and indeed many politicians’ and tourists’) dream of Germany.

“At least you are right in front of the police station.” I say this more as a joke.

He smiles his wry smile again and shrugs his shoulders. A police car slowly drives past the noodle shop. Inside, two heavy-looking police men stare at us and our rental car as if we each had two heads.

I step outside and look at a massive Gothic church made of red-brick. It stands next to the town center in a quiet Church yard, majestic and serene. It has the charm of that simple and unpretentious architectural style that is characteristic of Northern Germany. The St. Marienkirche was built during the 14th century and has been a quiet witness to the many powers that tried to take hold of the town. Pasewalk was wrecked numerous times during the Thirty Years’ War, burnt down by the Poles in the 17th century and by the Russians one century later. During the Great Westphalian Peace, it was handed over to Sweden.

I cannot help but feel curiosity and a sense of fondness for this town that has undergone so many transformations of identity, ravaged by everyone and yet belonging to no one. Today, brighter and livelier cities come to mind when one thinks of Germany. Pasewalk is in the history books, but on the mental map of the cosmopolitan traveler who drives westwards towards Berlin, it’s a forgotten place.

My parents breathe a deep sigh of relief once we are on the road again. Even more relief arrives in the moment we are in West Germany. It’s a funny sensation. You can actually sense an invisible border as you drive along the Autobahn towards Berlin. Suddenly, you are in West Germany. I couldn’t say whether it was the change of countryside, roadside houses, town names, other drivers on the road, or all combined. You suddenly have left East Germany and you know it.


Can you add up identities like cabbages?

Just as summer is around the corner at the East Coast, I remember a conversation last year with the Princeton-based British composer Andrew Lovett on a hot, sultry day overlooking a small vegetable garden in New Jersey, on whether one could add up identities like, well, cabbages (the clumsy vegetable metaphor is mine, not his).

Andrew was telling me about a Yom Kippur service he once attended at Princeton, where four undergraduates were asked to use this occasion to publicly talk about their Jewish identity. Their speeches were moving and polished, and yet, one comment seemed odd. One of the young speakers talked about how he was glad that his Jewish identity allowed him to have two instead of ‘just’ one identity: almost as if one could arrange one’s identities in a row in a field, watch each of them sprout and then count them up neatly. (There is, of course, another implication in that young man’s comment about denying complexity and complication to secular identities, as if all non-religious identities were banally ‘simple’ and somehow a bit deficient – but this shall be the topic of a future blog post).

Studies on the bicultural brain by Joan Chiao (2010) and her colleagues at Northwestern University asked whether Asian-Americans would be able to activate the Western or East Asian aspects of their bicultural sense of Self respectively, when primed to think about themselves in one particular cultural manner. Basically, priming consisted in people reading a story and being asked to describe themselves in an either East Asian or Western way. I have written previously about measurable cultural differences in people’s brain mechanism in terms of an East Asian interdependent or Western dependent sense of Self. Chiao and her colleagues found out that bicultural individuals could in fact activate the two different cultural selves within them at the brain level, in response to targeted priming. It suggests that the activation of different identities at the brain level is a dynamic process and that the idea of drawing neat lines between our identities might not be possible. For me, the insight is that it is all happening within one brain, meaning, there are no cabbages for us to count up but only the enigma left of who it is that our brain is becoming as we continue to absorb more identities.

The dynamics of the multicultural brain are not the only way through which our lines of Self become blurred. Cultural neuroscientists also looked at the effects of cultural exposure over time and ageing. In Joshua Goh’s (2007) study on young and old Singaporeans, the East Asian preference for context-and background information in visual processing (versus the Western preference for central objects — basically this means that when looking at a picture of a helicopter flying over the Alps, East Asians will first notice the Alps and Westerners will focus on the helicopter) was more pronounced in older Singaporeans than younger ones. ‘Cultural differences became apparent only in older subjects who had had more exposure to their respective cultural environments than the young subjects had had’, pointing to the significance of experience over time and its effect on cultural identities within different generations.

On top of this, Goh’s study found that both elderly Westerners and elderly Singaporeans displayed loss of neural tissue in a brain area that usually engages in the representation of associative information, i.e. the process of linking central objects with their backgrounds in visual processing, making it harder as we get older to link the helicopter to the Alps…

So where does this leave us? Beyond cabbages and the neat adding-up of identities that are yet to come along my way, I am drawn to the fact that the ageing brain brings about changes in one’s perception that everybody will experience across cultures one day in their lives. In this light, the image of the vegetable garden and its seasonal changes of growth and decay and perpetual self-renewal seems rather appealing to dwell on as I lift the receiver to give Andrew that long-due to call to arrange for another summer day’s meeting in the thickets of New Jersey.


