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General Comments on Immigration

Losses arising from migration are particularly difficult to work through because not only is the trauma of the losses of family, support structures, roots, identity, language, status, cultural affiliation and so on itself a major hurdle to have to overcome, but immigrants in their new country are often faced with enormous cultural differences which may test them in ways completely unimaginable. Understanding and working through culture shock forms a large segment of the adjustment process and it is this which forms the major initial stages of the coping process.

So immigration entails many and varied losses which need to be worked through, as well as a massive culture shock to have to overcome

I have offered a few extract from 2 different books – the first, a short account of the enculturation or acculturation process, and the second, a neurological account of what happens neurologically in the acculturation process.

First: Shweder, R.A., (2003) Why Men Barbecue?: Recipes for Cultural Psychology. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press:

Richard Shweder in his book on cultural psychology, writes that one hallmark of cultural psychology is a conception of "culture" which can be defined as ideas about what is true, good, beautiful, and efficient that are made manifest in the speech, laws, and customary practices of a self-regulating group. Culture thus consists of meanings, conceptions, and interpretive schemes that are activated, constructed, or brought into being through participation in normative social institutions and routine practices, including linguistic practices. This also gives shape to the psychological processes of the individuals in a group.

Second: Doidge, N., (2007) The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Australia: Scribe Publications

The second extract offered is a beautiful, succinct and powerful neurological account of a brain caught between two cultures. I have highlighted some of the points which resonate strongly with me. I have modified the text to make it more immediately available in this web-site.

When the Brain Is Caught Between Two Cultures

The culturally modified brain is subject to certain paradoxes which can make us either more flexible or more rigid—a major problem when changing cultures in a multicultural world. Immigration is hard on the plastic brain. The process of learning a culture—acculturation—is an “additive” experience, of learning new things and making new neuronal connections as we “acquire” culture. Additive plasticity occurs when brain change involves growth. But plasticity is also “subtractive” and can involve “taking things away,” as occurs when neuronal connections not being used are lost. Each time the plastic brain acquires culture and uses it repeatedly, there is an opportunity cost: the brain loses some neural structure in the process, because plasticity is competitive.

Brain-wave studies that show that human infants are capable of hearing any sound distinction in all the thousands of languages of our species. But once the critical period of auditory cortex development closes, an infant reared in a single culture loses the capacity to hear many of those sounds, and unused neurons are pruned away, until the brain map is dominated by the language of its culture. Now its brain filters out thousands of sounds. A Japanese six-month-old can hear the English r-1 distinction as well as an American infant. At one year she no longer can. Should that child later immigrate, she will have difficulty hearing and speaking new sounds properly.

Immigration is usually an unending, brutal workout for the adult brain, requiring a massive rewiring of vast amounts of our cortical real estate. It is a far more difficult matter than simply learning new things, because the new culture is in plastic competition with neural networks that had their critical period of development in the native land. Successful assimilation, with few exceptions, requires at least a generation. Only immigrant children who pass through their critical periods in the new culture can hope to find immigration less disorienting and traumatizing. For most, culture shock is brain shock.

Cultural differences are so persistent because when our native culture is learned and wired into our brains, it becomes “second nature,” seemingly as “natural” as many of the instincts we were born with. The tastes our culture creates—in foods, in type of family, in love, in music—often seem “natural,” even though they may be acquired tastes. The ways we conduct nonverbal communication—how close we stand to other people, the rhythms and volume of our speech, how long we wait before interrupting a conversation—all seem “natural” to us, because they are so deeply wired into our brains. When we change cultures, we are shocked to learn that these customs are not natural at all. Indeed, even when we make a modest change, such as moving to a new house, we discover that something as basic as our sense of space, which seems so natural to us, and numerous routines we were not even aware we had, must slowly be altered while the brain rewires itself.

So what emerges from this aspect of the book is that migration requires a complete rewiring of itself – not just simple learning of new things.

