Turning Japanese, or, How to Change Your Self’s Ethnicity in Just 1 Week

By Mark Changizi | May 25, 2012 8:45 am

Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 FeetThe Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.”

Tom Stafford, co-author of the excellent book Mind Hacks, recently wrote a piece for the BBC about one of the most fundamental principles in the brain’s arsenal. This principle is so important that it ought to have a super-excitingly electrifying name; alas, it’s misleadingly boring. The principle is “adaptation,” or otherwise called “tuning out” or “getting used to it.” In an effort to help further communicate the sorts of powers adaptation gives us, it struck me to relate a remarkable “adaptation encounter” I recently had.

In 2011 I had the pleasure of visiting Japan for the first time. In addition to fascinating neuroscience, priceless culture, wonderful food, and world-class skiing, during my week there I had the mind-blowing experience of…turning Japanese.

You don’t think it’s possible for a white person to turn Japanese? Well, you can…perceptually. In fact, although it is I who had turned Japanese during my stay, from my first-person perspective it seemed as if every Japanese person had turned Caucasian!

As Twilight Zone-ish as this may sound, this sort of transformation is well-known and commonplace. What made it so intriguing for me was the extent to which I was, by virtue of my research proclivities, consciously aware of what usually flies below radar.

The phenomenon is known as (the aforementioned) adaptation, and it applies to, well, every perceptual experience we have. Right now you’ve adapted to the level of illumination in the room, or to the brightness of your computer screen, so it is neither bright nor dark. But if you inch the brightness up or down it will, at first, appear bright or dark, respectively.

Adaptation adjusts your sensory system so that it feels like nothing to perceive the adapted-to baseline; that way we’re maximally sensitive to tiny modulations near that baseline. We’re consequently not very good at distinguishing differences far from baseline. Two distinct, really bright illuminations will just seem “really bright” given your current baseline.

This happens for everything. The smell of your nose, the taste of your saliva, the temperature of your fingertips, and even the sound of your own accent feel to you like…nothing. And as I discuss in my book, The Vision Revolution, it applies to the color of your own uncolorey-to-you skin, allowing us to ably sense the color modulations due to emotion, mood, or health on the skin of those around us.

And it notoriously applies to ethnic facial appearance as well (as shown in Professor Michael Webster’s work). We adapt to whatever face ethnicity is in front of us most often, and just as foreign-to-you accents sound accented but your own does not, other ethnicities look ethnic to you but not your own.

As I’ve discussed in The Vision Revolution, although the function of such adaptation mechanisms is for better sensing the faces and expressions around you, ethnic and color adaptation lead to perceptual illusions as side effects that are an unfortunate accelerant for racism: Adaptation makes us less perceptually able to distinguish the identities and expressions on those of other races (by virtue of the handicap at sensing the facial expressions for the far-from-baseline face). “Those people” all look the same; “those people” don’t have the emotional inner life “my people” do. (See also this.)

It’s a “side effect” because throughout evolutionary history the other people from nearby tribes we would have encountered were likely to have been from the same race–in fact, they would have likely been close relations.

And it’s an “illusion” because “those people” aren’t more similar to one another than the people in your own ethnic group – it’s your perceptual adaptation mechanisms that make it seem so.

And so about my trip to Japan. I was there only one mere week, and yet by its end some sort of averaged Japanese face had become my new baseline (or at least my perceptual baseline had shifted significantly toward it).

The first-person experience for me was fascinating—exhilarating even. Japanese people no longer looked Japanese at all. They had become baseline.

In fact, to my eyes, the best description I can give is that everyone there seemed…Caucasian. As a Caucasian in a Caucasian-majority society, Caucasian has been my perceptual baseline all my life. Although I had never quite noticed, just as my own accent doesn’t sound accented to me, Caucasian faces (especially those I regularly experience) don’t seem ethnic. But now the Japanese face had lost its perceptual feel of ethnicity, and it thereby seemed strangely like Caucasian faces seem in my life at home! Furthermore, when I did occasionally stumble upon an actual Caucasian face, it now seemed strangely ethnic, because of their obvious differences from the norm.

