Explore Culture Shock From a Neuroscientist’s Perspective

WSN sits down with Pascal Wallisch, an NYU professor and immigrant, to discuss the challenges of moving to a new country.

Professor Pascal Wallisch of the Psychology department (via NYU).

When students study abroad, they may experience culture shock — a psychological phenomenon that results from migrating to a new place. For minority students in particular, this can mean facing discrimination to an extent, or in a form that they have not before.

A recent town hall on April 2 hosted by President Andrew Hamilton and Student Government Chair Hüsniye Çöğür addressed this exact issue and the various resources — from pre-departure preparation sessions to designated staff abroad who can advise students — NYU provides to students studying abroad to prepare them for unexpected situations.

As a celebrated professor of psychology at NYU and a first-generation German American college student Pascal Wallisch provides a unique insight into the phenomenon of culture shock.

Wallisch moved to the U.S. in 2001 and immediately realized he was in a country with a very different culture than his own. He experienced culture shock and still feels moments of disorientation today.

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Wallisch spoke about culture shock in his personal and professional lives in a Q&A with WSN:

Culture shock is a term widely used by immigrants and experts alike to describe the feeling of disorientation that comes with moving to a new cultural environment. So, can culture shock be classified as a real trauma?

That depends. I think it’s fair to say that trauma is a period of high stress with the potential to cause changes in the brain, right? If that’s your definition, be it for whatever reason, like someone mugged you or someone bullied you or you were abused as a child, anything like that, definitely. I think the reality is you get this shock if it clashes with expectations you had. When I was coming to the U.S., I legit thought it was always sunny because I had seen a lot of movies that all take place in California and Florida. So, I thought it was always going to be sunny and obviously, that’s not the case in Chicago in the winter.

How does this trauma manifest in the human brain?

What it looks like is stress, in general, seems to manifest as atrophying of specific regions in the limbic system, specifically the hippocampus. It seems to be the case that stress shrinks your hippocampus. And we believe that is linked to cognitive issues of depression. If you’ve had depression, you will know that you have been like in a fog. So, it seems to be the case that that’s associated with that atrophy. We do know from rat studies and mouse studies and rodent studies in general, that this prolonged stress, as you would have in culture shock, can lead to loss of dendritic spines. There’s less connectivity in the brain from stress.

Can the trauma that results from culture shock be scientifically measured?

The problem that comes from a scientific study of culture shock is manifold in the sense that it could be [measured], but it hasn’t been. To really study it scientifically, you would have to randomly pick people from different cultures and put them in another culture. But the reality is you cannot ethically do that, like I can’t abduct someone from another culture and randomly put them in another culture.

You’ve moved to the United States as an adult from Germany to pursue your doctorate. How would you define your immigrant journey?

With every passing day — I’ve been here for almost 20 years now — there is another thing where I’m like, oh my God. Yeah, I didn’t even realize. In my first year  — I actually probably have to send apologies to people at some point — I came across as super rude because when people asked me for my honest opinion, I just gave it to them. But in America, there’s all these layers of diplomacy.

So, what does culture shock mean to you?

I mean everything, literally, every single thing that’s done in one way in one culture is done in a different way in another culture. What’s important is neither is spelled out. It’s not written down anywhere. It’s just by literally growing up in that culture, you learn these rules by osmosis.

Do you believe that culture shock is a universal phenomenon?

Honestly, I think it depends on the person. I would say the more close-minded you are, the harder of a time you have.

The negative effects of culture shock vary in degrees of damage. They range from frustration and homesickness to major depression and unemployment. Is there any real way to overcome these negative effects?

Yes. There are three factors to mitigate that. I think the first one is if you’re not overdoing it, maybe build up to that. Don’t go from an individualistic culture to a hyper-collectivist or vice versa. You want to kind of build up to that. Second thing is, as we said already, do it early. The third thing is try to keep an open mind.

Seeing as not all immigrants struggle with adapting and assimilating to their new environments, do you believe there are any positive effects of culture shock?

Yes. I do believe that if it’s mild, you get to re-evaluate everything. Imagine you were completely comfortable with who you are for 20 to 30 years. I think a lot of people don’t change unless they have to.

Do you have any advice, speaking from personal experience or from a psychological perspective, for immigrants who are currently experiencing culture shock?

First thing is, anticipate it. It’s going to happen. Second thing is, it’s going to be moderated by these three factors: age, open-mindedness and self-awareness. But also how different the cultures are to begin with.

Email Manahil Zafar at [email protected]

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