Cultural Neuroscience

Neural processes involving basic mathematical computations seem to be culture-specific. Native Chinese speakers use a different region of the brain to do simple arithmetic (3 + 4) or decide which number is larger than native English speakers do, even though both use Arabic numerals. The Chinese use the circuits that process visual and spatial information and plan movements (the latter may be related to the use of the abacus). English speakers use language circuits. (Sharon Begley, Sharon. West Brain, East Brain - What a difference culture makes. Newsweek Magazine, March 1 issue, 2010.)

Studies: Americans tended to explain behaviors in terms of peoples’ dispositions (e.g., a person’s gender and education). East Asians tended to show a preference for attributing behavior to situational factors (e.g., environmental events). They were also more likely to use situational information to predict other people’s behavior. (Choi, I, et al. Situational salience and cultural differences in the correspondence bias and actor-observer bias. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 24, 949–960. 1998. Norenzayan, A., et al.Cultural similarities and differences in social inference: evidence from behavioral predictions and lay theories of behavior. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 28, 109–120. 2002.)

Being bilingual appears to offer some protection against Alzheimer’s? Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, studied 450 Alzheimer’s patients (half monolingual and half bilingual). Bilingual patients with Alzheimer's symptoms were diagnosed between four and five years later than the monolingual patients with Alzheimer’s symptoms. Mastering a second language appears to strengthen the brain in ways that seem to delay developing Alzheimer's disease later on. Just as a regular physical exercise program can keep your physical body in good shape well into your senior years, an effective mental exercise program can do the same for your brain. If you’re not bilingual and don’t want to learn another language, stimulate your brain daily with challenging brain aerobic exercises. (Kraft, Sy, B.A. Keep Sharp, Master More Languages, Delay Alzheimer's.)

MIT Researchers Hedden and Gabrieli used fMRI to study the brains of Americans and East Asians while they were asked to make fast, perceptual judgments. For example, participants were shown a series of differently sized squares, each of which had a single line drawn inside of it, and were asked to judge whether the line-to-square proportion was the same or different from one square to the next (e.g., a relative judgment). Then they were asked to judge whether the lines were the same length regardless of the squares surrounding them (e.g., an absolute judgment of individual objects). Although all types of brains used the same neural systems, they differed in the amount of energy expended. American brains used more energy when making relative judgments and less energy when making absolute judgments. The brains of East Asians showed the exact opposite. Their brains used more energy when making absolute judgments about individual objects and less energy when making relative judgments about relationships. (Gazzaniga, Michael S., MD. Who’s In Charge? NY: HarperCollins Publishers, p 184, 2011).

Study of category-based classification of objects: Chinese people organized objects in a more relational (e.g., group a monkey and a banana together because monkeys eat bananas) and less categorical (e.g., group a monkey and a panda together because both are animals) way than European Americans. Taken together, these findings provide evidence for the diversity of multiple-level cognitive processes across cultures and the dependence of human cognition on sociocultural contexts. (Nisbett, R. E. The Geography of Thought. NYFree Press, 2003. Ji, L., et al. Is it culture or is it language? Examination of language effects in crosscultural research on categorization. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 87, 57–65. 2004.)

Transcultural neuroimaging studies have indicated that culture shapes the functional anatomy of multiple levels of cognition in the human brain. (Han, Shihui and Georg NorthoffCulture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: a transculturalneuroimaging approach. Perspectives. August 2008. Vol 9. www.nature.com/reviews/neuro. Macmillan Publishers Limited.)

Studies of the ability of Russian and English speakers to discriminate shades of blue: In Russian there is no single word that covers all the colors that English speakers refer to as “blue.” Russian speakers tend to distinguish between light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy) and are quicker to distinguish two shades of blue that are called by these different Russian names than shades that fall into the same category. English speakers, on the other hand, designate all shades as “blue” and show no comparable difference in reaction time. (Max Brockman, Editor. What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science. p 118-123. NY: Vintage Books, 2009.)

Studies: Westerners focus on individual objects while East Asians pay attention to context and background. When shown complex, busy scenes, Asian-Americans and non-Asian-Americans recruited different brain regions. The Asians showed more activity in areas that process figure-ground relations (a holistic context) while the Americans showed more activity in regions that recognize objects. (Sharon Begley, Sharon.West Brain, East Brain - What a difference culture makes. Newsweek Magazine, March 1 issue, 2010.)

