Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2753

How does culture affect the human brain?

This article is over 2 years, 9 months old
John Parrington spoke to Sophie Squire about his new book Mind Shift
Issue 2753
John Parrington explores how our environment and culture affects our minds
John Parrington explores how our environment and culture affects our minds (Pic: Charlie Wales/Flickr)

Socialist scientist John Parrington’s new book Mind Shift—How Culture Transformed the Human Brain delves into the connection between the inner workings of the brain, the individual mind and consciousness.

By examining how our minds can produce and enjoy art, ­literature and music—as well as examining the causes of mental distress—John explores what it means to be human.

The book draws extensively on the latest studies on the human brain that have uncovered just how different it is from those of animals.

One unique feature of human beings is how we use tools to continually transform the world around us.

Another is our capacity for ­language. It allows us to communicate with other human beings but also to reason and plan.

Science advice is shaped by politics
Science advice is shaped by politics
  Read More

Both of these capacities have led to the development and growth of our brains far beyond that of animals.

As John remarks in his book, this is something that socialist revolutionary Friedrich Engels first identified—although his theories were largely ignored for many decades.

“Engels had the insight that many—including Charles Darwin didn’t have,” says John. “But I think it was Engels’ role as an ­activist and a revolutionary which ­enabled him to understand that labour was the ­driving force in human development.” One theorist that did take Engels’ theory and expanded on it was Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, especially on the subject of language.

“Language is something that really sets us apart from animals. We should see language as a tool inside our heads that has ­completely altered the way in which we think,” says John.

In a chapter dedicated to ­language, John integrates some different ways that scientists have sought to study thought.

In later chapters John also ­interrogates the significance of art, literature and music in our development.

This chapter includes fascinating details of a study that has tried to prove that our brains have evolved so that, “music can coordinate group activities.”

And John also goes on to write about how music may have helped our prehistoric ancestors.


“One possibility is that it helped coordinate the social production of tools. Another is that it could have aided primitive hunters.

“When humans walk, we make noise, and the sounds of the ­footsteps of a group of hunters could potentially mask the sound of a predatory animal or other ­auditory indications of danger.”

But importantly, music also allows human beings to convey meaning, and in a way that can sometimes transcend the realms of what is possible through words alone.

Throughout the book, John not only writes about the significance of music, art and literature, but also examines how culture has had an impact on the way our brains work.

Mind Shift expertly draws together how culture in a broad sense has made humans into what we are today.

Mental distress and the struggle

NHS mental health services have been cut under Tory rule.
NHS mental health services have been cut under Tory rule. (Pic: Mark Ramsay/Flickr)

Mental distress impacts vast sections of the population, and many have tried to understand the root of why so many of us are affected.

Why things go wrong in the mind and the brain is a big question which Mind Shift explores.

John told Socialist Worker that there are often two main ways that mental health is understood.

“There are those who are biological determinists—they believe it is mainly biology or genes that determine whether you will suffer from mental dysfunction,” says John.

Coronavirus, capitalism and a crisis of mental distress
Coronavirus, capitalism and a crisis of mental distress
  Read More

In Mind Shift John explains this view has often led to social problems being “reduced to a problem of the individual, rooted in a defective biology.”

“There are others that say that biology—especially genes—don’t matter at all, for instance this is the stance of those that come from a behaviourist viewpoint,” says John.

“Often there is a tendency for those with this viewpoint to see humans as blank slates or empty vessels which I don’t think is correct.

“The truth is I think the human brains and minds are far more complex than is recognised by either stances.”

In the book, John looks in depth at several studies of schizophrenia, depression and anxiety—that point to many possible causes for the disorders. These include both physiological causes and being triggered by the sufferers’ lived experiences.

John says, “One of the main themes of Mind Shift is that concentrating on purely a biological or psychological view of the mind and mental distress has serious flaws.

“And it might actually restrict our understanding of how the brain works.”

He adds that “If we are truly to understand the human mind we must explain how the biological object that is the brain has become infused with social influence.”

Beyond mental distress, John argues that changing forms of society have radically shaped how humans have developed.

He says, “Society radically restructures the human brain within an individual person’s lifetime, and it has also played a central role in the past history of our species, by shaping brain evolution.”

And John adds that in the process of struggle our brains may continue to be altered as well.

As he says, “In the last section of the book I talk about how the mind is altered by crisis during strikes and revolutionary upheavals.

“A central theme of the book is that the human brain is highly dynamic, with interconnections between different brain regions that can change as the social environment changes.

“It is this that allows the rapid changes in people’s thoughts and beliefs that can occur during mass movements and revolutions.”

Mind Shift is available at Bookmarks Bookshop 

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance