We tend to think of culture as something external to ourselves — as something out there, set in motion and maintained by the cumulative energy of all those other people we live and work with.
Not so. Culture is not out there somewhere; it’s right here inside us — in our brains, to be precise. Culture isn’t about what everybody else is doing, it’s about our own brain cells (neurons) and the ways they’re linked together (neural pathways), plus all the hormones and electrical charges that keep the brain system running. Culture, in other words, is ultimately a personal biological and neurological reality — an inside job.
In a blog series a couple years ago, I likened law culture to another biological concept:
“Biologist Rupert Sheldrake posits the existence of ‘morphic fields.’
“A morphic field is the controlling energy field of a biological entity – either an individual or collective system. The field is made up of both organic and psychological elements. The field is invisible, but its impact is observable. For example, both genetics (organic) and individual and collective conscious and unconscious factors (psychological) invisibly affect our behavior.
“When we enter the legal profession, we enter its morphic field. Lawyers work in the field of law – get it? There are certain expectations, dynamics, outlooks, disciplines, judgments, commonly accepted wisdom, urban legends, etc. that come with the territory of being a lawyer.
“In law school, we allowed our psyches to be affected by those things – we learned to ‘think like a lawyer.’ Our neural pathways were literally rewired, our consciousness was altered, and our physiology was affected as well, so that we were biologically and chemically different beings when we graduated than we were when we started. No kidding. This brain- and body-retraining process continued when we went to work.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was describing neurological cultural patterning. No, I’m not making this stuff up, and this series will look more deeply at how all this happens. But now, as we’re getting started, it’s useful to note several very practical implications all this has for lawyer personal wellbeing and career satisfaction. Here’s the short list:
- As we saw last time, brain-originated culture is ultimately about promoting peace of mind — what one prominent brain researcher calls “concordance.” We have an innate biological need for an ongoing, functional match between how things work in our cultural context and our personal needs and expectations.
- The culture of law as it existed when we entered the profession becomes our default cultural setting. Our brains, in their pursuit of concordance, continuously seek to reinforce that default culture and conform our experience to it.
- The trouble is, as much as our brains would like the default to stay in place, the external world is always changing, which stresses our neurological peace, which in turn stresses our personal wellbeing and professional performance.
- If we want to change our experience of the culture of law to promote concordance, we need to get to that default brain cultural setting and change it, and keep doing so as new stressors arise. To do that, we need to consciously support our brain in developing new neurons and new neural pathways. No kidding.
Coming up, we’ll look at how law culture is shaped in lawyers’ brains, and how our brains keep our default cultural setting in place unless and until we actively exert our power to change it.