Richard Crisp, author of The Social Brain: How Diversity Made The Modern Mind shares a thought piece on how embracing diversity can actually help brain training and improve our brains.
In my book The Social Brain I argue that embracing social and cultural diversity is hard work for the human brain. In fact, it’s just like any form of rigorous exercise – it’s just that it’s mental rather than physical. However, just like physical exercise improves our bodies, the mental exercise that diversity provides can improve our brains.
See the human brain usually likes things simple, clear and predictable. It is essentially a ‘prediction machine’, enabling us to navigate a complex and potentially dangerous world. Simple means predictable. Throw cultural diversity in to the mix and suddenly the brain is going to have a hard time discerning rules, expectations and norms of behaviour.
But it’s precisely these difficulties that underlie the benefits of diversity for our brains. Like anything worth doing (studying for that exam, or training for that marathon), it’s going to be hard work. But it’s the process one goes through to achieve that goal, to overcome the difficulties, to succeed, that makes us fitter, stronger and more adaptive.
If we break down the mental leaps involved in adapting to diversity those benefits become clear. What do we have to do to understand someone else’s cultural views and traditions? We have to take the other person’s perspective, see things from a different (cultural) standpoint, make compromises and put aside stereotypes and prejudices. For the social brain these are big leaps; it’s just like putting ourselves through our paces in the gym. And just like when we establish a good gym habit or exercise regime, we feel better, we have more energy and we can do more for longer. Diversity can train the brain in much the same way.
There’s hard evidence for this relationship too. Research from my own laboratory, as well as many others from around the world, is supporting the relationship between diversity and mental agility.
What’s really exciting is that the core capability that’s trained by diversity is key to many of the life and health goals we strive for. It’s something called ‘cognitive inhibition’ – the ability to put something out of your mind (in other words, ‘impulse control’). Controlling unhelpful or distracting impulses are, for many people, the key to self-improvement, whether this be in the realms of academic study (resisting the impulse to party), health (resisting the impulse to eat that cake) or relationships (biting your tongue when your partner annoys you!). Given that this is the core capability that we ‘work out’ when we put ourselves in culturally diverse contexts, it follows that the more diversity we are exposed to, the more we can train, refine, and strengthen this form of cognitive control.
Here are just a few everyday examples. Cognitive inhibition is needed in financial management. It stops us maxing out our credit card and ending up in financial difficulty – it helps us inhibit the impulse to buy buy BUY when we see a bargain. Cognitive inhibition is also key to better health behaviour. We know the risks of poor diet, lack of exercise, unprotected sex, UV exposure, smoking and drinking – but it can be difficult to always engage in the right preventative behaviors needed to mitigate these risks. Here again inhibiting our immediate impulses and instead seeing the long-term picture is key. If diversity trains our capacity to inhibit impulses and unwanted thoughts then it may help us break out of a range of negative cycles, habits and norms in our personal lives.
Exposing ourselves to social and cultural diversity may therefore have much greater benefits than previously thought. Taking that simple step, really getting to know people from different backgrounds and cultural groups, challenging our ideas and expectations in ways that might feel difficult or make us feel defensive – doing precisely those things that take us out of our (social) comfort zone – these might be the things that hold a critical key to bettering our selves, our lives and our abilities.