Side view of a cross section of a human brain in glass

How the West came to dominate our brains

It’s a weird, weird world.

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No matter how normal or not you may think your brain is, it’s almost definitely been influenced by a W.E.I.R.D. (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) world.

David Duprey/AP Photo

About 1,500 years ago, the world was a very different place. Pope Gregory was spreading Catholicism far and wide, a plague was running rampant, and some dominoes were about to start falling.

The end of that cascade would end up in a world where a certain group of people started to think quite differently from those who had come before them. Their brains began to change, the societies they built thrived and they grew so influential and culturally dominant that their way of thinking permeated our entire psychology. In other words, it created W.E.I.R.D. people — a Western, educated, industrialized, rich and Democratic population that grew into a global powerhouse.

That’s according to Joseph Henrich, chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and author of “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.” He writes that people who learn to read, who are educated in a Western way — no matter where they live in the world — have brains that look and think unlike more traditional human brains.

Main takeaways

  • People who were raised in Western ways, and live in and were educated by industrialized, rich, democratic societies are not representative of the entire world nor of our human ancestors. The ways in which they process numbers, recognize faces, exercise patience, and understand directions are distinct from those who were raised in cultures that don’t fit into the WEIRD categories.
  • Participants in psychological studies around the world are almost exclusively members of this W.E.I.R.D. group, which raises doubts about how well psychologists can generalize their conclusions to all of humanity. This can have big consequences when faulty findings about things like behavioral economics are used to make policies.
  • According to Henrich, the reason the West came to be so powerful in the first place can be traced back to a domino effect starting with marriage about 1,500 years ago. With the Catholic Church’s ban on familial marriages, kinship and clan systems began to break down in importance in Western societies, and the nuclear family took its place. This led to a new emphasis on individualism that lent itself to a whole host of new traits, such as being analytically-minded and inventive. This then allowed for a rise in science, representative governments and a huge amount of innovation, which led to the West dominating the world.
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