Chiao, J. Y., Harada, T., Komeda, H., Li, Z., Mano, Y., Saito, D., et al. (2010) “Dynamic cultural influences on neural representations of the Self”, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22, 1–11.

Goh, J. O., Chee, M. W., Tan, J. C., et al. (2007) “Age and culture modulate object processing and object–scene binding in the ventral visual area”, Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7 (1), 44–52.


Who am I between the cultures? Cultural neuroscience’s new questions for the Self

I stand at the iron-cast main gate of Columbia University and look back one last time onto the snow covered campus before I take down the stairs to the 116th Street subway station. Today was one of those days again on which I did not have to ask myself perpetually who I am. In the seminar rooms, the library, the food halls and rambling corridors of Morningside campus’ pre-war buildings, the peculiar combination of my Chinese looks and British English with a German accent passes without comment. Rather, in the good old New York convention of unshakable indifference and mild impatience, people focus on the essentials: their response to my comments on the seminar text, my overdue library fees, my signature for the Earl Grey tea bill…

It has been a good day for me. This way, I could also focus on the essential part in me. But what does it mean, to be oneself? This question jumps at me the moment I leave the snow covered campus and walk into the noisy subway train filled with identities and chatter from everywhere. Whereas on campus it’s all about the distillation of the thinking Self (and the apparatus that keeps it running), outside of it, we are thrown into expressing, negotiating, enjoying and suffering at the hands of our identities and self-experiments, in wrapping yet another one of those countless cloaks of cultural norms around what we call the Self.

But is the idea of the cloaked Self not in itself a naïve fiction – as if there were something at our core that is awaiting to be peeled out and distilled? Is it possible at all to distinguish a specific Self from all the cultural identities that make up who we are? How far, in Hegel’s sense, can Sitten and Bildung permeate us? Are we literally our cultural customs or is there something that can escape these cloaks? Who am I when I move effortlessly over the snow-muffled Columbia campus and think and talk without having to constantly be reminded of my skin color, my whimsical biography and my language barriers, and who am I indeed when I feel so deeply touched by the snippets of Chinese, German and English that fly across the subway train?

Research in the novel field of cultural neuroscience is asking exactly those questions. Studies have shown that the influence of cultural practices can lead to profound differences in brain mechanisms – affecting how we perceive objects, colors, other human beings, ourselves, and even the way how we reason mathematically (Ames and Fiske, 2010). For example, both Western and East Asian people display activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex when asked to think about themselves (Kelley et al., 2002; Zhang et al., 2006), but only East Asian people exhibit activity in the same regions when asked to think about their mother (Zhu, Zhang, Fan und Han, 2007). What this means is that East Asians have a distinct conception of Self that includes not only themselves but also immediate others – the Self is not understood in an isolated fashion but in a relational manner to others and society.

Cultural psychologists have been claiming cultural differences in one’s sense of Self for some while. The evidence at the brain level confirms psychological theories of the independent Western and interdependent East Asian Self developed by Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama (1991). This theory is based on the hypothesis that cultural influences such as Confucianism contribute to East Asians viewing themselves as socially contextual beings who mainly make sense of themselves through their ties to family and friends. Unlike in the West, the East Asian Self is not treated as an independent entity. Other cultural psychologists studying Western and Japanese children’s idea of self were able to show that this dichotomy might be flawed, since Japanese children could make self-descriptions in both independent and interdependent styles (Killen et al. 2002). However, the brain evidence from cultural neuroscience is still compelling – it shows that at least once people reach adulthood, cultural influences can be powerful enough result in distinctly different brain mechanism during self-processing.

Cultural neuroscientists have also looked into the effect of religion on our sense of Self. For example, only Christians exhibit brain activity in their dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area engaged in third-person perception, when thinking about themselves (Han et. al 2008). Once again the brain evidence confirms psychological theories; previously, we assumed that Christians judge themselves through the eyes of God and that this affected from which perspective they viewed themselves. Buddhists, however, in accordance with the Buddhist principle of “anatta” (i.e. no-self), do not exhibit brain activity in the typical regions when thinking about themselves – through repeated religious practice of self-denial, they have managed to modify their neuronal dynamics altogether (Wu, Wang et al. 2010). Curiously, the experiment on the Christians and Buddhists were conducted at Beijing University with Han atheists, Han Christians and Tibetan Buddhists, reminding us that differences in self-perception do not just appear between different cultural societies but also within one society.

