In the past few decades, scientists have successfully unveiled the mystery of the chromosome map and acquired unprecedented genetic engineering skills. Now they are beginning to make advances in brain science, which is closely related to psychology. In order to perceive how the human brain works and how humans behave, scientists are conducting various experiments. And the results are quite intriguing and enlightening.
Psychology is now beginning to flourish in Korea. For example, psychology is a popular major at colleges; counseling is being widely practiced at secondary schools; and post-traumatic stress disorder has become a common term in Korean society.
Furthermore, Dr. Paul Whalen of Dartmouth University, a preeminent expert on human expressions and brain science, has expressed interest in the traditional Korean mask called the Hahoe Tal. Our brain is known to express five basic emotions on our face ― anxiety, surprise, anger, pleasure, hate, and sorrow. Dr. Whalen finds more complex feelings on Hahoe Tal such as satire, sarcasm and sadness, even though the mask is laughing.
I personally find experiments that explore the psychology of social hierarchy the most interesting. One particularly amusing experiment examines the social lives of mice. A psychologist put three mice in one box, which was connected to another box containing food. The passageway between the two boxes, however, was filled with water. Thus, the mice could only obtain food by swimming to the other box.
Perceiving the situation, the mice took on the roles of the leader, the loyal subject and the indifferent one. The leader would not bother to swim across the water to get food; the loyal subject would do the job for him. The indifferent mouse did not care about the leader; he would simply fetch food for himself. Quite interestingly, when the psychologist took the leader out of the box and added another mouse, immediately, the loyal one took on the role of the leader, and the newcomer took on the role of the loyal subject. The indifferent mouse remained the same. The same patterns can be found in human society as well.
Another intriguing experiment by Dr. Bruce Alexander demonstrates the effects of stress. He put one group of mice in a small, confined box and another group of mice in a spacious, luxurious box that he called “Mice Park.” Then he provided an irresistibly sweet and tempting morphine drink and ordinary water side by side to both groups of mice. The mice in the confined space guzzled the morphine drink and did not touch the ordinary water. On the contrary, those living in “Mice Park” were not interested in the sweet morphine drink.
The above experiment indicates that those who are under stress are inclined to drugs, while those who are comfortable and happy are not. Of course, not all of those who experience stress will turn to drugs. If you have many ways to reduce stress, it is likely you will not resort to drugs. On the contrary, if you find it difficult to ventilate your stress, you may be more inclined to turn to drugs.
Perhaps one reason why drugs are not much of an issue in Korean society yet, despite the fact that general dissatisfaction runs high, is that Koreans have a number of ways to let out their stress, such as visiting bars and karaoke rooms, or participating in street demonstrations. Some advanced countries suffer drug problems probably because the people do not have as diverse channels through which they can freely release their stress.
A Korean psychologist recently told me about an interesting experiment. A proctor brought a Korean mother and her child into a room and had the child take a rather difficult quiz. When the child began to struggle with the quiz, the Korean mother instantly became anxious and agitated. After a while, when the proctor intentionally left the room, the mother rushed to the test sheet and solved the quiz by herself, muttering to her child, “Stupid!” The same proctor invited an American mother and her child in another room, and had the child take the same difficult quiz.
Naturally, the child found the quiz difficult, but the American mother was composed and unruffled. When the proctor deliberately left the room, leaving them alone, the American mother encouraged her child calmly, “Come on and try harder. You can do it.”
The psychologist suggests that the experiment shows some Korean mothers tend to over-involve themselves in their children’s lives, fostering mama’s boys and girls. When I proposed, half sarcastically, that we should promote the image of the Korean mother as a cultural icon, I certainly did not mean Korean mothers are better than mothers in other countries; I just meant Korean mothers are unique, and the uniqueness stems from both positive and negative cultural phenomena. In fact, who would deny that all mothers are great and sacrificial?
As humans are complex, sophisticated beings, the world of psychology is quite fascinating. What wondrous world psychology and the brain sciences shall unveil remains to be seen. Surely, however, it will be marvelous.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com. ― Ed.