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How Immigration Affects the Brain

Written to the song: Solid Ground — Michael Kiwanuka

“There are two types of people in the world; those who believe that everything can be divided into two categories — and the rest of you” — Unknown

Rabat, Morocco.

You are traveling to a new destination and you ask some friends for advice. Your friend tells you all about the different cultural aspects that they experienced when traveling to the same destination — kissing on the cheek when greeting, the expectation that food on a plate should be finished, and not making eye contact with someone of the other gender. You think about all the cultural differences you would tell a friend visiting your country for the first time, and realize that these expectations all come naturally to you. What is the brain’s process for internalizing cultural expectations, and how do they change when immigrating to a new country?

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize, remember, and adapt connections and learned information based on what is relevant to your life. This is the idea that the brain is plastic and constantly changing to fit your environmental demands, making tasks you perform frequently easy to access (Snodgrass, 2014). Neuroplasticity also deals with the principle of “use it or lose it”, where if you don’t perform a task as often as you used to (such as the French you haven’t practiced since high school), the brain will reorganize itself and the neurons will not connect as easily as they used to. Although, once you practice old skills the neuronal connections will strengthen.

When moving to a new country, there are lots of changes that occur. Whether that’s learning a new language, learning to dress a particular way, and even learning which questions are appropriate to ask and avoid asking. Depending on the neighborhood moved to, an immigrant's awareness of the country’s language, or even information on how to greet in a certain country, there are numerous new learning opportunities each day for a new immigrant. Acculturation is an additive process for the brain, occurring when new connections from a new culture are being acquired. The opposite action is subtractive as the connections which are no longer culturally relevant to the individual are removed. A big concept is learning a new language. If an individual is in full immersion of a new language (take English), their brain will be making new connections between the English vocabulary, sentence structure, and grammatical markers. As the years go on, if the individual has limited practice in their native language, the connections will start to become weak. In 10 years when they start to converse with someone who speaks their native language (depending on the age they moved) they most likely won’t forget their first language, but they will have trouble accessing certain words and freely expressing their thoughts. This occurs as the brain is ‘pruning’ and removing concepts that are no longer relevant in this individual’s day-to-day life, replacing it with the English language.

Immigration actually causes the rewiring of the brain. Culture is innate, although when you move to a new place culture needs to be re-learned. From eye contact to keeping a distance at the atm to how fast we speak and the things we say and refrain from saying, culture is second nature. The foods we are drawn to and even the types of people we are attracted to are preferences established by cultural expectations. All of these tastes are deeply wired in our brains. These are all learned, but when moving from one culture to another — concepts need to be learned and unlearned. Research shows that it takes one full generation to completely assimilate into a culture (Park & Huang, 2010).

Neuroplasticity occurs much easier for children. When babies are born, they can distinguish speech sounds from various languages, up until their critical period of sound development ends. The sounds that the child is not regularly exposed to goes through the subtractive process, as the brain is eliminating connections that are not regularly accessed. For that reason, it is best for children to be exposed to new languages early-on, as their brains act like sponges and they can easily differentiate and grasp speech sounds amongst languages. While this is much easier for younger children, neuroplasticity occurs with older adults although it may take more time. Newly immigrated children who are learning a new language will have a much easier time than their parents will, although their parents will still have the ability to learn. Adopting a new language does rewire and expand the brain, although it is important to note that after the critical auditory period, all individuals will have a harder time hearing and grasping sound differences amongst languages. For example, Russian speakers have trouble pronouncing the sound /th/ as it does not exist in the Russian language. For children who were exposed to English as infants, they will have a better chance of identifying and articulating the /th/ sound as they have mastered it early-on.

Our brains create connections from a very young age when as infants we learn to connect non-verbal cues with actions and emotions. We perceive our surrounding environments and create connections to expected behavior. Whether that’s dressing a certain way when going to church, not speaking in a certain manner when talking to a boss, and keeping a certain distance from the person in front of you who is getting money from the bank. Although the process of learning and unlearning these customs is a shock to our brains (Doidge, 2007). When meeting someone who is an immigrant, it is easy to hear about the hurdles that they have overcome when moving — whether that is learning a new language, adapting to a different communication style, or having to change careers. It is important to also recognize the power of brain changes that were made during the immigration process as well. While the topic of immigration can sometimes be controversial and divisive, it is important to take the time to hear stories, ask questions and appreciate all the neuroplasticity that has occurred.

Sources:

Doidge, N. (2008). The Brain That Changes Itself Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Penguin Books.

Park, D. C., & Huang, C. M. (2010). Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 391–400.

Snodgrass, S. J., Heneghan, N. R., Tsao, H., Stanwell, P. T., Rivett, D. A., & Van Vliet, P. M. (2014). Recognizing neuroplasticity in musculoskeletal rehabilitation: a basis for greater collaboration between musculoskeletal and neurological physiotherapists. Manual therapy, 19(6), 614

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