Studies: Chinese people tended to endorse contextual explanations of physical events (e.g., friction influencing the movement of an object) more often than Americans, who were more likely to attribute physical events to dispositional factors (e.g., an object’s weight or composition). (Norenzayan, A., et al. Cultural similarities and differences in social inference: evidence from behavioral predictions and lay theories of behavior. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 28, 109–120. 2001.)

Studies at Howard Florey Institute, Anthropology and Social Inquiry, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Neuroanthropology is a new field of research that can make two distinctive contributions to an understanding of the brain-culture nexus. The first contribution has to do with how socially shared meanings and practices are reflected in brain function and structure (the culture in the brain problem). The second contribution relates to the neural processes that generate socially shared meanings and practices (the brain in culture problem). All brain areas, cortical and subcortical, respond to regularities in the cultural stream of experience. However, the PFC (pre-frontal cortex) is the structure that stands first to be modified or constituted by cultural experience as it is the structure that lays culture's foundations. (Domínguez, D JF, et al. The brain in culture and culture in the brain: a review of core issues in neuroanthropology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=%22Dom%C3%ADnguez%20D%20JF%22%5BAuthor%5D)

According to Gazzaniga, author of Who’s in Charge, “social organization affects cognitive processes indirectly by focusing our attention on different parts of the environment and directly by making some social communications patterns more acceptable than others.” Researchers flashed pictures of simple scenes to Americans and to East Asians and then asked them what they recalled. The East-Asian participants tended to pay attention to the entire overall scene while the American participants tended to recall main items in the picture. This appeared to reflect some cultural differences. Asians are more likely to see themselves as an interwoven part of a big picture, whereas Americans tend to see themselves as having more individual power. (Gazzaniga, Michael S., MD. Who’s In Charge? NY: HarperCollins Publishers, p 184, 2011).

Think of cultural neuroscience as the study of how cultural values, practices and beliefs shape and are shaped by the brain and genetics across multiple timescales. This emerging field bridges theory and methods from a variety of disciplines including at least anthropology, psychololgy, neuroscience, and genetics. (Chiao, Joan Y. and N. Ambady, N. Cultural neuroscience: Parsing universality and diversity across levels of analysis. In Kitayama, S. and Cohen, D. (Eds.) Handbook of Cultural Psychology, Guilford Press, NY, pp. 237-254. 2007.)

A study conducted by Chiao in October 2009 looked at both genetic and cultural factors influencing depression. It found that East Asians disproportionately possess a genetic trait (a short allele on their serotonin transporter gene) that makes them more susceptible than Americans to depression when exposed to stress. And yet Americans have a higher incidence of depression. Chiao concluded that the collectivist culture of East Asians supersedes their genetics in helping to fight off depressive tendencies. (Sharon Begley, Sharon.West Brain, East Brain - What a difference culture makes. Newsweek Magazine, March 1 issue, 2010.)

Two decades ago, cognitive-neuroscience research that focused mainly on the neural underpinnings of perception, attention, memory, language and emotion did not compare, probably for practical reasons, different cultural groups. In the early 1990s, cognitive-neuroscience research extended into the field of social cognition, targeting the neural correlates of interpersonal and social behaviors. This led to the birth of ‘social neuroscience’ or ‘social cognitive neuroscience’ around the turn of the twenty-first century. (Han, Shihui and Georg Northoff. "Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: a transcultural neuroimaging approach." Perspectives. August 2008. Vol 9. Macmillan Publishers Limited.)

The meaning of cultural differences could be extended to include not only groups with different social contexts and languages but also groups with different religious beliefs. (Han, Shihui and Georg Northoff. Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: a transculturalneuroimaging approach. Perspectives.August 2008. Vol 9. Macmillan Publishers Limited.)

fMRI study of 17 Americans and 17 Japanese: a first demonstration that culture can flexibly shape functional activity in the mesolimbic reward system, which in turn may guide behavior. Assessed behavioral tendencies towards dominance versus subordination and measured neural responses during the passive viewing of stimuli related to dominance and subordination. In Americans, dominant stimuli selectively engaged the caudate nucleus, bilaterally, and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), whereas these were selectively engaged by subordinate stimuli in Japanese. American culture tends to reinforce dominant behavior whereas, conversely, Japanese culture tends to reinforce subordinate behavior. (Freeman, Jonathan B., et al. "Cultuer shapes a mesolimbic response to signals of dominance and subordination that associates with behavior.)  