This kind of intercultural variation in our self-perception opens a host of hard philosophical questions. It certainly throws the universal application of the Western liberal model of Self in a critical light. In John Stuart Mill’s famous work On Liberty (1859), only “cultivation of individuality brings humans nearer to the best thing they can be” because only the individual Self that has freed herself from society’s restraints can find true happiness. Although Mill does take into account the significance of society’s influence and the need to consider our fellow human beings in the ultimate quest for individuality, his message is clear: we can only become full human beings when we are our own last judge and have emancipated ourselves from our surrounding cultural norms. But in light of cultural neuroscience’s discoveries, Mill’s thesis becomes questionable. Are East Asians or Buddhists unable to attain true happiness because their cognitive experience of Self is not based on Mill’s ideal? Can we only find happiness and true humanity in the cultivation of Western individuality?

A rejection of these questions points to the field of postmodern critical theory and its questioning of the liberal idea of Self. Postmodernists argue that non-western and pre-modern societies deserve at least the same level of recognition and consideration as the prevailing post-Enlightenment, modern Western ideal of society. Critics of postmodernism object that this kind of perspective can lead to the circumventing of important normative questions, and even a kind of moral relativism in relation to universal values such as human rights.

An unexpected dissenter of this postmodern turn is V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidadian writer and literature Nobel prize winner, who himself is a traveler between the cultures of his birth place Trinidad, his Indian heritage and his self-chosen home of England. In a speech given at the Manhattan Institute of New York (1992), he pleads for the ideals of a ‘universal civilization’, which he describes as

“(…) the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery (…) I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But is it known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

For Naipaul, this ideal could not be found within the cultural confinements of his birth place Trinidad, but only in the Great Britain – and particularly London – of his time. Sure enough, Naipaul mocks the flawed self-conception of the people in the Trinidad of his childhood with a tenderness and empathy that at once forgives and understands them for who they are – yet he is certain that as a writer, he could have only flourished in the societies of Western modernity.

Naipaul’s unusual biography of arriving in 1950s England as a dark-skinned young man from a small postcolonial Caribbean island would not surprise us that much anymore today. In our current hypermobile world people travel and immigrate – whether that is due to economic or political pressures or due to the privilege of socio-economic resources – from non-Western peripheries to the centers of the Western world all the time. So many unforeseeable identity cloaks will be put on within a lifetime. It gets increasingly more difficult to draw clear lines between Western and non-Western narrations of ourselves and within self-conceptions at the brain level. I and other people who are moving along Columbia University’s campus and in the streets of New York are witnesses of this new experience of carrying multiple cultural identities within one brain.

Naipaul’s position has been rightly attacked for many reasons (I cannot help admiring him for doing such an excellent job at being loathed though – it would be much easier to make himself being loved by the postmodern crowd): the arrogance and arbitrariness of his cultural judgments, his limited and unfair depiction of pre-modern and non-Western societies, his haughtiness, his glorification and misconstruction of modernity and Western ideals. And yet, when he speaks of the ‘universal civilization’ in this still crisp talk in New York over 20 years ago, I knew immediately and exactly what he was referring to. It is this experience that I encounter on Columbia campus and many places within New York – but sadly not in my twin homeland, my Zwillingsheimatland, Germany, where I am always the perpetual foreigner to too many Germans – this experience of partaking in what feels like a universal way of being human together, which becomes the basis of a precious sense of freedom. I would counter Naipaul however that this freedom is not necessarily particular to a specific culture but can blossom wherever people find ways within their culture to humanize the foreign Other.

The German original of this blog post can be found here at the Hannover Philosophy Institute’s blog.


Ames, D.L. & Fiske, S. (2010) Cultural Neuroscience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13 (2), 72-82.

Kelley, W.M., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C.L., Caglar, S., Inati, S.&Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the Self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14 (5), 785-794.

Killen, M., McGlothlin, H., Lee-Kim, J. (2002) Between individuals and culture: individuals’ evaluations of exclusion from social groups, in: Between Culture and Biology (eds. Keller et al.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Markus, H.R. & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98 (2), 224-253.

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