These baseline shifts gave the perceptual results for which they’re designed: I could much better distinguish among Japanese faces.

But, to my surprise, Japanese faces hadn’t simply become the norm. The faces in my temporary Japanese world now fell into the sorts of higher-resolution categorizations I already automatically carry out among Caucasians: the horsey faced, rugged-cowboy, lawyer-gray, big-necked bruiser, Robert-Deniro-looking, British-looking, and thousands of other tiny perceptual characters I have for Caucasians.

Japanese had transformed into the Caucasian role, and filled my massive network of micro-characterizations originally built for the Caucasian faces usually around me.

I had, so I think, perceptually become Japanese.

Such are the powers of adaptation.


Japanese-style image: Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
  • wanwan

    interesting article. I wonder if everyone can stand both sides of perception, for example Caucasian and Japanese, or not.

  • LS

    Isn’t this cultural appropriation via theories of “science”?

    “In fact, to my eyes, the best description I can give is that everyone there seemed…Caucasian.”

  • Steven M

    That’s what happens in the novel, “Oil for the Lamps of China”. An American salesman in China around 1900 eventually wonders: how could anyone think that all Chinese looked alike?

  • AG

    Good post.

    That is how brain washing works – adaptation. Also your sense of beauty and taste can adapt too. Hollywood had white washed the world to believe any thing western as standard and beauty.

  • Kaviani

    Verily, LS.
    I’m curious how this entire ethnicity views its self-declared noob as well.

  • Cynthia

    Ahahaha. Sounds like Stockholm Syndrome to me

  • whatisthewhat

    The stuff about the baseline norm-referencing is interesting but I’m surprised by the unwitting arrogance with which the writer thinks something as deep and troublesome as racism can be explained away by what the eyes see. The article isn’t really about racism, but as an academic, he ought to have been more careful when breezily fancying himself as someone who had “perceptually become Japanese.” He says he saw Caucasians everywhere after baselining his reference for race, as if seeing people like himself everywhere is supposed to be really neat and embraceable. This sounds dangerously like “post-racial” pseudo science.

  • T

    I’ve spent some time in Japan, and know quite a few people who’ve spent many years there. I also know a number of Japanese people who’ve come here (usually in the form of semester/year abroad or older people people volunteer teaching). More than a few of the Japanese people reported something pretty similar to what was described in this post. When an older Japanese woman came to visit, she brought her daughter, who speaks little English and had never been to the US or any country with a significant number of Caucasian people. After a couple of weeks, the daughter told me that the thing that most surprised her about “culture shock” was that all of the Caucasian people looked alike (not a literal translation, but that was the idea).

    An exchange student from the Middle East said something similar during a group discussion about acclimating to another culture – his neighbors were both Caucasian women with shoulder-length brown hair, and it took him some time to distinguish the two using JUST sight. The other people from the Middle East in his English class? No problem. There are some Saudi women that I see regularly, and one day, I saw three of them in the women’s restroom. They had taken off their hijab/nikab, as there were no men there to see them. I had a full-blown Chris Tucker “y’all look alike” moment in my head, and it must have been obvious, since one started laughing and said “I wear the blue hijab”. I was so embarrassed, but they said that they’d had moments like that when they first came to the US.

    TL;DR: This sort of thing happens a LOT, and not just among Caucasian people from North America. It’s one of the first steps in the “de-otherizing” process.

    While I think LS and Kaviani missed the forest for the trees, I have to agree that it came off a bit too Mighty Whitey to ignore in some places. I think the main reason for this is the “punchline”…excuse me, the headline and the shoehorning thereof. For anyone not in the know/too young to remember, a British group called The Vapors had a hit in the 80’s called “Turning Japanese”. If the strained references to this catchy-but-somewhat-juvenile song went away (i.e. “turning” into one or the other group), I think the queasiness would go away as well. I’m sure Discover Magazine’s readers can handle a boring headline that doesn’t hurt the content.

  • http://arts.rpi.edu/~kagan Larry Kagan

    Is that why I don’t hear myself snoring?