There are further, even more interesting nuances. Outwardly, moving from one culture to another, very different culture, would seem to present the greatest challenge for the migrant, on the basis that the change is so dramatic. In contrast however, moving from one culture to a seemingly similar culture, would appear to be much easier, but the sting in the tail here is that the very similarities may often present the greatest challenges because of the subtleties of difference. Coming into play  here is the concept of disenfranchised grief - grief which a person experiences after incurring a loss which cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially properly supported. Or, indeed losses which are simply unrecognized. Thus, for example, wealthy immigrants who arrive with substantial financial resources which insulate them from the more immediate aspects of having to make a go of things, find themselves somewhat alone in struggling with their adjustment process. They have money - what's the big deal? Their grief is truly disenfranchised - and they often have an extremely difficult adjustment process. Added to this is the lack of the immediate need to earn enough to live - the crucial imperative which can provide a purpose and drive which gives existential meaning during the early period. Finally, in terms of an existential understanding of the grieving process as it applies here in Australia, there have been numerous articles which talk of the pain and suffering of grief and the logotherapeutic or ‘meaning’ aspect to this process. Australia is a country blessed with a profusion of wonderful qualities of life – wonderful weather, a wonderful infrastructure in so many areas, spaciousness, reliable financial and social institutions – the list is almost endless. But the very fact of its ‘success’ as a smoothly functioning society belies the fact that it might share, as with other similar societies, a lack of the ‘meaning’ imperative. Life is easy in Australia, and its very goodness lays emphasis on the good life - a focus on hedonism and the pleasure principle as opposed to grappling with the mystery of suffering and the meaning and purpose of life.

In trying to understand problems of immigration, it is worthwhile to have a brief look at how one's identity is formed, and how one's value systems are established. This has been of particular interest to me personally since I have had personal experience of it, owing to having lived in 3 different countries and having encountered dramatic shifts in value systems afresh, each time.

Understanding something about peoples' perceptions, apperceptions, constructs, biases and attitudes - their sense of right and wrong - forms the basis of any work involving immigration adjustment. People's views of the world are subjective and despite any semblance of a purely intellectual approach, people - all people - are caught up in their own heuristics - biases which entrap them and keep them locked into tight cubicles of right/wrong, good/bad. The following is a brief précis of one aspect of people’s cognitions. It is crude – by no means comprehensive – but it does illustrate the notion I am trying to convey.

How people acquire their world-view<

People build up their ideas of right and wrong as a result of the some of the following influences.







Once one is enmeshed in a particular value system, there are seeming self-evident issues resulting from the common values of that value system and some of these seeming self-evident issues may be as follows.

No murdering

No stealing

No hurting animals

No bigotry

Yet, even looking at some trite examples of right/wrong, there are fringe areas where things are not so clear and we will look at some of these later.

Much of this depends on one's views of reality and for the sake of completion, it is worth going one level deeper and actually looking at the fact that despite having examined the actuality or reality of one precepts, one level lower there is further scope to introspect - to see where we are at and how we got there.

Two major views of reality



Objective Reality is out there

Reality is Something I Create

Perception is Reception of Facts

Perception is an Act of Creation of Meaning

What I Perceive is The Reality

I Create Reality from my Perceptions

Cognition is to Apprehend the Reality out there

Cognition is Construction of Reality from Experience

I Process what is Given to me as Reality

My Reality is What I Construct in terms of Perception, Culture, Language etc.

Whatever stance we take, unknown to us, it is extremely difficult for people to get in touch with their biases and assumptions, however innocuous, because by one definition of bias, a bias is an unconscious prejudice. It is a heuristic. Here lies the trap because the immigration experience is beset by contrasting value judgements and the immigrant is constantly comparing the old and the new, and is constantly making value judgments about the differences.

