Cultural Neuroscience – Culture and the Brain

Your Brain on Culture is a November article in the Monitor on Psychology. Written by Beth Azar, this piece provides good coverage of the boom in cultural neuroscience, covering current research and prominent researchers.

Cultural neuroscience looks at how culture can shape cognition, how brains work in different settings, and the culture-dependent connections between cognition and brain function. Cultural neuroscience has emerged at the intersection of the incredible rise of neuroimaging research and decades of work in cultural psychology.

I will provide an overview of the article below, complete with reactions to its main sections. At the end, I will also provide links to the main researchers and article abstracts covered by Beth Azar.

Cultural Cognition and the Uses of Attention

Cultural neuroscience is highlighting different styles of cognition in various cultural settings, complete with different patterns of underlying neural activation. One interesting research finding reported in the Azar concerned line perception among Japanese and United States subjects.

[This] research may someday shed light on why some cultures appear more skilled at certain real-life cognitive problems than others, but right now researchers are looking at very simple tasks. For example, behavioral work by University of Michigan psychologist Shinobu Kitayama, PhD, and his colleagues showed that people from Japan are far better at judging the length of a line relative to the size of a box in which it’s drawn, while Americans are far better at judging the absolute length of the same line. They attribute this difference to findings from other studies showing that Americans pay more attention to details and Asians pay more attention to context.

Last year, Stanford University postdoc Trey Hedden, PhD, and his colleagues used fMRI to re-examine these findings. Like Kitayama, they used the framed-line task: Participants see a square with a line drawn partway down the middle. They then see a larger box and either have to draw a line the same absolute length as the first line or a line the same relative length compared with the bigger size of the new box.

Again, Americans did better on the absolute test and Japanese did better on the relative test, but this time the researchers could see what was happening in their brains. It turns out that both Americans and Japanese use the same brain areas for both tests, but when they’re doing the test that is more difficult for them, they also engage an area of the brain associated with increased attention.

“This finding shows that the brain compensates for tasks that we’re not typically exposed to through our culture by turning on an attention circuit to help us,” says Kitayama. In contrast, tasks that are commonplace become automatic and don’t require extra concentration.

What I also find fascinating is that patterns of activation can reveal cultural difference. I believe this will be a rich area for future research.

Back in 2008 I reviewed Shihui Han and Georg Northoff’s excellent article, Culture-Sensitive Neural Substrates of Human Cognition: A Transcultural Neuroimaging Approach. Near the end I wrote:

A fourth type of neural correlate not considered by Han and Nortoff would be (4) changes in systemic activation, where it is the consistent pattern of activation of different areas of the brain that corresponds to some aspect of culture. In my mind, this sort of approach would prove useful for ritual, rather than looking for task-based, functional activation or structural “difference.” Different rituals will tend to activate different series of brain regions and to create different patterns of links between brain regions.

Put differently, timing, location and duration of activation make a large difference in development. The same basic processes could also apply to how cultural achieves difference—the timing of activation, the links between regions, and the sequence of different areas of activation could all add up to synergistic effect.

The Rewards of Culture

Even more intriguingly, similar brain areas can be channeled in dramatically different ways, depending on local cultural values.

Tufts University psychologist Nalini Ambady, PhD, is one of the field’s pioneers. Her work has found that even as people perceive the same stimulus, their brains may activate differently.

For example, in a study headed by her graduate student Jonathan Freeman and published last year in Neuroimage (Vol. 47, No. 1), the researchers used fMRI to measure brain activity in American and Japanese study participants when they viewed silhouettes of bodies in postures considered “dominant” — standing tall, arms crossed, for example — and “submissive” — head and arms hanging down, for instance.

Ambady’s group based the study on historical data showing that East-Asian cultures value submissiveness, while Western cultures value dominance. In fact, they found, they could see this cultural distinction in the way the brain responds to visual input. When Americans viewed dominant silhouettes, but not submissive ones, reward circuitry fired in the brain’s limbic system. The opposite happened among Japanese participants; their reward circuitry fired in response to submissive, but not dominant, silhouettes.

In addition, the magnitude of the brain’s response to the images correlated precisely with self-reports of how much participants valued dominance and submissiveness, says Ambady. The more a participant supported sentences stating that it’s good to be in control, the stronger the reward circuitry fired when he or she viewed a dominant posture.

“We see that what the brain finds rewarding reflects the values of the dominant culture,” says Ambady. “People can see the same stimulus but have completely different neural responses.”

Given my previous work on addiction, reward, and dopamine, I found this particular approach fascinating. It provides a way forward for doing research on how cultural values, social costs, and the like can shape decision making, motivation, and desire. For example, in my work, I look specifically at the links between craving, dopamine function, and drug users’ lived reality (see my interview in Scientific American and then a broad overview of this part of my research in the post Studying Sin).

However, I have also done research on why Colombia generally has less drug use than might be expected, given the risk factors and the access to drugs there. Illegal drug use rates among Colombian adolescents were generally 1/3 (or less) for the same substances in the United States. My research highlighted the role of cultural values, social relationships, and the social costs of drug use in explaining these lower rates. This new research by Ambaby offers a way for me to take my research in cultural anthropology and make it into a neuroanthropology of decision making about drug use, and thus closer to my work on neuroanthropology and addiction.

Cultural Variation – Fighting against the Notion of Cultural Sameness

Cultural neuroscience is also highlighting variation within specific cultural settings, overturning older notions that “culture” means one style of thought or one system of meaning. Individuals with different developmental pathways and different genetic backgrounds interact differently with common cultural belief systems and social rituals.