Brain Scans: Dyslexia, a reading problem in people of normal intelligence and schooling, appears to be associated with dysfunction of the left temporoparietal cortex and the left inferior frontal gyrus in English monolinguals. In Chinese monolinguals, however, the dysfunction appears to center in the left middle frontal gyrus. In addition, compared to healthy controls, English dyslexic children exhibited reduced grey-matter volume in the left parietal region; Chinese children with reading problems exhibited reduced grey matter volume in the left middle frontal gyrus. These results suggest that abnormalities in both functional and anatomical structures of language processing might be language-dependent. (Shaywitz, S. E. et al. Functional disruption in the organization of the brain for reading in dyslexia. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci.USA 95, 2636–264. 1998. Temple, E. et al. "Neural deficits in children with dyslexia ameliorated by behavioral remediation: evidence from functional MRI." Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 2860–2865. 2003. Siok, W. T., Perfetti, C. A., Jin, Z. & Tan, L. H. "Biological abnormality of impaired reading is constrained by culture." Nature 431, 71–76. 2004. Hoeft, F. et al. "Functional and morphometric brain dissociation between dyslexia and reading ability." Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 4234–4239. 2007. Siok, W. T., Niu, Z., Jin, Z., Perfetti, C. A. & Tan, L. H. "A structural-functional basis for dyslexia in the cortex of Chinese readers." Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 5561–5566. 2008.)

Some components of facial expressions of emotion appear to be governed biologically, while others are culturally influenced. The left side of the face appears to be more expressive of emotions, is more uninhibited, and displays culture-specific emotional norms. The right side of face, on the other hand, appears to be less susceptible to cultural display norms and exhibits more universal emotional signals. (Mandala, Manas K., and Nalini Ambady. Laterality of facial expressions of emotion: Universal and culture-specific influences. Behavioural Neurology 15 (2004) 23–34 23 IOS Press. Elenbein, H. A., et al. "Hemifacial differences in the in-group advantage in emotion recognition," Cognition and Emotion (2003), in press.)

Studies: Americans made fewer mistakes when judging the orientation of a rod placed inside a frame (East Asians were more likely to be influenced by the position of the surrounding frame). On the other hand, East Asians could more accurately estimate the relative length of a line within a contextual frame. (Ji, L., et al. Culture, control, and perception of relationships in the environment. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 78, 943–955. 2000. Kitayama, S., et al. Perceiving an object and its context in different cultures: a cultural look at new look. Psychol. Sci. 14, 201–206. 2003.)

Studies of basic cognitive abilities, such as estimating duration of time, has shown that speakers of different languages differ in ways that can be predicted by the patterns of metaphors in their language. For example:

  • English speakers talk about duration of time in terms of length (e.g., that was a short talk, the meeting didn’t take long) and estimate that a line of greater length remains on the test screen for a longer period of time
  • Spanish and Greek speakers are more likely to talk about duration of time in terms of amount (e.g., use words such as much, big, and little rather than “short and “long”) and Greek speakers estimate that a container that is fuller remains longer on the screen

Interestingly, when English speakers were taught to use different ways in which to speak of time, for example using size metaphors as in Greek to describe duration (e.g., a movie is larger than a sneeze), their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. (Max Brockman, Editor. What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science. p 118-123. NY: Vintage Books, 2009.)

Studies: Cultural differences are also evident in social cognition. In a game that involved two individuals interacting, Chinese participants were more in tune with their partner’s perspective than Americans. (Wu, S., and B. Keysar. The effect of culture onperspective taking. Psychol. Sci. 18, 600–606. 2007.)

Language is central to the experience of being human. Studies have shown that the language a person speaks profoundly shape the way the individual thinks, sees the world, and lives life. Studies of the way in which an artist personifies abstract concepts (e.g., death) in human form: about 85% of the time, whether a male or female figure is selected can be predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native language. For example, Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman; German painters are more likely to portray death as a man. (Max Brockman, Editor. What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science. p 118-123. NY:Vintage Books, 2009.)

Researchers in cultural neuroscience are motivated by two fundamentally intriguing, yet still unanswered, questions on the origins of human nature and human diversity: how do cultural traits (e.g., values, beliefs, practices) shape neurobiology (e.g., genetic and neural processes) and behavior and how do neurobiological mechanisms (e.g., genetic and neural processes) facilitate the emergence and transmission of cultural traits? (Cultural Neuroscience. Wikipedia.)

Studies by Jamshed Bharucha, a professor in the Department of Psychology Tufts University: has been investigating what happens in the brain when people of different cultures hear various kinds of music. In preliminary findings yet to be published, he conducted fMRIs of American and Indian students while they listened to American and Indian classical and pop tunes. The results show completely different patterns in the brain scans, with a constellation of different brain regions operating for each of the two groups, even when listening to the same music. (Blanding, Michael. The Brain in the World – A Burgeoning Science Explores the Deep Imprint of Culture.)

Study of music processing/cross-cultural music comprehension using brain scans of American and German musicians while they listened to Western and Chinese music: found greater lateral frontal activity associated with listening to culturally familiar versus culturally unfamiliar music. In addition, one study reported greater activation of the precentral gyrus and supplementary motor area in response to Western music, suggesting that culturally-familiar music might be represented in both sensory and motor areas. However, culturally unfamiliar music led to enhanced activity in the right angular gyrus and the middle frontal gyrus, possibly because the processing of unfamiliar music requires higher attentional demands and higher loads on basic auditory processing. (Morrison, S. J., et al. fMRI investigation of cross-cultural music comprehension. Neuroimage 20, 378–384 (2003). Nan, Y., et al. "Cross-cultural music phrase processing: an fMRI study." Hum. Brain Mapp. 29, 312–328. 2008. Perspectives, nature reviews, Neuroscience p 653, Vol 9. August 2008.)

Studies have shown that the gender assigned to a noun, in that language that assigns gender to nouns, can influence the way in which individuals perceive and describe the object. For example: “Key” is masculine in German but feminine in Spanish. When describing a key, German speakers typically used words such as hard, heavy, metal, serrated, and useful; Spanish speakers were more likely to use words like lovely, intricate, golden, tiny, and shiny. The word “bridge” is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish. German speakers were more likely to describe a bridge as beautiful, elegant, pretty, slender, etc., while Spanish speakers tended to use descriptors such as big, long, strong, towering, sturdy. This pattern held true even though all testing was done using English, a language in which nouns are typically gender-neutral. (Max Brockman, Editor. What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science. p 118-123. NY: Vintage Books, 2009.)

Cross-cultural research has presented evidence for differences in perceptual and attentional processing between European Americans (who are Westerners) and East Asians. Specifically, Westerners seem to be inclined to pay more attention to salient objects than to contextual background, whereas East Asians seem to attend more to relations and contexts than to salient objects. (Han, Shihui and Georg NorthoffCulture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: a transculturalneuroimaging approach. Perspectives. August 2008. Vol 9. Macmillan Publishers Limited.)

Overall, Americans engage in more analytic perception and are better at recognizing changes in focal objects (practices and ideas in Western societies tend to require separating objects from their contexts and interpreting independent and absolute aspects of environmental stimuli. The Japanese, on the other hand, tend to engage in more holistic perception and are better at recognizing things in context. (Chiao, Joan Y., Editor. Progress in Brain Research, Vol.178 ISSN 0079-6123.)

The PDI is based on how much the citizens of a country defer to those in power. Americans, having a low PDI, are accustomed to speaking frankly to superiors as the occasion demands. A study of the airline industry revealed that South Korea has the second highest PDI of any country in the world (e.g., are much less likely to speak frankly to superiors). (Blanding, Michael. The Brain in the World – A Burgeoning Science Explores the Deep Imprint of Culture.)

Studies (by Chiao and Adams) suggest that prejudice itself has a strong neurological basis. The brain has preferences for its in-groups and tends to discriminate against out-group members. At the same time, if the cultural neuroscientists are right, such reactions can also be unlearned in time. With exposure to other cultures, perhaps, the brain can absorb different ways of perceiving and responding to the world. At the very least, being aware of how deep-seated one’s perceptions are can help people to recognize, and hopefully to overcome, some of their natural prejudices. (Blanding, Michael. The Brain in the World – A Burgeoning Science Explores the Deep Imprint of Culture.)

Studies on recall of events: Chinese people were more likely to describe memories of social and historical events and focused more on social interactions. European Americans tended to focus on memories of personal experiences and emphasized their personal roles in events. (Wang, Q., and M. A. Conway. The stories we keep: autobiographical memory in American and Chinese middle-aged adults. J. Pers. 72, 911–938. 2004.

Studies on recall of traits: Westerners were better at remembering trait words that they associated with themselves than they were at remembering words that they associated with people close to them; Chinese people remembered both equally well. (Klein, S. B., et al. Two selfreference effects: the importance of distinguishing between self-descriptiveness judgments and autobiographical retrieval in self-referent encodingJ. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 56, 853–865. 1989. Zhu, Y., and L. Zhang. An experimental study on the selfreference effect. Sci. China C Life Sci. 45, 120–128/ 2002.)

Christianity strongly encourages its believers to surrender to God and to view themselves from God’s perspective. Both non-religious and Christian Chinese participants were scanned while they performed the self-referential. Findings suggest that adopting or growing up with Christian beliefs might result in weakened neural encoding of stimulus self-relatedness but might enhance neural activity in areas that mediate the evaluative process that is applied to self-referential stimuli. (Han, Shihui., et al. Neural consequences of religious belief on self-referential processing. Soc. Neurosci. 3, 1–15. 2008. Northoff, G., et al. Cortical midline structures and processing of the self. Trends Cogn. Sci. 8, 91. Northoff, G., et al. Self-referential processing in our brain – a metaanalysis of imaging studies on the self. Neuroimage 31, 440–457. 2006.)

Self construal, the way in which one understands and explains oneself, plays a key part in social behavior and is thought to differ between Westerners and East Asians. For example, the Western ‘self ’ seems to be characterized by an independent style that stresses self-focused attention over attention to others. The East Asian self, on the other hand, seems to be characterized by an interdependent style that emphasizes the fundamental connections between people in social contexts. (Markus, H. R., et al. Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion and motivation.Psychol. Rev. 98, 224–253. 1991. Markus, H. R., et al. Culture, self, and the reality of the social. Psychol. Inq. 14, 277–283. 2003).

Cultural differences are also evident in social cognition. In a game that involved two individuals interacting, Chinese participants were more in tune with their partner’s perspective than Americans. Furthermore, Chinese people were more likely to describe memories of social and historical events and focused more on social interactions, whereas European Americans more frequently focused on memories of personal experiences and emphasized their personal roles in events. (Wu, S. and B. Keysar. The effect of culture on perspective takingPsychol. Sci. 18, 600–606. 2007. Wang, Q., and M. A. Conway. The stories we keep: autobiographical memory in American and Chinese middle-aged adults. J. Pers. 72, 911–938. 2004.)

Social neuroscience is a fledgling discipline that says the brain operates differently depending on social context. A fundamental insight concerns the basiclaly social nature of the brain. For example:

  • In monkeys, physical contact was even more important than food in determining mother-infant attachment.
  • Amphetamine increases dominant behavior in monkeys high in the social hierarchy, but increases submissive behavior in monkeys close to the bottom of that hirearchy.

(Restak, Richard, M.D. The Naked Brain. p 3-7. NY: Three Rivers Press, 2006.)

Joan Y. Chiao, a former graduate student of Ambady at Harvard and now a professor of psychology at Northwestern University reportedly coined the term cultural neuroscience. (Blanding, Michael. The Brain in the World – A Burgeoning Science Explores the Deep Imprint of Culture.)

A person’s verbalization of time appears to differ based on language. Here are some examples:

  • English speakers tend to use horizontal spatial metaphors for times (e.g., this time is ahead of us, that time is behind us)
  • Mandarin speakers tend to use vertical metaphors for time (e.g., next month is the “down month,” last month is the “up month”)
  • English speakers talk about duration of time in terms of length (e.g., that was a short talk, the meeting didn’t take long)
  • Spanish and Greek speakers are more likely to talk about duration of time in terms of amount (e.g., use words such as much, big, and little rather than “short and “long”)

Interestingly enough, when English speakers were taught to use different ways in which to speak of time, for example using size metaphors as in Greek to describe duration )e.g., a movie is larger than a sneeze), their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. Refer to Practical Applications, Cultural Neuroscience for additional information. (Max Brockman, Editor. What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science. p 118-123. NY: Vintage Books, 2009.)

Most current transcultural neuroimaging studies have compared people from Western and East Asian cultures. People from North American and European countries are considered to be Western, whereas people from China, Japan or Korea are considered to be East Asian. This raises problems regarding the homogeneity of cultural groups, because there might be country-specific aspects to cultures even within a broad cultural group. The problems become even more significant when considering factors like education and aging that might also interact with the neural substrates of culture-dependent cognitive differences. (Kobayashi, C., et al. Cultural and linguistic influence on neural bases of ‘theory of mind’: an fMRI study with Japanese bilinguals. Brain Lang98, 210–220. 2006. Kobayashi, C., et al. Cultural and linguistic effects on neural bases of ‘theory of mind’ in American and Japanese children. Brain Res. 1164, 95–107.2007. Park, D. C., et al. Aging, cognition, and culture: a neuroscientific perspective. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev.26, 859–867. 2002.)

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