A good example of the kind of competing self-evident norms which are very strongly held, are the sleeping arrangements of American and Japanese children. The self-evidently normal and nurturing sleeping practices amongst Anglo-American families would be considered clear and brutal child abuse by Japanese family standards where parents sleep in the same beds/rooms as their children until early adolescence. The idea of consigning a child to its own cot in another room at an early age is viewed as barbaric and cruel by Japanese parents – a form of deliberate, punitive solitary-confinement. On the other hand, Anglo-American families view with alarm and horror, the idea that parents sleep in the same beds as their children. Apart from the self-evidently obvious concept that it is imperative for parents to foster independence as soon as possible, there are also highly negative paedophilic sexual overtones at the idea of an adolescent child sleeping in its parents’ bed.

An interesting account is offered on page 47 of “Why Do Men Barbecue?”, in a chapter entitled ‘Who sleeps By Whom Revisited’  and headed ‘Co-sleeping: Re-evaluating the Anglo-American Stance’

Dr Brazelton poses a fascinating and complex moral question: Should children be allowed (encouraged, required) to routinely sleep in the same bed with their parent(s)? For most Anglo-American middle-class readers, the answer to that question will seem obvious: "No! Children should not routinely sleep in the same bed with their parent(s). They should be taught to sleep alone."

In the past that was the answer Dr. Brazelton gave to parents. Yet more recently he has had some cross-cultural conversations with paediatricians in Japan, where children typically co-sleep with their parents and continue to do so until they are adolescents. Now he feels “conflicted," and in his commentary he reveals why. On the one hand Dr. Brazelton believes it is important to promote autonomy and independence by forcing infants and young children to sleep alone. He also worries about the temptations and dangers of sexual abuse. And he cannot shake from his mind the picture of the sexual fantasy life of young children (desiring the mother, hating the father, dreading genital mutilation) as portrayed by psychoanalytic theorists. He even acknowledges his own personal inhibitions and inability to sleep in the same bed with a small child, which he confesses are "due to deeply ingrained taboos and questions from my own past."

On the other hand Dr. Brazelton is well aware of all those apparently undamaged Japanese who have grown up co-sleeping with their parents. And he also finds himself faced with increasing numbers of American clients who feel a ”need” to sleep in the same bed with their child. Dr Brazelton is conflicted.

Despite the conscious understanding of the subjective nature of value systems, people are trapped by right/wrong and my own clinical experience suggests that the only value-free, emotionally neutral difference which is generally accepted without a value judgment, is driving-on-the-left versus driving-on-the-right. People are able to viscerally understand that there is no material difference in choosing left or right as the 'correct' side to drive on and they do not get trapped into good/bad judgements in this area. Apart from this, everything else is often judged and often found wanting and it is this area which is addressed next.

A further interesting aside in this subject is the whole notion of cognitive distortions which are independent of cultural influences. The major pioneers in this area were Tversky and Kahneman, who have written numerous papers resulting from their extensive research, on how people make decisions. They have showed conclusively how people labour under heuristics and biases and make illogical choices, economically and otherwise, whatever their backgrounds.

A wonderful summarizing précis of a way out of our traps, is offered by Shweder on page 350:

“(The) proper course is an invitation to be slow to judge others. It teaches the discipline of temporarily bracketing feelings of disgust, hate, or condescension toward others, so as better to be able to closely examine and determine the meaning and purpose of things that seem strange, alien, unfamiliar, or different. It cautions us against the ready assumption that our own commitments, tastes, and preferences must be the gold standard for evaluating the ways of "others." But it does not rule out judgment and critique. It just makes criticism less easy, more informed, less ethnocentric.

For those who are interested in exploring this area further, there are numerous books on the subject.

Here are some of them - the books listed hereunder are grouped into rough topics but the main feature of this part of the bibliography is to give the reader some overview of the fact that the acquisition of value systems is arbitrary, and that deeply held views are often held as true and correct despite logical proof of their arbitrariness or even incorrectness.


