2012. Vol.3, No.9, 691-697
Published Online September 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 691
From the Machine Paradigm to Brain Plasticity and
How Culture Overrules Biology in Humans
Arnulf Kolst ad1,2
1Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
2Hangzhou Normal Unive rsity, Hangzhou, China
Received May 28th, 2012; revised June 29th, 2012; accepted July 27th, 2012
This paper emphasises how higher psychological functions develop dialectically from a biological basis
and how the brain changes with mental and physical activity in a specific culture due to its plasticity. A
scientific psychology cannot ignore that human consciousness exists. Humans’ higher psychological
functions, their language and thinking, have to be the core of human psychology. The psychological fun-
ctions cannot be dissolved into biological, neurological processes. The number of human activities under
biological control is greatly reduced in comparison to (other) animals. The higher psychological phe-
nomena are humanly constructed as individuals participate in social interaction in a specific culture and
are therefore cultural dependent. To understand how biology, culture and mind is dialectical related is
crucial for a reasonable psychological epistemology.
Keywords: Brain Plasticity; Mind; Consciousness; Biology; Culture; Epistemology
A significant problem for an understanding of human psy-
chology is to clarify the mind/brain relationship and how bio-
logy, culture and mind are related. Due to the complexity of the
phenomenon and the possibilities of choosing different per-
spectives makes it understandable that there are disagreement
and multiple explanations of the same phenomenon. Competi-
tion a nd debates wi ll never va nish in sci ence, and a re al discus -
sion about theories, explanations and methods is necessary and
desirable in every science.
As human beings we develop ontogenetically from a biolo-
gical organism to cultural persons. We are permanently chang-
ing and influencing each other, qualities are transformed, re-
shaped and new patterns or configurations are created all the
time, both in the mind and in the brain. Separate elements
which intervene create new elements, functions and phenomena
and they are again influencing each other. Old functions or
elements are still part of a human being, but they have changed
to another form, with another meaning and signification. New
concepts and activity develop our understanding and this psy-
chological activity also changes the brain by establishing new
connections between neurons due to the brain’s plasticity. The
words mean different things at different ages and with altered
experiences. The words enter into new connections and our
knowledge and understanding changes in accordance. The brain
has to adapt to the elaboration of the mind and change its
structure and function to represent the altering and developing
mind. The “machine paradigm” which has been a dominating
approach to the human brain cannot explain this transformation
and has therefore been under attack in recent decades. The
comprehension of the humans as a machine and the brain as a
computer excludes the possibility for human beings to take an
effective part in its own development, and it therefore cast out
of science any self-determination approach and also conscious-
ness as something different from aut omatic reacti on s .
A human being is constantly creating (new) meaning to sense
impressions. To create new meaning is also a human quality we
do not find in a machine or in other animals to the same degree.
Humans are born with an ability to create new knowledge, not
only to repeat what is already known. Both the repetitive ability
and the creative ability are necessary for human survival and
the creative ability is impossible to replicate in an objective or
mechanical way. Creativity is subjective based on individual
experience (Vygotsky, 1990) and cannot be simulated in a ma-
Perception = Sense Impression + Cognition
What is called perception in humans cannot be simulated by
a machine or a computer (Kohler, 2010). Perception, giving
meaning to sense impressions, is a fundamental capacity of
humans; it represents the relationship to the “outside” world.
The subjective reactions on the sense stimuli received from the
outside and the verbal communication with other human being
create the “inner” psychology of every individual, different
from each other and with similarities in the same culture.
The human brain is not made for objective registration. The
experience of a sense impression depends on the context, for-
mer experiences and expectations just now. The same sense
impression therefore can give different experiences from time
to time and definitely from person to person. People evaluating
the same sense impression in psychophysical studies do not see
or hear the same. They very naturally interpreting or processing
the same sense stimulus, for instance a colour or a sound, in
different manners and give it different meaning, depending on
their subjective, personal experience stored in their memory.
