Wexler explains that the developing human brain shapes itself to the cultural environment. As a result, our outside world becomes the orientation for our inside world. Wexler calls this inner-outer world congruence the "principle of internal-external consonance." Repeated brain activities in response to the same external events establish a pattern or cycle of responses. Moreover, as we age, our brains lose some of their ability to adapt to new stimuli with different patterns of response.
Consequently, we become more resistant to change. We resist changing our inner responses to reflect the change outer world, and we become more invested in preserving consonance. This means we work even harder to make the outside world fit what makes us feel more congruent. And we do all of this without even realizing it!
When we experience a catalytic event, the new stimuli can overwhelm us and create a sense of dissonance and distress. Our brains work very hard to fit the new data with the patterns we've always held as good and true. But when the catalyst is sufficiently unnerving, it can force us to rework old ideas and former frameworks in order to manage the new stimuli.
The Chicago Urban Project
Years ago I facilitated an internship program with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship designed to provide Christian community development and urban ministry training for college students. For an entire summer, students from sundry racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds lived together in Chicago. They worked as camp counselors and tutors for inner-city children, and they had to shop, cook, eat, work, and worship in the neighborhood they served.
During the first week of the program I administered a pretest to establish a baseline for the group's attitudes, knowledge, and skills in regard to race, ethnicity, and gender. All the students already valued cultural diversity and gender equality highly, and they all strove to be on their best "diversity behavior." They used inclusive language and refused to tolerate any hint of racism. I remember one young woman who was very proud of the fact that she was the only white female in the gospel choir at her school. All of these students, in their own estimation, had already been reconciled.
Although this was impressive to my staff and me, we could see that it was ultimately superficial and we would need to dig a little deeper. So midway through the program, in an attempt to help them press further in, we took the group through an experiential learning exercise called the Race Reversal Fantasy. Little did we know that this exercise would prove to be a catalytic event for the group and nearly destroy the group altogether!
The students were instructed to imagine themselves as a member of the racial group that they were least comfortable with. As they visualized this, they were guided through a typical day and asked to envision themselves in the life of a person from the racial group they had chosen. As they progressed through their imaginary day, they were asked to notice what their physical features were like, what foods they ate, how they spent their time, where they lived, and what their family life was like.