by Danny Recio, Ph.D.
Cultural immersions have been historically perceived and studied as a negative, kind of shocking experience (aka “culture shock”), but research now tells us quite the opposite: that these experiences can help us grow beyond what we ever imagined! Intercultural encounters can help us shift and restructure our mental structures, allowing us to make significant growth and life changes.
In our brain, learning happens through the creation of mental structures called schemas. These structures are very useful because they allow us to be more efficient in processing and making meaning of the world around us, which in turn allows us to respond more efficiently to life’s challenges. On the other hand, schemas create blindspots. As we use existing schemas to assess new situations, our brains may ignore or overlook important incoming information and misjudge it, thus behaving in ways that ignore or overlook more beneficial alternatives.
We reinforce schemas through a process called “assimilation”, but can morph or add new schemas through a process called “accommodation”. Accommodative learning contributes more to personal development, as it allows us to change our cognitive structures to adapt to new life conditions and keep on growing. If you want to learn more about schemas, assimilation and accommodation, watch this short video by ByPass Publishing:
As people make more and more accommodative leaps, their schemas grow, and the connection between these structures does too, leading to the development of a highly useful cognitive skill called integrative complexity. Those who possess this skill can take in many perspectives on a situation, collect information from all those perspectives, and come up with efficient and effective solutions to life problems. Research has recently revealed that cross-cultural immersions can lead to the development of higher levels of integrative complexity, because when you interact with people with different schemas, traditions, lifestyles, and worldview, these challenge you to expand and adjust your own. Watch our students reflecting on their cultural immersions, and how they have changed their worldview:
With regards to psychological and emotional growth, the skill of integrative complexity can be very useful, as when people are struggling in these areas, they are often stuck repeating unhealthy patterns, are failing to see or act on other alternatives and thus their solutions to life problems end up being inefficient. However, when they are deliberately exposed to other cultures through a person-centered therapeutic experiential learning approach such as our supportive immersion model, they discover new ways of being that break through old schemas, and build new and more efficient ones.
Through our experience with our students in conjunction with the literature available, we have found four main benefits that come from cross-cultural supportive immersions: