Vision and Culture: A Neuroanthropological Approach

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By Farah Britto

Eye image
What do you see when you watch TV? A movie? Do you perceive staring into a screen that when not lit up is simply a dark, flat abyss? Or, when deeply absorbed in a film you are watching, do you believe that you are a part of the story- there with the characters on their adventure?

When you take a step back from the act of watching television or films, the materiality of it becomes clear. When dark, the television is a fixture in the home. When it turns on, it becomes a cultural narrative that changes depending on the household in which it lives. The unique thing about watching television in an American home or films in an American theater is that even with many other people in the room, it is still a personal experience- between you, your eyes, and your brain.

The Current Debate

Scholars studying vision focus on two kinds of experiences: visual awareness (O’Regan and Noë 2001) and the neurological mechanisms and processes that make vision possible (Marr 1982). The latter approach focuses primarily on the neural, wherein, “the central aim of all research was a functional analysis of the structure of the central nervous system” (Marr 1982:14). The former perspective puts less of an emphasis on what is happening in the brain, as it does not provide any meaningful information relating to lived experience, since “the experience of seeing itself cannot be equated with the simultaneous occurrence of any neural activity” (O’Regan and Noë 2001:968).

Will knowing the mechanisms of vision change the way you see or experience the world? Probably not. Although understanding the biology of the brain and the idiosyncrasies of firing neurons are interesting, what kind of knowledge can it provide? How can it help answer questions about humans’ experiences with vision and what vision can do for us culturally?

Moving Beyond the Body and the Brain

I ask these questions because I’m interested in a very particular kind of visual experience. Watching films and television programming is unique in that the visual awareness that occurs during this activity does not result in any particular action by a person, and yet the practice of watching a film is not merely passive, either. Take a look at the following video clip. While you’re watching, think closely about what you are doing while the video is playing. Are you sitting still? Standing, moving? Wearing headphones?

Now, after watching the video, can you recall, in detailed terms, what you saw? Did you understand what you were seeing?

This example shows that although you were not physically involved in an action, you were engaged in an action happening onscreen. You were conscious of what was happening and can now recall with detail what you’ve just witnessed. To understand how visual understanding is perceived cross-culturally, the next step in this example could be to ask several individuals, of different backgrounds from different parts of the world, what they can recall in the clip. Would their explanations be the same? What kind of prior knowledge is required to provide an explanation? Do these hypothetical individuals see the same thing?

According to Dr. Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist of vision, nothing that we see is real. There is no true or correct explanation to our visual experience, he explains to Tom Chivers in a recent news article on vision. I argue, however, that by taking a biocultural approach and using visual anthropological methods of studying film, we can begin to understand how our visual experience is made real through culture.

Culture in Vision

O’Regan and Noë (2001:970) write that “visual consciousness is not a special kind of brain state… it is something we do.” Thus, vision and visual consciousness deals with the interaction of how we see and the environment (O’Regan and Noë 2001; pdf here).

We propose that seeing is a way of acting. It is a particular way of exploring the environment. Activity in internal representations does not generate the experience of seeing. The outside world serves as its own, external, representation. The experience of seeing occurs when the organism masters what we call the governing laws of sensorimotor contingency… [which accounts] for the differences in the perceived quality of sensory experience

What happens when the environment we hone in on is a screen? In the remainder of this post, I will explore just what we may be doing when watching films, and how the neuroscientific literature has thus far left out an important component of understanding the interplay of vision and the environment: culture. Here I will show how a neuroanthropological as well as biocultural focus can bring to light how visual experience may reflect cultural nuances and how culturally specific activities, such as watching films, leave much to be explored in the study of vision and the brain.

As a professional television producer for PBS, I notice the shot composition and artistic liberties that television programs and films take, thus altering the visual experience of the story being told. For example, my research of Ghanaian video films has shown that the composed shots that Ghanaians use to tell stories visually are vastly different from American-made films.

This can be seen in the wider angles and less drastic shot changes within scenes. In the example below, I have chosen action sequences produced by Ghanaians and Americans, respectively. These videos show the contrast in shot composition, and especially in the number of shot changes of American film compared with its Ghanaian counterpart.

