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Why thinking too much can get in the way of Cultural Intelligence

davidlivermore | January 24th, 2012 6 Comments

I’ve often prided myself upon how deeply I think and reflect about things….not at the expense of action. In fact, “thinking” is sometimes a way for me to bide the time when I’m bored on a plane or tuned out during a presentation. I’m constantly reflecting upon situations and considering what they mean for me and the people surrounding me.

I’ve often admonished others to engage in a similar level of thinking and reflection as a crucial way to improve their cultural intelligence and leadership. But I’m beginning to think…um…sense that I just might think too much for my own good.

The other day I was walking with my daughter Grace across the frozen lake by our house. We were having a blast together. But while we were out there I thought about how quickly she’s growing up…my desire to make the most of her adolescence… which made me wonder whether we’re saving enough for college. And then I began to think about the upcoming kite festival that happens on our lake every February which made me think about a speaking engagement I have next month that I have to begin preparing for. Lost in my thoughts, Grace “interrupted” with her question: “Dad! Did you hear what I said?”


There’s nothing really new about this scenario, right? To be “present” when we’re with our loved ones, friends, and co-workers is en vogue language wherever I go these days.

But my friend David Rock, a thought leader in “neuroleadership” and author of the excellent book, Your Brain At Work, introduced me to the neuroscience behind my obsession with living in my head and reflecting. I’ve begun to see that all this thinking can actually erode cross-cultural effectiveness (and parenting!).

Rock refers to the 2007 study led by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto who broke new ground by neurologically examining two distinct ways we experience the world: Lost in Thought vs. In the Moment. The technical terms are “Narrative Focus” vs. “Experiential Focus”. Learning about these two different ways of experiencing any situation has been a real breakthrough for me.

Narrative Focus (Lost in Thought) is the default mode by which we experience the world. We observe something, judge what’s going on, and interpret what it means. It’s a natural part of how we’re wired.  We’re using the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain and memory regions, such as the hippocampus. It’s called “narrative” because this is the part of the brain that holds together the story by which we view the world. Some might refer to it as our worldview.

When operating from the narrative focus, I notice something and I immediately focus upon how this connects with me and my view of the world. This is what I was doing with Grace on the lake. Or this is what I often do if a friend tells me about his child who is making some bad choices. I listen with one ear but I think in my head about why his kid is doing this and whether I can ensure mine won’t. I listen to the news and fit the reporting and events into my mental categories. And when I encounter a new culture, I’m tempted to make snap judgments about cleanliness, manners, and efficiency.

It’s certainly not a new idea to me that I need to slow down from rushing to judgment if I’m going to behave with emotional or cultural intelligence. But I’ve often thought that living in my head, journaling compulsively, and reflecting on situations was a real asset to cultural intelligence. It is a valuable component. But if we’re not careful, it can actually be a roadblock—whether it’s a fun walk across the frozen lake or working with someone a world away.

Experiential Focus (In the Moment) is a way of experiencing the world that doesn’t think intently about the past, the future, or what something means. Instead, this is the practice of simply taking in stimuli as they come to our senses in real time. During experiential focus, neuroscientists find that several brain regions become more active, including the insula—a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations; and the anterior cingulated cortex is also activated—a region central to switching your attention.

This might mean sliding across the ice with Grace, feeling the contrast of the warmth of the sun above us and the cold air from below. And simply enjoying the moment of a spontaneous activity with my daughter, taking in her laughter and her questions about how the swans survive all winter…and holding at bay the thoughts chafing for attention.

Ironically, this sounds like the absence of thinking but instead, it’s a very conscious choice to not move into the internal world of our own narratives and instead, to focus on the moment at hand. That’s why it’s so hard. The brain is naturally inclined to default into a narrative focus. But as I learn to activate the experiential focus of my brain, I can consciously choose to stop myself from thinking about the upcoming work I need to do to prepare for February.

Switch Back and Forth
The goal is to consciously choose which brain circuitry is best suited to a situation. Farb found that the more people noticed the two different paths of thinking, the more easily they could switch between the two.

A narrative focus is well suited for organizing, planning, and developing goals. It’s the focus that helps us to question our assumptions and to examine our cultural perspectives against others, hence the many years I’ve spent emphasizing this type of thinking.

But the experiential focus will help us get closer to the reality of any event. It allows us to pick up on cues we might otherwise miss by perceiving more information about the events occurring around us. And it makes us less imprisoned to our own expectations and assumptions and allows us to be able to more actively respond to events as they unfold.

