The Culture of Law (6): Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat

We’re been talking about how culture derives from a neurological structure created in the brains of the culture’s individual members at impressionable times. Individual brain wiring is transmitted by agreement from member to member, and reinforced by experience. Culture thus neurologically shaped is maintained by the brain’s need for concordance between expectations and experience. This creates a shared cultural belief system that characterizes how the members engage with the world.

This post looks further into the term “belief system.” I Googled it, and the following was one of the more instructive, albeit denser hits:

“Belief systems are structures of norms that are interrelated and that vary mainly in the degree in which they are systemic. What is systemic in the Belief System is the interrelation between several beliefs. What features warrant calling this stored body of concepts a belief system? Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of Reality. Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually “make sense” of the world around us.”

A culture’s members adopt its belief system not merely as their “personal sense of Reality,” but as a shared belief in how things really are. I.e., the culture’s members don’t just believe similar things about how the world works, they also believe in their beliefs, holding them as their common perceptual and behavioral code.

What happens when a culture’s belief system is threatened, either from within or by outside pressure?

We met Bruce E. Wexler, professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School, and his book, Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change a couple posts back. He’s the guy who talked about “The importance of a close fit between internal neuropsychological structures created to conform with an individual’s sensory and interpersonal environment at the time of development, and the environment in which the adult individual later finds him or herself.”

Wexler uses his brain-based cultural approach to explain intercultural conflict this way:  “This book argues that differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.”

I.e., a culture resists change because its shared brain wiring is guarding its neurological peace of mind.

Wexler’s analysis also applies to intracultural conflict. And, as he further points out, ultimately the battle over culture is about whose brain wiring gets to make the rules:

“This argument thus provides a rational basis for the apparent fact that people fight not because of differences in religion and other beliefs; they fight to control the opportunity to create external structures that fit with their internal structures, and to prevent others from filling their environment with structures and stimulation that conflict with their internal structures.”

All of which explains why “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” — i.e., resistance to cultural change — is always an implied cultural norm. Challenges to a culture’s belief system are always perceived as a case of,

“The devil will drag you under by the sharp lapels of your checkered coat,

“So sit down, sit down, sit down you’re rockin’ the boat!”

We’ll be talking more about rocking the cultural boat. In the meantime, take a couple minutes to give yourself a treat and watch the video. It’s short, from Guys and Dolls.

The Culture of Law (4): Changing Our Default Cultural Setting

“We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking
we used when we created them.”

Einstein

Let’s start this week by revisiting the premise of this series:  “The law of the future requires the law culture of the future. Culture is the context in which the future will occur. If we understand what culture is and where it comes from, we can most effectively shape both the law and its future… if we choose to do so.”

Key words:  If we choose to do so. We might not. Let’s look at what’s going on in our heads one way or the other.

As we saw last time, our brains are patterned with our cultural expectations through the creation of new brain cells (neurons) and new brain wiring (neural pathways).

When we resist cultural change, judge new developments as “bad,” insist the old ways were better, we think we’re making a reasoned assessment of the pros and cons of old vs. new, and we’re convinced our assessment is correct. Maybe so, but the neurobiological reality is that our brains are encountering a new cultural model that won’t run on their existing neurons and neural pathways. Turns out we’re not saving the citadel from the invading hordes, we’re experiencing a brain reality:  hormones secreting and electrical charges firing within our skulls.

Kinda puts the kibosh on the righteousness indignation, doesn’t it?

When we promote cultural change, our brains need to generate new neurons (a process called neurogenesis) and lay down new neural pathways (a process called neuroplasticity). Once in place, this new neurological infrastructure will support the change we want.

Until our brains are rewired to the point where they can find and maintain the internal-external brain concordance Dr. Wexler talked about (see last time), we will continuously revert to our old cultural patterning. This is why we can leave a firm to set up a solo or small firm practice, or launch ourselves on a mission to reform law education. or whatever our focus of change might be, only to wake up one day to find ourselves back in the same culture where we started. We revert and self-sabotage because our brains weren’t rewired to support the change we wanted.

We begin the process of deliberate change with an awareness of what our default cultural setting already is, as patterned into us during law school and our early practice years. I previously quoted Simon D’Arcy of Next Level Culture. Here he is again:  “You cannot change what you cannot accept. Creating a thriving team and workplace culture starts with revealing, acknowledging and embracing your default culture.”

To know where we’re going, we first need to know where we are, which means the cultural beliefs and behaviors, assumptions and expectations currently patterned in our brains. Finding out is an essential exercises in honesty, and honesty requires reflection.

We think we don’t have time for reflection. We want results.

We’ll get results if we take time for reflection.

New culture means new thoughts and behaviors. We won’t have either if our brains haven’t been rewired to accommodate them.  We won’t get anywhere unless we first understand where we are now. And we won’t gain that understanding unless we step back and reflect about it.

That is the inside-out game of cultural change.

The Culture of Law (3): Brainwashed

This is from Wikipedia, on cultural neuroscience:  “Similar to other interdisciplinary fields such as social neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, affective neuroscience, and neuroanthropology, cultural neuroscience aims to explain a given mental phenomenon in terms of a synergistic product of mental, neural and genetic events.”

Heady stuff — quite literally. In this series, we’ll look at all those factors — mental, neural, and genetics.

I know… but stay with me here….

In his landmark book, Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School Bruce E. Wexler declared that “concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.”

That  “concordance” he speaks of is the peace of mind we’ve been talking about. It’s a brain necessity: our brains work on culture all the time. They do this mostly undisturbed most of the time, but not always. There are particularly intense formative periods of our lives when our brains are particular alive to shifting their cultural points of view.

Dr. Wexler speaks of “the importance of a close fit between internal neuropsychological structures created to conform with an individual’s sensory and interpersonal environment at the time of development, and the environment in which the adult individual later finds him or herself.” (My emphasis.) Those “times of development” are the key to cultural creation.

Not surprisingly, one of those times is adolescence, which from a brain point of view lasts until age 25 – 27. New cultural possibilities abound when we come of age, and we make choices from the cultural contexts we are exposed to during that time, literally activating and de-activating genes as we do so. (Which explains why our kids aren’t like us.) Then, during our adult lives, our brains and our external lives settle into creating concordance with our adolescent cultural choices.

That’s exactly what happens to our brains when we enter the legal profession. Think about it:  many law students are under 25-27; nothing personal, but their brains aren’t all there yet. What’s especially missing are the portions that govern learning and sound judgment. (This explains why older law students experience law school differently than students right out of college — something you probably noticed if you were an older student yourself, but probably didn’t if you weren’t.) Add the stress of law school to normal adolescent brain development, and you’ve got culture formation on steroids.

Although older law students have organically mature brains, stress pulls them into a comparable state of adolescent-like brain patterning, in a process comparable to what happens during boot camp. A former Marine Corps drill sergeant told me how they “greeted” new recruits, stomping into their barracks at 3:00 a.m., shouting and cracking whips. “We had to do that,” he said, “Otherwise they weren’t going to survive boot camp, let alone the kind of combat we send them into.” Once they’d been torn down, the newly malleable recruits were built back up — thoroughly enculturated into the Marine way.

Like them, law students younger and older enter law practice (the equivalent of Wexler’s “environment in which the adult individual later finds him or herself”)  with brains primed to reinforce the cultural choices we made in that stressful context.

We lawyers were brainwashed, all of us. No kidding.

For a user-friendly analysis of adolescent brain development, see Change Your Brain Change Your Life Before 25, by Jesse Payne. Jesse is the son-in-law of celebrity psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen. His courtship of Dr. Amen’s daughter required a brain scan conducted by his famous future father-in-law.