Action sequences are characterized by fast-paced movements and a quick succession of shots during the scene. Both of the videos above reflect this. However, the amount of shot changes is greater and the pace is much faster in the American film. The American film also uses more close-up shots, while the Ghanaian counterpart utilizes wider angles. The contingencies that the filmmakers exploit are different, leading to different viewing experiences.

What do these differences mean? Are they a result of the real differences in the way Ghanaians and Americans experience vision? This question hints at the notion that different cultural experiences can alter visual experience, and this concept deserves further attention.

Clarence Gravlee (2008) describes how a cultural concept such as race can become biological. Although race does not exist genetically, the social stigma and economic hardships that befall individuals with certain skin colors result in very real biological outcomes, such as low birth weight, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure (Kuzawa and Sweet 2009; Dressler and Bindon 2000).

What does this have to do with vision, you may wonder? Well, only the underlying argument that social factors contribute to biological reality. According to this logic, it seems possible, and even probable, that vision could be conceived differently cross-culturally. This concept is echoed in the book Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Here, authors Peter J. Richardson and Robert Boyd argue that “neither human behavior nor human evolution can be understood without taking culture into account” (Hourdequin). Given the examples provided here and the myriad other ways in which anthropological research has shown how culture shapes human experience, it seems rather cavalier for neuroscience to exclude culture entirely from visual experience.

An example from O’Regan and Noë (2001) shows how culture is intimately tied to visual awareness, or lack thereof: when driving a car in America, one sees a red light and slows to a stop. But, let’s say that person is talking on the phone; that red light still signals the person to stop, but they aren’t really “seeing” the red light; they are conscious of their own phone conversation. Thus, it isn’t the sight of the red light in itself that inspires action. The symbol of the red light that means stop in American culture makes the driver stop the car.

Although the basic mechanism here is the sight of the red light, other cultural knowledge is used to inspire action as well- regardless of how visually aware the driver may be in this context. Although the use of symbols is used to describe the variations in visual awareness, culture is not explicitly tied to O’Regan and Noë’s (2001) visual framework.

The theory that O’Regan and Noë (2001) present thus needs to include another facet in exploring visual consciousness: culture. Errol Morris, speaking of his approach to documentary film making, drives this concept home when he writes, “the brain is not a Reality-Recorder,” and that the brain will “usually modify or reinterpret what we see rather than the other way around” (Morris 2008). This reinterpretation and modification is the product of our unique cultural background and experiences.

How Does Culture Shape Vision?

Now the question becomes, to what extent does culture shape our vision? Existing frameworks have attempted to answer this question. There is the Sapir- Whorf approach, which generally suggests that language influences ones cultural worldview, which in extension results in “non-linguistic cognitive differences” (Kay and Kempton 1984:66). From this perspective, there are necessarily differences in biology between groups with different languages.

With the cultural psychology approach, research attempts to show differences in perception between Western and Eastern vision, where “Westerners attend more to focal objects [and] East Asians attend more to contextual information” (Chua et al. 2005:12629). With the cultural neuroscience approach, researchers attempt to unite the “mutual constitution of culture, brain, and genes” (Han et al. 2013:336). In other words, this framework attempts to show how culture might become imbedded in the genes, which laterally effects brain activity and cognition (Han et al. 2013:340).

These approaches do not take the necessary step further to connect cultural-visual perception to lived experience, which includes the physical environment, cultural knowledge and experience, and visual awareness. If the brain does operate differently according to cultural context, how is this displayed in the act of watching films? How does this change the way films are produced?

Hunger Games


Ghana Image

It is clear, according to O’Regan and Noë (2001), that vision involves an intimate interaction with the environment. Does the physicality of that environment matter? An environment that occurs on a theater screen, for example, opens new doors for exploring this interaction.

Lately it has occurred to me that the nuanced differences that I see as a trained television professional might not matter to the layperson engaged with a film. A recent viewing of a short Ghanaian video film clip to a group of American grad students has revealed that the unique Ghanaian shot composition is not noticeable. Thus, what constitutes visual awareness when watching a film? Perhaps it is the thing that has driven the art world for centuries: a good story.

My experiences in the television industry and with my research have revealed some interesting nuances regarding the viewing experience. Audiences engage with the stories of films. In America, audiences prefer to sit silently side by side in a dark room, intimately engaged with the screen. It is not until after the film ends that audience members discuss the film.

