©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

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. Source.)

An article by Sharon Begley entitled West Brain, East Brain, was published in Newsweek in early 2010. Begley commented on the new field of Cultural Neuroscience and quoted studies by several researchers including Psychologist Nalini Ambady of Tufts University. For example, a 2006 study of native Chinese speakers use brain circuits that process visual and spatial information and plan movements when doing simple arithmetic or deciding which number is larger. English speakers, on the other hand, use brain circuits involved with language:

  • The West conceives numbers as just words
  • The East conceives numbers with symbolic, spatial freight

According to Ambady, “One would think that neural processes involving basic mathematical computations are universal, but they seem to be culture-specific.” Could this brain processing or perception difference account for some of the math genius sometimes seen in the Asian population?

NOTE: 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; people from Japan, Korea, or China are considered to be East Asian.

In 2008, Shihui Han and Georg Northoff wrote an article that was published in Nature/Reviews (August, Volume 9). Entitled Culture-Sensitive Neural Substrates of Human Cognition: A Transcultural Neuroimaging Approach, their work is proving to be foundational for Cultural Neuroscience, a term used near the end of the article. Recent transcultural neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that one’s cultural background can influence the neural activity that underlies both high- and low-level cognitive functions. The findings provide a novel approach by which to distinguish culture-sensitive from culture-invariant neural mechanisms of human cognition.

Here are examples of study findings:

1. Cultural diversity of human cognition

By comparing cognitive functions in people from Western (European and American) and East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, et cetera) cultures, the ‘culture-and-cognition’ approach demonstrates that different socio-cultural systems give rise to dissimilar thought styles. Westerners generally think in an analytical way, whereas East Asians generally think in a more holistic manner.

2. Recall of social events

Individuals of Chinese extraction 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.

3. Social cognition in playing games

In a game that involved two individuals interacting, Chinese participants were more in tune with their partner’s perspective than were American players.

4. Recalling trait words

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 participants remembered both equally well.

5. Explanation of behaviors

East Asians showed a preference for attributing behavior to situational factors (e.g., environmental events). Americans tended to explain behaviors in terms of peoples’ dispositions (e.g., a person’s gender and education),

6. Classification of objects

Chinese people organized objects in a more relational manner (e.g., group a monkey and a banana together because monkeys eat bananas). European Americans tended to organize objects in a more categorical style (e.g., group a monkey and a panda together because both are animals).

7. Perceptual processing

Westerners seem 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. For example:

  • Americans have been found to be better at detecting changes in salient objects, whereas Japanese individuals were better at finding changes in context.
  • 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); whereas East Asians could more accurately estimate the relative length of a line within a contextual frame.

The authors concluded that findings such as these provide evidence for the diversity of multiple-level cognitive processes across cultures and the dependence of human cognition on sociocultural contexts.

NOTE: Shihui Han is at the Culture and Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Peking University, 5 Yiheyuan Road, Beijing, China. Georg Northoff is at the Laboratory for Functional Imaging and Neurophilosophy, Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and Psychosomatics, Ottovon-Guericke University of Magdeburg, Leipziger Strasse 44, 39120 Magdeburg, Germany.

Refer to Brain References: Cultural Neuroscience for additional information.


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