This is necessary and natural. This fact was actually looked
upon as a problem by some (machine) psychologists at the turn
of the 20th century, and introspection, or subjective experience,
was declared non-scientific. But introspection has to be at the
core of every psychological methodology. It tells what people
actually feels, thinks and do, the main subjects in human psy-
Contradictions and Inter-Functionality
The machine paradigm and the non-dialectical way of think-
ing is a typical Western way of reason, emphasizing a simple,
deterministic world, focusing on salient objects instead of the
larger picture. In this Western epistemology there is a prohibit-
tion against contradiction (Kolstad, 2011). There is no place for
quantitative development creating qualitative changes. The East
Asians on the other hand believe in constant change and con-
tradictions, searching for relationships and cannot understand
the part without understanding the whole. Confucians believed,
far more than the intellectual descendants of Aristotle, in the
malleability of human nature. The world was simply too com-
plex and interactive for categories and rules to be helpful for
understanding objects and controlling them according to the
East Asian philosophers and scholars. Contemporary human
sciences have inherited the Western focus on isolated single
elements not submitted to the whole, and the variables repre-
senting the isolated elements are knit together in a mechanical
or additive way by multivariate statistics in research. To gain
knowledge about complex living organisms by treating them
and their context this way gives as Kohler (2010) writes “a
distorted knowledge about real human beings”.
One of the founding fathers of sociology and social psy-
chology, Auguste Comte, said explicitly that the understanding
of nature, society and human beings that means the work in all
sciences, had to pass through three stages; 1) the theological, 2)
the metaphysical, and 3) the scientific (positive). To the last of
these he also gave the name ‘positive’, and he said that the
social sciences and psychology could be scientific by treating
social and psychological phenomena as objective “thing”. The
‘positive stage’ was introduced by Comte in his Cours de phi-
losophie positive, published in six volumes between 1830 and
1842. In Comte’s (1853/2009) historical reconstruction, the
positive state has completed the development of human mind
and human history by overcoming the previous theological and
metaphysical ones. The positive philosophy regarded all phe-
nomena as subjected to invariable natural laws and its task was
to discover these natural laws. Though there was no place for
psychological knowledge of subjectivity in Comte’s positivist
system, psychology nevertheless adopted the positivist frame-
work in which positive was identified with the scientific, and
scientific with the discovery of natural laws. Comte is best
known for his assertion that social phenomenon can be studied
by the same methods as used in natural science since there are
general laws existing in all sciences, and the aim for the re-
searchers is to reveal them by “positivistic” methods. The social
sciences and psychology could be scientific by treating social
and psychological phenomena as “thing”. Linear mathematics
and statistics also become tools for the social sciences in the
struggle to become scientific and be accepted. Today the so-
called “evidence based methods”, resting on a simple cause–
effect dichotomy and with the randomized controlled experi-
ment as the gold standard, maintain a particular epistemology in
the human sciences and contribute to the machine paradigm.
This is representing a mechanistic way of constituting a human
being and not a dialectical or “organic” way (Kohler, 2011).
The machine has been not only the metaphor, but the model.
The human sciences have adapted the empirical strait jacket
borrowed from the old natural sciences, and the modern drill in
mathematical statistics.
There is however, a distinction between the “machine para-
digm” and the “natural scientific paradigm”. To criticize the
machine as a model for humans does not imply that psychology
should not be inspired by recent natural sciences, both their
theories and methods. Theory of relativity and “chaos” theory
are both different from the Newtonian deterministic mechanics,
and especially chaos theory underlines a particular kind of in-
determination (Kolstad, 2011 ).
The Computer Metaphor and Brain Plasticity
The analogy between a computer and the human brain be-
came fashionable with cognitive psychology in the 1980s and
neurobiology/neuropsychology and brain research in the 1990s
(“Decade of the brain”). The human brain was comprehended
as a computer’s hardware; it didn’t change. Today we know
that the brain is more like a computer’s software since it due to
its plasticity is changing as a result of being used. That human
beings are able to change themselves is an important aspect
making up the difference between inert and alive human enti-
Evolutionary and Cultural Approach
Two perspectives dominate current thinking about human
similarities and differences: an evolutionary perspective, em-
phasizing how biology and human kinship makes us similar,
and a cultural perspective that emphasises how cultural impacts
make us diverse. Nearly everyone agrees that we need both:
Our genes and inborn qualities and instincts enable an adaptive
and developing human brain—a cerebral structure that receives
cultural impact and develop and increases its capacity due to its
plasticity ability to change both structure and function. Evolu-
tionary psychology has by somebody been looked upon as a
modern variant of the deterministic machine paradigm since
living species’ behaviour, human beings included, is steered by
the “selfish gene” only interested to reproduce itself. Intentional
or conscious behaviour is an illusion; we are ruled by our genes
motive to reproduction when we for instance fall in love. Our
psychological makeup, our anxieties, worries and happiness is
inherited and determined by the genetic selection process in the
past. There is no genetic determinism that can account for all
changes in living beings, and the changes in individuals repre-
sent a space of freedom before the surviving comes into play to
keep some of the creative changes and eliminate others. This is
an interesting presentation on how the evolution actually hap-
pens, and tells that in the nature (and of course in the culture)
there are principles of creativity and indetermination governing
and deciding the development processes. First c omes the varia-
tion in human individuals, either deliberately or accidental, and
then the selection. It is possible to create individuals that have a
greater possibility to survive and to spread its genes to the next
generation and this mechanism has consequences for the con-
tent of evolutionary psychology.