Immigration and Culture Shock

Aciman, A., (1999) Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language and Loss. New York: The New Press

Armstrong, D., (2001) The Voyage of Their Life: The Story of the SS Derna and its Passengers. Australia: HarperCollins
Cas, J., (1979) Another Beginning: Through the Israeli Looking Glass. Tel Aviv: Dvir Katzman Publishers

Doidge, N., (2007) The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Australia: Scribe Publications
Fredriksson, M., (2001) Inga & Mira. London: Orion
Havenhand, B., (1997) Working Overseas. Newcastle: Global Exchange
Hempshell, M., (1997) Working Holidays Abroad. London: Kuperard
Hoffman, E., (1989) Lost in Translation. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Orbaum, S., (1998) But Seriously. Jerusalem: Ayalon Press
Pollock, D.C. andVan Reken, R.E., (2001) Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up among Worlds. Maine: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Said, E., (1999) The Paradox of Identity. New York: Routledge
Said, E., (1999) Out of Place: A Memoir. London: Granta Books
Shahar, L. andKurz, D., (1995) Border Crossings: American Interactions with Israelis. Maine: Intercultural Press
Treborlang, R., (1996) How to be Normal in Australia. Potts Point: Mitchell Press

Making Judgements and Coming to Decisions (often incorrect).
Some of these books ‘seem’ mathematical, but they are not. They are easy to read and are highly entertaining.

De Bono, E. (1991) I am Right You are Wrong. London: Penguin
Dewdney, A.K., (1993) 20% of Nothing. New York: Wiley
Gianetti, E. (2000) Lies We Live By: The Art of Self-Deception. London: Bloomsbury Publishing
Gigerenzer, G. (2002) Reckoning With Risk: Learning To Live With Uncertainty. London: Penguin
Goleman, D. (1985) Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. New York: Simon and Schuster
Gregory, R.L., (1988) Odd Perceptions. London: Routledge
Hughes, P. and Brecht, G. (1978) Vicious Circles and Infinity: An Anthology of Paradoxes. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Lewis. H. W. (1997) Why Flip a Coin. New York: Wiley
Piatelli-Palmarini, M (1994) Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds. USA: John Wiley & Sons
Paulos, J.A., (1988) Innumeracy. Suffolk: Penguin
Paulos, J.A., (1992) Beyond Numeracy. New York: Vintage
Paulos, J.A., (1995) A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper. New York: Anchor
Paulos, J.A., (1998) Once Upon a Number. New York: Basic
Paulos, J.A., (2003) A Mathematician Plays The Stock Market. New York: Basic
Stewart, I. (1997). The Magical Maize: Seeing The World Through Mathematical Eyes. London: Orion
Taleb, N.N. (2004) Fooled by Randomness. The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. New York: Texere

Taleb, N.N. (2010) The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility". New York: The Random House Publishing Group
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1982) Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge: Cambridge
Ward, C, Bochner, S & Furnham, A. (2001) The Psychology of Culture Shock. Sussex: Routledge

Some specific books on contentious/charming issues.

Campbell, J., (2001) The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood. New York London: W.W. Norton and Company
Hughes, P. and Brecht, G. (1978) Vicious Circles and Infinity: An Anthology of Paradoxes. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Huntington, S.P., (1996) The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster
Mackay, C., (1980) Extraordinary Popular Delusions & The Madness of Crowds. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks
Moir, A. and B., (1998) Why Men Don’t Iron. The Real Science of Gender Studies: London HarperCollins
Pease, A. and B., (1998) Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps. Mona Vale: Pease Training
Pease, A. and B., (2002) Why Men Lie & Women Cry. London: Orion
Piatelli-Palmarini, M (1994) Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds. USA: John Wiley & Sons
Shweder, R. A., (2003) Why Do Men Barbecue: Recipes For Cultural Psychology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

This last book deals with contentious issues where value systems run deep and absolute – where ideas from one society are diametrically opposed to, and anathema to the ideas of another society.

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