In Ghana, audiences watch video films (most often) with family and friends, and engage with the story by standing, jumping, yelling, laughing, and talking with one another about the story unfolding onscreen. The very act of watching these similar visual stimuli result in quite different cultural experiences. It remains to be seen, however, if the context of these different cultural products amounts to the same visual experience. Are Ghanaian audiences and American audiences seeing the same thing when they look into this filmic environment?

Research involving the interaction of vision and environment suggests that we do not see the same thing cross-culturally when looking at an image (Istomin et al. 2014). A study involving what Western Caucasian and East Asian subjects see when they view an image, like the one described above, reiterates this point (Lao et al. 2013). There is no reason to believe that the same concept would not be true for moving pictures.

Moving Forward

This exploration into the visual experience of film has left us with more questions than answers. However, one thing remains true: culture cannot be divorced from vision. The physical environment described by O’Regan and Noe (2001) cannot be the only conduit for visual consciousness. The need for the inclusion of cultural knowledge that is necessary for interacting with that environment cannot be overstated.

The next step of this research should be how people of different cultures perceive and experience vision- and if this kind of interaction looks different in the brain. A look at Sci-Fi and fantasy films might be a good introductory study into this line of thought. These kinds of films do not reflect lived experience, but introduce the imagination, another tool of the brain, into visual awareness. An interesting research question that can inform the information presented here is if there is more brain activity when watching fantasy/Sci-Fi films, for which the brain has little prior experience or cultural knowledge to pull from.

If that were the case, would watching foreign films have the same effect? This line of research can begin to explore the extent to which visual experience is informed by culture, by attempting to explore uncharted territory of cultural familiarity in the brain. We can then see how the act of watching films translates into a biological and cultural experience. These questions are uniquely suited for anthropological methods, and thus show how neuroanthropology can contribute to the conversation of visual consciousness.

As Lotto explains, “if we change our framework of what we think the brain is really there to do, which is to resolve uncertainty in a way which is useful, then we might be able to understand stuff” (Chivers 2014). Further, if we look at humans as cultural beings, using cultural knowledge accumulated from birth to provide an understanding about the world, it is reasonable to believe that the brain also uses learned knowledge to resolve this uncertainty. Changing the framework to include culture is how we can understand more about vision and the brain.


Chivers, Tom
2014 Use your illusion: why human vision is a mathematical impossibility. The Telegraph. April 27:

Chua, Hannah Faye, Julie E. Boland, and Richard E. Nisbett
2005 Cultural Variation in Eye Movements during Scene Perception. PNAS 102(35):12629-12633.

Dressler, William and James R. Bindon
2000 The Health Consequences of Cultural Consonance: Cultural Dimensions of Lifestyle, Social Support, and Arterial Blood Pressure in an African American Community. American Anthropologist 102(2):244-260.

Gravlee, Clarence C.
2009 Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality. Am. J. of Physical Anthropology 138(1):47-57.

Han, Shihui, Georg Northoff, Kai Vogeley, Bruce E. Wexler, Shinobu Kitayama, and Michael E.W. Varnum
2013 A Cultural Neuroscience Approach to the Biosocial Nature of the Human Brain. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 64:335–59.

Hourdequin, Marion
Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2005). Book Review.

Istomin, Kirill V., Jaroslava Panakova, Patrick Heady
2013 Culture, Perception, and Artistic Visualization: A Comparative Study of Children’s Drawings in Three Siberian Cultural Groups. Cognitive Science 38(2014):76-100.

Kay, Paul and Willett Kempton
1984 What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? American Anthropologist 86:65-79.

Kuzawa, C. and E. Sweet
2009 Epigenetics and the Embodiment of Race: Developmental Origins of US Racial Disparities in Cardiovascular Health. Am. J. of Human Biology 21(1):2-15.

Lao, Junpeng, Luca Vizioli1 and Roberto Caldara
2013 Culture Modulates the Temporal Dynamics of Global/Local Processing. Culture and the Brain.

Marr, David
1982 Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Morris, Errol
2008 Play It Again, Sam (Re-enactments, Part One). The New York Times. April 3: The Opinion Pages: Opinionator.

O’Regan, Kevin J. and Alva Noe
2001 A Sensorimotor Account of Vision and Visual Consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24:939-973. (pdf available here)

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