The Alternative
That humans are the creators of psychological reality and
that the development of human beings is dialectic and therefore
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
cannot be simulated by simple cause-effect understanding, ir-
respective of the number of causal variable included and how
“complex” the model is should be underlined in an alternative
epistemology for human beings. Dialectical thought is the op-
posite of formal logical thought. The inborn abilities make hu-
mans different from machines. To be creative in the human way
cannot in principle be simulated by a machine. And to “forget”
or to omit this ability does not make it possible to understand
what a human actually is. Vygotsky’s (1990) presentation of
creativity and imagination is important to understand human
beings, and explains how this ability works together with repe-
tition. Vygotsky presents a dialectic understanding of human
development and his focus on the repetitive and the creative,
and how humans relate to the cultural context is crucial for
understanding of human beings development.
Vygotsky: Higher Psychological Functions
Vygotsky’s (1997) criticism of the dominating schools of
psychology at his time was in some ways similar to the criti-
cism today: humans are understood and studied as determined
by reflexes, reactions and associations with little room for sub-
jectivity agenc y and cr eativity.
His solution was that scientific psychology cannot ignore
that human consciousness exists and that it has to be a signifi-
cant topic in psychology (1997). Humans’ higher psychological
functions, their language and thinking, have to be the core of
human psychology. Humans have many psychological func-
tions in addition to the ones we find in dogs and other living
organisms. Most basic is the fact that man not only develops
(naturally); he also constructs himself. The number of human
activities under biological control is greatly reduced in com-
parison to animals. Psychological phenomena, including per-
ception, cognition, emotion, memory, psychopathology, per-
sonality and malfunctions are humanly constructed as individu-
als participate in social interaction. This position, that psycho-
logy has a constructed character, does not disregard biological
influences. Vygotsky (1997) demonstrated the importance of
biology for psychology but without dissolving social con-
sciousness into biological processes. This leaves psychological
activity as something to be built up from, rather than reduced to,
a biological substratum.
The Brain’s Plasticity
Many body functions are dependent on the environment. Pro-
duction of the hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin will be
influenced by how stressful we regard a social situation to be.
Other hormones and physiological processes also react to the
environment. This dependency of the environment is not unique
for Homo sapiens, most living organisms and even elements
and physical/chemical substances adjust and are dependent on
the environment (Kolstad, 2012).
The structure and functions of the elements and how they re-
late to each other (their function) cannot be explained without
taking the environment into consideration. The combination of
Oxygen and Hydrogen has quite different structures (and func-
tions) depending on temperature and pressure. The mixture of
the two elements has different states, ice below zero degrees
Celsius, water between zero and 100 degrees Celsius, and va-
pour when the temperature is above 100 degrees Celsius (de-
pending also on the atmospheric pressure). This is an example
of a natural phenomenon heavily dependent on the environment.
The same is the case for most elements, their structure and
functions. Carbon is coal with one molecular structure when
established in one environment and diamond with a totally
different structure if established under other environmental
circumstances and in another inter-functionality. The same
element acquires a unique structure and function owing to the
impact of other elements and the environment. It also changes
structure and function through time. The human brain are no
exceptions in this respect, it also adjusts to the environment, the
social situation and to our psychological reactions. The brain
develops new capacity as a result of our experience, our physi-
cal and mental activity and how we cope with the situation. It
stores what happens and creates new ways of thinking, feeling
and behaving. This quality of the brain is due to its “plasticity”,
or ability to develop and change. Physical and mental activity
produces structural changes in the brain due to the brain plas-
ticity in humans (Kolb & Whishaw, 1998). Two decades ago
the brain was looked upon as anatomically hard-wired at birth.
In the past two decades, however, an enormous amount of re-
search has revealed that the brain never stops changing and
adjusting. So it is not really legitimate any longer to regard the
brain as a fixed collection of wired-up neurons like the hard-
ware in a PC. The interconnections between neurons are chang-
ing all the time and brain structure is more like the software.
