THE ARTICLE: We Aren’t the World by Ethan Watters.

“The interdependent self—which is more the norm in East Asian countries, including Japan and China—connects itself with others in a social group and favors social harmony over self-expression. The independent self—which is most prominent in America—focuses on individual attributes and preferences and thinks of the self as existing apart from the group.”
“the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies.”

SOME THOUGHTS: Notions of self are one of the key differences in how various cultures operate in the world. Turns out WEIRD cultures (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic) have a view of self that is not only quite different from the rest of the world, but is also a complete statistical outlier.

The brief article linked above focuses on a research paper titled “The Weirdest People in the World” by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan, all researchers working at UBC. (Sweet! Extra bonus, they’re in Vancouver!) The research also references Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama whose work centres on the cultural notions of self.

Near the end of the article, and through the lens of Markus and Kitayama, Watters makes the following observation:

 Unlike the vast majority of the world, Westerners (and Americans in particular) tend to reason analytically as opposed to holistically. That is, the American mind strives to figure out the world by taking it apart and examining its pieces.

This isn’t he first time I’ve come across this notion of holistic or integrated thinking in the East that is deeply connected to context, particularly social context. The more I come across it the more I’m convinced there’s something valuable there that the West could learn from and the East doesn’t see because it’s just the water they swim in.

I think the people we in the west label as “creative” aren’t actually weird outliers way off on the creativity end of some imaginary spectrum. I think “creative” people are integrated people. They are holistic thinkers. They are facile at integrating analytic thinking and contextual thinking. They find balance between a being-over-object perception of the world and an open-in-place perception of the world.

I have a difficult time articulating/justifying/making comprehensible the deep connection I felt to Japan after just one visit. I think this idea of integrated thinking holds the key. I think artist me, an integrated thinker, felt at home among fellow integrated thinkers.

In a predominantly analytic western culture I’ve always felt, depending on when you were talking to me, either like I didn’t fit, or like the wires got crossed somewhere and I didn’t work properly. In Japan, even that first visit, I felt strangely at home. (To be clear, I have no illusions about the dark side of any culture. I felt what I felt as a visitor and a westerner, fundamentally unbeholden to the culture. Talk to my Japanese artist friends about being an artist in Japan and it’s a much different story.)

But I couldn’t have felt this sense of “home” on my first visit…could I? Well…maybe…

Westerners have a hard time acknowledging we know something if we can’t precisely explain, analytically, how we know it. So we subjugate it to “intuition.” Intuitive knowing, by our western standards, is at best suspect and at worst faulty.

But what if “intuition” is just contextual thinking from an open-in-place perception of the world? What if place-thinking is just an attunement to context? What if this contextual attunement comes with a pre-verbal way of knowing, a way of knowing our predominantly analytic culture calls “intuition.” Maybe we just need to adjust our western understanding of “intuition.” View it less as inferior emotional guessing and more as a contextual or phenomenological attunement that is on equal terms with analytical thinking. Maybe if we called intuition something like “phenomenological attunement” we’d be more willing to integrate it with analytic thinking.

Here’s something, what if, on my first visit to Japan, I intuited I was in a place amenable to an intuitive way of being?

Now, on the face of it Japan doesn’t seem like a very intuitive place. I don’t think many Japanese would call them selves intuitive. (I don’t know, maybe they would) And yet there is a clear difference, according to this article and the research it references, in how Japanese people and Western people approach a problem. The Japanese way is much more integrated, holistic—contextual.

So let me rephrase the question: What if, on my first visit to Japan, I understood, by way of phenomenological attunement, that I was in a place amenable to phenomenological attunement? Hmm…

Dibs on Phenomenological Attunement™.