I expect to do a great deal more thinking…err…experimenting with this personally and with others. So expect to hear much more from me on this as it relates to CQ and global leadership. For now, I’m off for a run around the lake. Let’s see whether I can leave the narrative focus for the next 30 minutes.

This is your Brain on Culture

davidlivermore | June 6th, 2011 3 Comments

In case you weren’t already convinced that cultural differences matter, brain research proves it. Culture shapes the wiring of our brains.

Dr. Ying-Yi Hong did brain scans of American and Chinese students attending the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The students were placed in an MRI head scanner and shown a series of images, including the one below:

There was a consistent difference between the neural activities that occurred in the American students versus the Chinese. The scans revealed that the American students placed primary attention on the “object” in the picture—the sheep. The Chinese students placed primary attention on the context of the picture—the lobby. And there was a greater level of anxiety among the Chinese students regarding the incongruence of a sheep standing in a lobby than found among the American students. Hong’s findings are consistent with what many neuroscientists have found when examining Westerners’ versus Easterners’ brains.

Hong’s first scans in this study were taken shortly after the Chinese students arrived in the U.S. She repeated the experiment several months later. This time the brain activity in the Chinese students looked much more similar to the scans of the American students, which remained largely unchanged. Hong’s findings suggest:

1. Culture shapes our neurological wiring but it’s not permanent

2. Cross-cultural experiences can change neurological activations

This is fascinating material. But practitioners will inevitably ask, “So what”?

On the one hand, this gives us “hard science” to prove that culture matters. There are very real differences in how we process information. And studies like Hong’s (there are many others) prove that cultural differences are not simply imagined—they’re real. But most of us have plenty of life experiences to give us enough hard data there. Do we really need brain research to convince us?

What I find far more enlightening and revealing is the way this research validates the fact that “flexibility”—that elusive end-all, which is always promoted in cross-cultural training—really is possible. We can re-wire our brains for different cultural settings—and wire them back again. Westerners can see as Chinese do—at least in part—and vice versa.

Some promising findings are emerging from efforts to combine cultural neuroscience with the research on cultural intelligence, or CQ. From the very beginning, the study of cultural intelligence has sought to move the emphasis away from comparing cultures to learning what capabilities are needed to effectively bridge cultures. Studying cultural differences is a piece of the equation but it’s many people correctly spout of various cultural differences and remain totally inept at effectively working outside their own culture.

The research on cultural intelligence demonstrates that individuals who attend to their motivation, thinking, and behavior for cross-cultural work are able to improve the way they adjust and perform cross-culturally. Similarly, neurological research is further supporting that an emphasis on the four capabilities of CQ (drive, knowledge, strategy, and action) and the related interventions will increase the flexibility of our brains and thus behavior.

Rather than working so hard to master all the do’s and don’ts of various cultures, a far better approach is to work on developing a dynamic skill set that provides insights and effectiveness in any culture.

Take for example, the importance of being able to accurately interpret people’s facial expressions. Whether you’re conducting a meeting, negotiating a deal, or simply hanging out with someone, it’s vital to be able to read nonverbal cues. There’s a higher level of activity in the region of the brain associated with emotion processing when we’re asked to identify the emotions of people from our own background than when asked to do so for people who don’t “look” like us. Most of us were never formally taught what various facial expressions mean in our culture. It’s just something we’ve learned subconsciously while growing up in our families and communities.

Cultural neuroscientists are exploring how to help people have the same kind of subconscious understanding and empathy when interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds. Some cross-cultural approaches emphasize learning a lot of specific facial expressions as used in different cultures. But the cultural intelligence approach is more focused upon discovering how to “learn on the fly”, pick up on cues, and find ways to incorporate what’s discovered into one’s understanding and behavior. It appears that this kind of approach, together with increased multicultural interactions can elevate the level of brain activity we have when processing the emotions of those from outside our culture. This in turn will result in better cross-border management and communication.

The preliminary research on a “culturally intelligent brain” is very promising. Multicultural experiences by themselves do not ensure that we’ll increase the flexibility of our thinking and behavior. But when we do the hard work of improving our CQ, we are in fact increasing our mental flexibility, which not only improves our cross-cultural effectiveness but our quality of life and work in numerous other areas as well.

For more on the research of cultural intelligence and cultural neuroscience, visit Note particularly the article by Rockstuhl, Hong, et. al. on the culturally intelligent brain.