This model explains the importance of social and cultural in-
fluences since experiences are internalized and stored both in
mind and brain. Norman Doidge stated that neuroplasticity is
“one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth
century” (Doidge, 2007).
The human brain is incredibly adaptive, and our ability to
process widely varied information and complex new experi-
ences are tremendous. The brain’s ability react in an ever-
changing ways is called it’s “neuroplasticity”. This characteris-
tic allows the brain’s estimated 100 billion nerve cells, to con-
stantly establish new pathways for neural transmission and to
rearrange others throughout life. Neuroplasticity is therefore
aiding the processes of learning, memory, and adaptation
through experience.
Neuroplasticity is not something found only in a single brain
structure or consisting of just one type of physical or chemical
event. The brain’s ability to be molded is the result of many
different, complex processes that occurs throughout the lifetime.
Different structures and types of cells make neuroplasticity
Genes, Neurobiology and Culture
So what about genetic factors? The genes make up the struc-
ture and immediate function of the brain at birth. But the envi-
ronment immediately begins to exert its heavy influence on the
brain. Every day the newborn’s brain is flooded with new in-
formation through the sensory organs. The neurons, or brain
cells, are responsible for sending that information to the part of
the brain best equipped to handle it. This requires that each
neuron “knows” the proper pathways. The genes have, at birth,
laid down the mental roadmap neurons must follow and built its
major “highways” between the basic areas of the brain (Kolstad,
2012). Environmental influence plays the key role in forging a
denser and more complex network of interconnections. These
smaller avenues and side roads makes the transfer of informa-
tion between neurons more efficient and rich with situation-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 693
specific detail. At birth, each neuron has approximately 2500
synapses or connections. By the time we have reached 2 - 3
years of age, sensory stimulation and environmental experience
have taken full advantage of the brain’s plasticity; each neuron
now boasts around 15,000 synapses (Gopnick, Meltzoff, &
Kuhl, 1999).This number will have declined somewhat by the
time we enter adulthood, as many of the more ineffective or
rarely used connections—formed during the early years, when
neuroplasticity is at its peak—are done away with.
While genetics certainly play a role in establishing the
brain’s plasticity, the environment also exerts heavy influence
in maintaining it. Take, for example, the newborn’s brain,
which every day is flooded with new information. When the
infant body receives input through its many different sensory
organs, neurons are responsible for sending that input back to
the part of the brain best equipped to handle it—and this re-
quires each neuron to “know” something about the proper neu-
ral pathways through which to send its bits and pieces of in-
formation. To make this mental roadmap work, each neuron
develops an axon to send information to other brain cells via
electrical impulses, and also develops many dendrites that co n-
nect it to other neurons so that it can receive information from
How Does Neuroplasticity Work?
Neuroplasticity work in two ways; it deletes old connections
between neurons and it enables the creation of new ones.
Through “synaptic pruning”, connections that are inefficient or
infrequently used fade away, while connections between neu-
rons that are highly routed will be preserved and strengthened.
Learning new skills and represent experiences may require
large collections of neurons to be active simultaneously to
process neural information, and the more neurons activated, the
better we learn. In response to a new experience or novel in-
formation, neuroplasticity allows either an alteration to the
structure of already-existing connections between neurons, or
forms brand-new connections. The latter leads to increased
synaptic density while the former makes existing pathways
more efficient or suitable. The brain is remolded to collect and
preserve the new data and, if useful, retain it. When we are first
exposed to something new, that information enters our short-
term memory, which depends mostly upon chemical and elec-
trical processes known as synaptic transmission to retain infor-
mation, rather than deeper and more lasting structural changes
such as those mentioned above. When we perceive the new
information as especially important or when a certain experi-
ence is repeated fairly often the structural change in the brain
will last and the new information is hard-wired into the neural
pathways of the brains These changes result either in an altera-
tion to an existing brain pathway, or in the formation of a new
one. Further repetition of the same information or experience
may lead to more modifications in the connections that house it,
or an increase in the number of connections that can access it—
again, as a result of the plasticity
Neurogenesis in Two Parts of the Brain
The brain never ceases being pruned and it establishes new
connections the entire life. Our neural connections do not ever
reach, by some age, a fixed pattern that thereafter cannot
change. Rather, the ongoing process of synaptic reformation
and death is what gives the brain its plasticity, to acquire new
knowledge and learn from fresh experiences. New research
suggests that, beyond modifying pathways and forming new
ones between existing neurons, the human brain also generate
entirely new brain cells. While this neural regeneration was
long believed to be impossible after age three or four, research
now shows that new neurons can develop late into the life span,
even of age 70 and beyond. The neurogenesis happens in the
olfactory bulb and in Hippocampus. If one’s brain is constantly
challenged by and engaged with a variety of new experiences,
while also exposed regularly to that which it already knows, it
is better able to retain its adaptive flexibility, regenerative ca-
pacity, and remarkable efficiency throughout life
According to Kempermann, Gast, & Gage (2002) neurons
are continually born from endogenous stem cells and added to
the dentate gyrus throughout life. But adult hippocampal neu-
rogenesis declines precipitously with age. Short-term exposure
to an enriched environment leads however, to a striking in-
crease in new neurons. Adult hippocampal neurogenesis in
mice living in an enriched environment from the age of 10 to 20
months was fivefold higher than in controls. This cellular plas-
ticity occurred in the context of significant improvements of
learning parameters, exploratory behavior, and locomotor ac-
tivity. Enriched living mice also had a decreased nonspecific
age-dependent degeneration. Therefore, in mice signs of neu-
ronal aging can be diminished by a sustained active and chal-
lenging life, even if this stimulation started only at medium age.
