On Thinking and Cultural Beliefs

Van Talmage
3 min readJan 26, 2023

On thinking and Cultural Beliefs:

I found an article in Scientific American that helps explain cultural beliefs, which helps with the understanding of how we think. And it has ramifications for today’s political antagonism.

The article is about neuroscience and actual brain matters and the field of neuroscience. It is not about culture, but it helps in the explanation of belief systems.

The question is how the brain grows, how it learns “information”, how it reproduces memories, how patterning works.

The brain contains 85–100 billion neurons with multiple connections. Each connection leads to a pathway or network of other connections. There are nearly an infinite number of pathways and patterns.

The neural networks, which we form early in life and build continually forever, contain patterns that when activated lead to other patterns that cause action. When you get a new sensation (input via sensory organs) it is interpreted by the set of patterns already existent in the brain.

This is key: when we take in inputs (like reading or watching) we fit those inputs into the world we already know, a world view that was building from day 1.

An easy example is the word: HOUSE. As you say or read this word, it becomes a sound that is transferred to the brain and is interpreted by your prior knowledge, both generic and specific: That is, you already know what a ‘house’ is because of your prior learning and your prior understanding of the world around you.

The sensory input was fed into a belief system that has been under development since shortly after conception or even after birth.

This neural network of learning and beliefs and new patterns goes crazy during the first 20 plus years. It slows down (very gradually the rest of your life).

From 0–3 we go from scratch to talking and walking. That is serious learning.

We put down patterns that reflect our world around us. We store information as it comes our way and seems important. What hot is, what cold is, what love is, what sounds mean.

We don’t think about this at that age, we feel it and we store memories and patterns. We learn and store the patterns from the environment around us, usually the parents and siblings. We build these early patterns (behavior and sound/meaning) and they last a lifetime. And they are at the bottom of our individual belief systems.

By the time we are teens, we are learning and storing impressions from further afield (peers and media). The content of what we learn is more sophisticated, more intellectual, more complex about the world at large. And more stored as language oriented items that lead to larger meanings.

We build context and fit ourselves into the context. We store not only knowledge about things, we learn and store procedures for actions. We store patterns that build on older patterns. We grow that network system that is your brain.

After about 25–28 the learning (and building of neural networks, or modifying existing one) starts to slow down, and we use our experience to help understand the new learning. Note that learning slows down very slowly, but that our experience builds and our beliefs have a stronger influence on new inputs. Our learned biases have more impact on how we view the new.

At older ages we do not learn as well and we do not like it. I have helped several persons in their 90’s and it was clear they did not want to learn new things. It just did not happen.

The key (and this relates to our cultural divide and our political animosity) is that we take all our new information (media, internet) and interpret it based our set of beliefs from our previous years of experience. Our cultural beliefs are critical to our understanding of new inputs.

This is true of all of us.

But, if one of your learned beliefs is that all people count, you may have a more tolerant view of immigration or racism. If a person has a deep background of intolerance (early patterns) because of skin color, the view of ‘others’ could be (is) substantially different. We all see things so differently, we draw different conclusions, and we offer different solutions.

Here are my two conclusions based on all this:

1. Learn to listen and be open to other opinions. You are not going to change minds by bullying, threatening, or our loud arguments. You change minds by teaching and learning. You plant seeds and let ideas grow.

2. Talk to young people.