  • Pingback: Changizi News « Changizi Blog()

  • http://asefixesscience.wordpress.com/ Åse

    This is a great description of this effect. I would just to add my own anecdote (well, I do some research here). I grew up in Small Town Sweden. We all look alike, so usually we distinguish each other on the basis of “who talks funny”. At least, we did (I now live in a place where everybody talks funny, so my kids have hybrid accents in both english and swedish). And, from what I understand (have to look it up) talking funny used to be how you knew someone was not, you know, quite as human as you and your buddies are (shiboleth anyone?).

    I move to LA. Suddenly, I’m exposed to a much broader range of people. Chinese and japanese people cease to all look alike (not sure if everyone looks… caucasian, more that I have a broader range of individuating). Of course, I talk funny, but this is LA, and my accent is now “cute” or “exotic”.

    Another odd thing is, even if I’m an immigrant who talks funny, I end up being classified as belonging to the majority white population. OK.

    But, then I unexpectedly moved back to Sweden (faculty position). I was interested in looking at effects of ethnicity and attitudes (negative or positive), and the black white thing that is so big in the US, really isn’t the focus in Sweden, so I decide to immigrants from middle-east as my target outgroup. Except, after all these years in the US, all the stimulus faces look like white americans to me. So, I actually had to pilot-study my stimulus material to see how my standad studen group looked at the faces. (I do get effects, which is interesting. Now, I’m trying to use an immigrant population instead.)

  • http://www.usedjeepwranglersforsale.org/ Craig Dowson

    An interesting adaptation. And it has a permanence. As soon as I started to read the article I was taken aback at the suggestion that Japanese are different from me in any substantial way other than language. And yes, I was in Japan for only a week. Same goes for any other group that I have been in similar contact with. I find myself quite comfortable with Japanese, Chinese, Latin Americans, etc, and have found myself startled that someone thinks of me as the one who is different. Hmmm.

  • http://www.bangkoksightseeing.org Mike

    Haha, looking Robert-DeNiroish, that’s a good category. The same thing happened to me in Thailand. And even with food. At first, every soup tasted kind of the same to me (too spiiicyy!!!) but after a while I learned to manage the spiciness and appreciate the different variations of soups much more.

  • naomi

    Flashy title designed to lure readers in? Check. Common knowledge being touted as “mind-blowing”? Check. Soft science and overstated stories from the author’s life designed to make this science easy enough for the unwashed masses to understand? Check. Promotion of the author’s own book? Check.

    As I suspected, it’s the rom-com of science writing. Yawn…

    And by the way, Mr. Changizi, my skin does not look “uncolorey-to-me.”

  • http://NotionsCapital.com Mike Licht

    It goes without saying that Japanese people still regarded you as … “other.”

  • Hansa Schnyder

    The exact same thing happened to me when I went to Japan for a semester. Gradually Japanese faces reminded me of friends back home (- Japanese baseline + Caucasian baseline).
    But the oddest and most unpleasant part was, the longer my stay continued the bigger my nose grew.

  • Cathy

    Heh, I was also just in Tokyo for a week. For me, I never really thought different faces looked alike. Instead, my adaptations were all based around the tiny little cultural norms of the train system. Immediately getting on the left side of an escalator. Scrambling for a seat when folks got up to get off at the next stop. Lining up neatly on the edges of the doors so that people getting off the train could exit more swiftly. Learn that “person entry” on a train meant that someone had likely committed suicide…. (or “Chuo-cide” as my host derisively called it, as the Chuo rapid express was the favorite target of suicidal people because it was the fastest train in Tokyo proper.)

    I’ll never ride the DC Metro or BART the same way again.

  • Kaviani

    SNAP, Naomi! Yes, Discover blogs are turning into shill stations these days. That this is flippantly fetishized makes it that much more dubious.