Activity exerts not only an acute but also a sustained effect on
brain plasticity.
Draganski et al. (2004) states that structure of an adult hu-
man brain alter in response to environmental demands. Whole-
brain magnetic-resonance imaging visualizes learning-induced
plasticity in the brains of people who have learned to juggle.
These individuals show a structural change in brain areas that
are associated with the processing and storage of complex vis-
ual motion. The discovery of an alteration in the brain’s macro-
scopic structure contradicts the traditionally held view that
cortical plasticity is associated with functional rather than ana-
tomical changes.
Maguire et al. (2000), who analyzed structural MRIs of the
brains of humans with extensive navigation experience, li-
censed London taxi drivers, and compared with those of control
subjects who did not drive taxi found that the posterior hippo-
campi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those
of control subjects. A more anterior hippocampal region was
larger in control subjects than in taxi drivers. Hippocampal
volume correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver
(positively in the posterior and negatively in the anterior hip-
pocampus). These data are in accordance with the idea that the
posterior hippocampus stores a spatial representation of the
environment and can expand regionally to accommodate elabo-
ration of this representation in people with a high dependence
on navigational skills. It seems that there is a capacity for local
plastic change in the structure of the healthy adult human brain
in response to environmental demands Trachtenberg, Trepel, &
Stryker, (2002) claim that new synapses in the adult cortex are
formed to support experience-dependent plasticity. Although
the dendritic structure is stable, some spines appear and disap-
pear. Spine lifetimes vary greatly: stable spines, about 50% of
the population, persist for at least a month, whereas the re-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
mainder is present for a few days or less. Serial-section electron
microscopy of imaged dendritic segments revealed retrospec-
tively that spine sprouting and retraction are associated with
synapse formation and elimination. Experience-dependent plas-
ticity of cortical receptive fields was accompanied by increased
synapse turnover. Measurements suggest that sensory experi-
ence drives the formation and elimination of synapses and that
these changes might underlie adaptive re-modelling of neural
Cultural Neuroscience
Everybody is born into a specific, but dynamic culture that
cultivates (the latin word for culture) every human being. But
what is actually culture? Culture is a term that has been given
many meanings. More than 50 years ago Alfred Kloeber and
Clyde Kluckhon (1952) presented in their article Culture: A
Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions 164 definitions. In
psychology culture is most commonly applied as the term for
the patterns of knowledge, beliefs and behaviour, or the set of
shared attitudes, norms, values, goals and practices that charac-
terize a group. Language and culture have both emerged as
means of using symbols to construct social identity. Children
acquire language in the same way as they acquire basic cultural
norms and values, through interaction with older members of
their cultural group.
Not everybody agrees with this definition. Hubert Hermans
challenges the idea that a culture is an “entity” or involves
“group membership” and suggests that a culture emerges from
patterns of meaning between people in dialogue with each other
(Hermans, 2001; Adams & Markus, 2001). There has been and
probably still is some confusion between the concepts of “soci-
ety” and “culture.” For most social psychologists, these are
distinct concepts. Society usually refers to a clearly bounded
group of people whereas culture refers to permeable and plural
human capacities and non-genetic human phenomena.
