Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective

August 3, 2010

Where you grow up can have a big impact on the food you eat, the clothes you wear, and even how your brain works. In a report in a special section on Culture and Psychology in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientists Denise C. Park from the University of Texas at Dallas and Chih-Mao Huang from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discuss ways in which brain structure and function may be influenced by culture.

There is evidence that the collectivist nature of East Asian cultures versus individualistic Western cultures affects both brain and behavior. East Asians tend to process information in a global manner whereas Westerners tend to focus on individual objects. There are differences between East Asians and Westerners with respect to attention, categorization, and reasoning. For example, in one study, after viewing pictures of fish swimming, Japanese volunteers were more likely to remember contextual details of the image than were American volunteers. Experiments tracking participants' revealed that Westerners spend more time looking at focal objects while Chinese volunteers look more at the background. In addition, our may play a role in the way we process facial information. Research has indicated that when viewing faces, East Asians focus on the central region of faces while Westerners look more broadly, focusing on both the eyes and mouth.

Examining changes in cognitive processes—how we think—over time can provide information about the aging process as well as any culture-related changes that may occur. When it comes to free recall, , and processing speed, aging has a greater impact than does culture—the decline in these functions is a result of aging and not cultural experience. Park and Huang note that, "with age, both cultures would move towards a more balanced representation of self and others, leading Westerners to become less oriented to self and East Asians to conceivably become more self-focused."

While numerous studies suggest that culture may affect neural function, there is also limited evidence for the effect of cultural experiences on . A recent study conducted by Park and Michael Chee of Duke/National University of Singapore showed evidence for thicker frontal cortex (areas involved in reasoning) in Westerners compared to East Asians, whereas East Asians had thicker cortex in perceptual areas. Park and Huang observe that using neuroimaging to study the impact of culture on neuroanatomy faces many challenges. They write, "The data are collected from two groups of participants who typically differ in many systematic ways besides their cultural values, rendering interpretation of any differences found quite difficult." In addition, for each study, it is important that the MRI machines use identical imaging hardware and software.

The authors conclude, "This research is an important domain for understanding the malleability of the human brain and how differences in values and social milieus sculpt the brain's structure and function."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Half of people believe fake facts

December 7, 2016

Many people are prone to 'remembering' events that never happened, according to new research by the University of Warwick.

MRI scans detect 'brain rust' in schizophrenia

December 7, 2016

A damaging chemical imbalance in the brain may contribute to schizophrenia, according to research presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology Annual Meeting in Hollywood, Florida.

Helping children achieve more in school

December 7, 2016

Not all children do well in school, despite being intellectually capable. Whilst parental relationships, motivation and self-concept all have a role to play, a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology ...

Want to give a good gift? Think past the 'big reveal'

December 6, 2016

Gift givers often make critical errors in gift selection during the holiday season, according to a new research article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (2) Aug 03, 2010
No mention of the possibility that genetics could be playing a role? It's impossible to believe anything in this article without some assurance that they tested caucasians raised in china or chinese raised in the US to eliminate the genetic variable...
5 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2010
Still, we need SOME way to adjust human behavior, especially in the area of selfish greed. So it's worth looking at. Seventh generation and all that. Global warming, consumerism, hyperindividualism, laicite, et al.
not rated yet Aug 03, 2010
...can you see it, touch it, feel it, hear it or taste it? And...if the brain doesn't recognize the effects of culture, whether present or thinks that 'culture' as it is becomes a factor of simple (basic) awareness very quickly. So, I think that culture becomes awareness - as being precipitated by an accumulation of physical and environmental situations. Ones choices then it seems, in their dealings with environmental and physical factors, would really be more apt to supercede culture...for culture is 'not had' if the wrong choices preempt its recognition and assimilation. The brain is 'wired' regardless. I dunno, maybe I'm neither an East Asian nor a Westerner...y'know? Is the recognition of that cultured?
5 / 5 (1) Aug 04, 2010

lets see.. i am of latvian and middle european descent at a time when it wasnt kitshe to eat from everywhere.

however, i am married to an indonesian. so i have eaten things which would disprove their theory.

that is, they are basing their theory on a majority behavior and selectively ignoring refutations.

the fact that i now eat durian, and other things that i have had zero exposure to kind of screws things. (as the same for others all over the world. especially immigrants that come here, and then like our food over their food. this happens with my wife)

i have also eaten dried small fish like potatoe chips. something also westerners dont tend to like.

the more they do work liek this the more we are in the old soviet union.
not rated yet Aug 04, 2010
@Art, for some reason, I don't believe the article is talking about food.

I believe that art is a good indicator of this phenomenon: An eastern mindset tends to paint entire living landscapes in context with the object of focus while a western mindset tends to be zoomed in upon the object of focus while leaving the contextual background relatively bland.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.