  • floodmouse

    In university, my research work in history was on white missionaries working among a population of Native Americans. I also did some reading about missionaries in China, and just a smattering about missionaries in Africa. It was commonly reported that the white children of missionaries, going to school surrounded by Native American or Chinese faces, would regarding themselves as the ones who were different, and their classmates as the ones who were normal. (This sometimes upset the missionaries, who didn’t want their kids “going native.”) I also visited Kenya once. Unfortunately I can’t say I had a full immersion experience, since I was surrounded mostly by a white tour group, but I did have the experience of starting to appreciate differences I had never noticed before among black Africans (faces, body types, and personality).

    I appreciate Mr. Changizi’s post for bringing to my attention the neuropsychological basis for this phenomenon. As a recovering liberal arts major, I read Discover magazine partly to learn the science behind things I already think I know – and to disillusion myself about the rest. Thank you to everyone for sharing all their personal experiences of travel. It’s interesting to hear about places I’ve never been.

  • john

    my wife and i were reared in los angeles cal. we as very adults lived in dominican republic for 6 months, living as dominicanos (with some, not much, money.) i had lived in argentina for nearly 3 years as an argentine and annually returned for two months to renew my castellano, che. i easily adapt to my environment.

    to both of us after a few wks the dominicanos were no longer dark. they looked like me/us so to speak. i didn’t see dominicanos as “caucasian” but rather i thought i looked like them. she had a hard time adjusting to the culture (i.e., poverty) but slowly she was becoming dominicana.

    same thing happened to me in argentina as a young man; i didn’t know any spanish when i moved there. i learned castellano porteno in bs as, then moved to the North. after a while i began to speak castellano like “a native” which confused a lot of argentines because i was obviously a native, i looked like them (and they looked like me) but i wasn’t “quite an argentino” from their neighborhood/city/province because of my accent. all in 3 months.

    todavia, soy argentino. chevere

  • Kim

    I like the Cool observations of mental adaptation and the mention of the time frames in which the adaptations occurred both in the authors writing and guest responders. I wonder if the changes are age related …the younger you are the faster you adapt? I also wonder if living in a large city would change the impact?

  • Vickie

    Yes yes yes. This is what I’ve been saying to all those “do-gooders” who show up in Hawaii and immediately start instructing everyone on Political Correctness and how we all are supposed to do the “asian-american” and all the other contrived mainland naming games.

    In Hawaii (a VERY Asian place) we are all alike. WE choose to rattle off our ancestries because we are proud of them – “Filipino-chinese-Hawaiian, what are you?” is a common conversation as a point of connection. Because we don’t see what mainlanders see. If you think one week in Japan changed you, consider what a decade or two does to a mainland Caucasian who moves there. We look at all the handwringing about PC with some confusion. Few people in Hawaii feel they need to be “protected” by not mentioning what their race is. In fact, when we get that lecture, we are slightly annoyed. The message to someone in Hawaii when we hear about using those hyphenated -american phrases is that somehow the person speaking is criticizing the ancestry as if there is something wrong with it. “Don’t let her know she’s Japanese, she might get offended!”

    And YES – this has to do with adaptation. Once you live in Hawaii for even a month you begin to understand the saying, “we are all related.” The baseline shifts and you are always surrounded by a multitude of multi-culturally mixed people. More than 50% if all new marriages in Hawaii are multi-racial. So no one gets to claim victimhood. (Although some do try, and often those are agitators from the outside. Or those who have a hidden agenda.)

    I was in shock when I moved to the mainland after 4 decades in Hawaii. I’m caucasian, but it was shocking to see so many white faces. My kids are part-Hawaiian and one of them is very dark because she surfs all the time. She also carries my red hair gene, so that makes for an interesting and exotic picture. But in Hawaii that’s normal. They call it “ehu hair.” My theory is that there are many Hawaiians with the red hair gene because as some UH studies show the Vikings may have had an outpost there circa 900 AD, and the Viking Ship project is studying that now as well… http://www.kilts.co.nz/longship.htm

    Adaptation? We are all one. We all descended from the explorers and wanderers from around the planet. Perhaps we recognize each other after a time in proximity because we recognize our own relatives through the mask of different eyes and skin/hair colors.


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About Mark Changizi

Mark Changizi is the director of human cognition at 2AI Labs and the author of several books, including Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and The Vision Revolution.


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