Genes, Evolution and Behaviour
The universal behaviour that defines human nature arises
from our biological similarity and in some way we are all Afri-
cans (Shipman, 2003). Researchers studying human origins do
not, however, quite agree when and in what shape the homonids
left Africa. According to the Multiregional Continuity Model,
Homo erectus left Africa 2 mya (million years ago) to become
Homo sapiens in different parts of the world (Myers, Abell,
Kolstad, & Sani, 2009). The “Out of Africa Model” claims that
Homo sapiens evolved relatively recently in Africa and mi-
grated into other parts of the world to replace other hominid
species, including Homo erectus (Johanson, 2001). In response
to climate change and the availability of food, those early
hominids migrated across Africa into Asia, Europe, the Austra-
lian subcontinent and, eventually, the Americas. As they ada-
pted to their new environments, early humans developed dif-
ferences that, measured on anthropological scales, are relatively
recent and superficial. For example, those who stayed in Africa
had darker skin pigment, a “sunscreen for the tropics” (Pinker
2002) and those who went far north of the equator evolved
lighter skins capable of synthesizing vitamin D in less direct
We were Africans recently enough that “there has not been
much time to accumulate many new versions of the genes”,
(Steven Pinker, 2002: p. 143). Biologists who study our genes
have found that we humans are strikingly similar in genes, like
members of one tribe. We may be more numerous than chim-
panzees, but chimps are more genetically varied. We also share
the majority of our genes with other species, for instance mice
(Myers, Abell, Kolstad, & Sani, 2010).
Thumbs or Language? Biology or Culture?
Evolutionary biologists have for many years discussed the
reason why Homo sapiens became a new species so different
from its animal ancestors. Most often they have looked for
anatomical or morphological characteristics, for instance the
size of the brain, the functional benefits due to bipedalism, i.e.
the ability to move on two legs, or the hand with opposable
thumb able to seize (Kolstad, 2010). The unique ability to use
language and symbolic systems were hardly mentioned by the
biologists. Focusing intently on biological changes they do not
refer to culture as a cause of selection. Because of this the evo-
lutionary biologists do not analyze the relationship between
biological and cultural development (deLima, 1997).
With Homo sapiens and its substantial growth in brain size
200,000 years ago, an accelerated change began and humans
developed spoken language, rituals, arts and ability to think.
From a biological and anatomical point of view however, we
are in principal similar to our ancestors 200,000 years ago. But
in a cultural and psychological sense there are such big diffe-
rences from our ancestors that it cannot be explained by bio-
logical adaption (Kolstad, 2010). To explain radical changes in
humans the importance of language and other cultural tools
have been accepted as a major contribution to human develop-
ment. The Neanderthals, in many ways similar to Homo sapiens
from a biological point of view, did not develop in the same
way. They missed the voice-tube and could not develop spoken
language. Even if the voice-tube had some biological draw-
backs, for instance increased exposure to choking and less ef-
fective chewing (Lieberman, 2006), it represented an enormous
enhancement in flexibility concerning production of sounds,
improvement in communication and in this way represented the
start of human beings as we know them today.
How Culture Overrules Biology in Humans
The cultural-historical tradition in social psychology was
founded by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the
1920s. He and his Russian colleague Alexander Luria were
impressed, and at the same time dissatisfied, with the research
on classical conditioning by their fellow countryman Ivan Pav-
lov. Pavlov studied learning by associations among animals,
especially dogs and concluded that the animals become “condi-
tioned” to act in certain ways by the presence of features in our
environment. Vygotsky appreciated Pavlov’s scientific methods,
but he criticized Pavlov and other behaviourists for not study-
ing the most important subject in psychology: the human mind
and consciousness. Pavlov’s work was, quite literally, “thought-
less”. To reveal that animals could be conditioned to learn
through associations in their environment did not reveal any-
thing about the specific and most interesting ability in humans;
the capability to think, to use a language and to adhere to cul-
tural norms and values.
According to Vygotsky, each individual’s consciousness is
built from outside through relations with others. When human
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 695
beings participate in social interactions they develop, construct
and create their psychological substance, ways of thinking,
feeling, remembering, their sensation and perception etc. In this
way culture becomes part of a person’s nature (Kolstad, 2012).
He distinguished between “lower” or natural psychological
functions and “higher” or cultural functions (Van der Veer &
Valsiner, 1991, 1994). The lower functions are biological me-
chanisms, such as blind reactions to stimuli as we would see in
all animals. They do not involve conscious experience. Over
time, these lower functions are transformed, and are controlled
by higher “cultural” functions. These higher psychological
functions actually stimulate neuronal growth in particular direc-
tions and create their own biological mediations, restructuring
the brain (Vygotsky, 1986; Wertsch, 2008).
This position does not leave out biological factors or disre-
gard biological influences. According to cultural-historical psy-
chology, biological phenomena provide the framework for
mental phenomena rather than directly determining them. This
leaves psychological activity as something to be built up from,
rather than reduced to biology. To be human means that you
have surpassed a level of functioning that your biological traits
would otherwise dictate (Van der Veer & van Uzendoorn,
But if human psychology is socially and cultural determined,
does this mean that the individual is reduced to an automaton
that passively receives social influences? Quite the contrary:
“The child begins to see the external world not simply with his
eye as a perceiving and conducting apparatus—the child sees
with all of his previous experience...” (Vygotsky & Luria, 1993:
p. 148). Culture does not simply regulate natural processes; it
supercedes lower elementary processes and forms the entire
content of psychological phenomena (Ratner, 1994).
Perhaps our most important similarity, the hallmark of our
species, is our capacity to use psychological tools like language.
Evolution has prepared us to talk and acquire signs and sym-
bols from a culture and make them our own. Compared with
other animals, nature has humans on a looser genetic leash. The
genetic or instinctive driving forces are overruled by what is
acquired during socialization. Our biology and especially our
brain, developed through evolution and made thinking and
language appropriation possible (Kolstad, 2012).
We humans have been selected not just for our big brains and
biceps but also for our culture. We come prepared to learn lan-
guage and to bond and cooperate with others in securing food,
caring for young, and protecting ourselves. Nature therefore
predisposes us to learn, whatever culture we are born into
(Fiske et al., 1998). The cultural perspective, while acknowl-
edging that all behaviour requires our evolved genes, highlights
human development and socialization. People’s “natures are
alike”, said Confucius; “it is their habits that carry them far
Cultural Diversity
The diversity of our languages, customs, and expressive be-
haviors confirms that much of our behaviour is socially and
culturally programmed, not hardwired. Humans, more than any
other animal, harness the power of culture to make life better.
We have culture to thank for our communication through lan-
guage. Culture facilitates our survival and reproduction, and
nature has blessed us with a brain that, like no other, enables
culture. No species can accumulate progress across generations
as smartly as humans due, amongst other things, to the inven-
tion of written language. We can pass our experiences and
transmit information and innovations across time and place to
the future generations in a unique way.
We needn’t think of evolution and culture as competitors.
Cultural norms subtly but powerfully affect our attitudes and
behaviour, but they don’t do so independent of biology. Ad-
vances in genetic science indicate how experience and activity
change the brain and establish new connections between neu-
rons (Quarts & Sejnowski, 2002). Our brain develops and in-
creases its capacity due to its plasticity.
Adams, G., & Markus, H. R. (2001). Culture as patterns. An alternative
approach to the problem of reification. Culture & Psychology, 7,
289-296. doi:10.1177/1354067X0173002
CHI Conference (2009). Guide to a successful HCI archive submission.
URL (last checked 15 May 2009).
Cohn, E., & Geske, T. (1990). The economics of education. New York:
The Free Press, 159-210.
Comte, A. (1853/2009). The positive philosophy of Auguste Comte. Ca m-
bridge: Cambridge University Press.
deLima, S. G. (1997). Will adding halves make a whole? Comments on
Ratners “Activity as a Key Concept for Cultural Psychology”. Cul-
ture and Psychology, 3, 195-210.
Doidge, N. (2007). The brain th a t changes itself. New York: Viking.
Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U., &
May, A. (2004). Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by
training. Nature, 427, 311-312. doi:10.1038/427311a
Fisher, H. E., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2006). Romantic love: A
mammalian brain system for mate choice. Philosophical Transac-
tions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 3 6 1, 2173-2186.
Fiske, A. P., Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., & Nisbett, R. E. (1998). The
cultural matrix of social psychology. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, &
G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (pp. 915-981).
New York: McGraw-Hill.
Giambastiani, B. M. S. (2007). Evoluzione idrologica ed idrogeologica
della pineta di San Vitale (Ravenna). Ph.D. Thesis, Bologna: Bolo-
gna University.
Gopnick, A., Meltzoff, A., & Kuhl, P. (1999). The scientist in the crib:
What early learning tells us about the mind. New York: Harper
Collins Publishers.
Grudin, J. (1990). The computer reaches out: The historical continuity
of interface design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Hu-
man Factors in Computing Systems: Empowering People. New York:
ACM Press, 261-268.
Gusnard, D. A., Akbudak, E., Shulman, G. L., & Raichle, M. E. (2001).
Medial prefrontal cortex and self-referential mental activity: Relation
to a default mode of brain function. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences of the Unite d S t at e s o f America, 98, 4259-4264.
Helfer, M. E., Keme, R. S., & Drugman, R. D. (1997). The battered
child (5th ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Hermans, H. J. M. (2001). The dialogical self: Toward a theory of
personal and cultural positioning. Culture & Psychology, 7, 243-281.
Johanson, D. (2001). Origins of modern humans: Multiregional or out
of Africa? URL (last checked 26 November 2009).
Kempermann, G. (2002). Why new neurons? Possible functions for
adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Journal of Neuroscience, 22, 635-
Kempermann, G., Gast, D., & Gage, F. H. (2002). Neuroplasticity in
old age: Sustained fivefold induction of hippocampal neurogenesis
by long-term environmental enrichment. Annals of Neurology, 52,
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 697
135-143. doi:10.1002/ana.10262
Kloeber, A., & Kluckhon, C. (1952). Culture: A critical review of con-
cepts and definitions. N ew Yor k: R an d o n H o use.
Kohler, A. (2010). To think human out of the machine paradigm: Homo
Ex Machina. Integrative Psychology and Behavioral Science, 44,
39-57. doi:10.1007/s12124-010-9113-z
Kolb, B., & Whishaw, I. Q. (1998). Brain plasticity and behavior.
Annual Reviews of Psychology, 49, 43-64.
Kolstad, A. (2010). Time for paradigmatic substitution in psychology.
What are the alternatives? Integrative Psychology and Behavioral
Science, 44, 58-64. doi:10.1007/s12124-010-9114-y
Kolstad, A. (2012). Inter-functionality between mind, biology and
culture: Some epistemological issues concerning human psychology-
cal development. In M. L. Seidl de Moura (Ed.), Human develop-
ment—Different perspectives (pp. 19-41). Rijeka: InTech.
Lieberman, A. F., & Amaya-Jackson, L. (2005). Reciprocal influences
of attachment and trauma: Using a dual lens in the assessment and
treatment in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. In L. Berlin, Y. Ziv,
L. Amaya-Jackson, & M. T. Greenberg (Eds.), Enhancing early at-
tachments: Theory, research, intervention, and policy (pp. 120-126).
New York: Guilford Press.
Lieberman, P. (2006). The evolution of human speech its anatomical
and neural bases. Current Anthropology, 48, 39-66.
Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner,
J., Frackowiak, R. S. et al. (2000). Navigation-related structural
change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the Na-
tional Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97,
4398-4403. doi:10.1073/pnas.070039597
Marcinkowski, T. J., & Rehring, L. (1995). The secondary school re-
port: A final report on the development, pilot testing, validation, and
field testing of the secondary school environmental literacy assess-
ment instrument. Cincinnati, OH: US Environmental Protection
Myers, D., Abell, J., Kolstad, A., & Sani, F. (2010). Social psychology.
New York: McGraw Hill.
Pinker, S. (2002) The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature.
London: Penguin.
Quartz, S. R., & Sejnowski, T. J. (2002). The neural basis of cognitive
development: About how we become who we are. New York: Harper-
Ratner, C. (2012). Macro-cultural psychology. In J. Valsiner (Ed.),
Oxford handbook of culture and psychology. Oxford: Oxford Uni-
versity Press.
Shipman, P. (2003) . We are all Africans. American Scientist Online.
Trachtenberg, J. T., Trepel, C., & Stryker, M. P. (2000). Rapid extra-
granular plasticity in the absence of thalamocortical plasticity in the
developing primary visual cortex. Scien c e, 287, 2029-2032.
Van der Veer, R., & van Uzendoorn, M. H. (1985). Vygotsky’s theory
of the higher psychological processes: Some criticisms. Human De-
velopment, 28, 1-9. doi:10.1159/000272931
Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J. (1991). Understanding vygotsky: A
quest for synthesis. Cambridge: Blackwell.
Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J. (1994). The vygotsky reader. Cam-
bridge: Blackwell.
Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Oxford: Blackwell.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1990). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Soviet
Psychology, 28, 84-96.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1997). The history of the development of higher men-
tal functions. In R. W. Rieber (Ed.), The collected works of L. S. Vy-
gotsky (pp. 1-252). New York: Plenum.
Vygotsky, L., & Luria, A. (1993). Studies on the history of behavior.
Ape, primitive, and child. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press.