It’s not enough, [Stanford professor Hazel Markus] says, simply to scan the brains of people from different “cultures” — defined by language, nationality or ethnicity — and make assumptions about cognitive or perceptual differences. By themselves, these are meaningless categories, she adds.

“To make progress in our understanding of how cultures shape brains and brains shape culture,” she says, “we need to know what psychological and behavioral tendencies are associated with these social categories and how these tendencies are linked to brain function.”

Joan Chiao learned this lesson while conducting an fMRI study, published last year in Human Brain Mapping (Vol. 30, No. 9). The study looked at activity in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex — an area associated with a sense of self — while people from Japan and the United States assessed whether self-descriptive phrases applied to them. The researchers sought to find a biological explanation for past research showing that people from collectivist cultures relate more strongly to contextual self-descriptions, such as “When I’m with my mother, I’m honest.” People from already defined individualistic cultures relate more strongly to general self-descriptions such as “I’m honest.”

When Chiao and her colleagues compared participants along ethnic lines, they saw no difference in brain activity. Differences appeared only after they grouped people based on how strongly they valued collectivism or individualism: Regardless of ethnicity, the medial prefrontal cortex was most active when individualists read general self-descriptions and when collectivists read contextual self-descriptions.

This work demonstrates how variable cultural values can be, even within cultural groups, as people filter information from their environment and form their own self-concepts, says Chiao.

This type of research will be good news to my colleague Greg, who wrote on Escaping Orientalism in Cultural Psychology last year. People vary in their reactions to culture, rather than just slotting into dichotous contrasts. This approach might also open up the door to considering other types of cultural variation than just values.

This assumption of opposition and the imposition of homogeneity contribute to what I’m suggesting is a kind of neural Orientalism, to borrow from Edward Said (1978). Without getting into Said’s work, or the controversy around it too much, this understanding of cultural difference tends to exacerbate the gap between groups while simultaneously obscuring variation within them.

But even if we get over these issues, as Cohen advocates, and start exploring other sorts of cultural opposition, I don’t believe we’re going to make too much headway as long as we continue to employ several unexamined assumptions about culture that Cohen still makes: the assumption that culture is overarching, ideational structure and that it can be treated as an entity.

The problem with assuming that culture is an over-arching, ideational structure is that it tends to look for simplistic explanations for a complex multitude of data; for example, we find all kinds of differences between ‘Asians’ and ‘Westerners’ because ‘Asians’ are one thing and ‘Westerners’ are another, not because they have a myriad different customs, divergent historical experiences, different economic contexts, etc. etc…

The other problem with the overarching global explanation for observed differences is that it tends to severely curtail the domains of experience and activity that get explored, especially concentrating on those sorts of thought or perception that can be readily linked up to one of these explanatory rubrics (to generate testable hypotheses). For example, my favourite area of difference, motor learning, never enters the discussion of culture, even though there’s tons of circumstantial evidence for its importance from studies of everything from juggling and child development, to visual expertise, music, sports, and driving a car.

Models of Culture in Cultural Neuroscience

A final point the Monitor article makes is the need to “carefully define culture.” Elizabeth Lozin, at UCLA, and colleagues lay out eight guidelines for cultural neuroscience in a 2010 paper. These guidelines “concentrate on aspects of study design most different between other cognitive neuroscience imaging studies and CN: group selection, subject selection, and stimulus selection. These design elements are especially important to the establishment of causation in CN because of the quasi-experimental nature of cross-cultural comparisons (151).”

(1) Define and measure culture, (2) ‘Unpackage’ culture, (3) Replicate cultures containing cultural elements of interest, (4) Match or measure onset/amount of cultural experience, (5) Consider the effects of regional genetic variation, (6) Match groups, (7) Equate stimuli, (8) Equate performance.

In discussing the first two points, Lozin and colleagues posit that culture “should be measured according to some sort of acculturation scale” and that “in order to establish causation, culture should be deconstructed into psychological relevant components. These components (e.g., individualism/collectivism) should be used to select cultural groups for comparison (151).”

Many anthropologists would object to measuring “culture” solely through the concept of acculturation as well as to reducing culture simply into psychological relevant components. While it does establish a chain of causation – culture works through the acculturation of minds, and this can be measured through psychological components – it is also clear that social learning and language have effects that are not easily bracketed solely into “psychological components.”

In Greg’s recent post on Guy Deutscher and the new linguistic relativism), it is the interplay between gender, language, and cognition that is interesting, not simply a “psychological component.”

New research is showing that language can influence perception subtly in a number of ways. One example is the gendering of nouns, something which English does not do, but other languages do so extensively. Languages with gendered nouns or without gender neutral ways of saying things – Deutscher offers the example of being able to say that you had dinner with ‘a neighbour’ and leave the person’s sex ambiguous – oblige people to communicate information that can be omitted in English…

As an example, Deutscher briefly discusses how gendered nouns bias the way that people think about various nouns. Psychological experiments have shown that, when asked to assign adjectives to various inanimate objects or even give voices to animated versions of everyday objects, people who speak languages that gender these objects demonstrate biases in their associations. If the same object is feminine in one language and masculine in another (like ‘bridge’ in German and Spanish respectively), speakers will be influenced in the way that they think about these objects.

More provocatively, I believe it will become clear that culture acts directly on the brain without any mediating “psychology,” that cultural logics become part of the computational structure of the brain. Calling that “psychology” undercuts the possibility that culture structures behavior and cognition directly, in ways that a focus on individual psychology does not capture well. Certainly Bill Dressler’s work on cultural consonance, separate from individual belief, shows that collective aspects of culture shape individual behavior and biology, for example, through how consonance impacts stress.

In the end, it is exciting to see how far cultural neuroscience has come in a few short years. The global platform of neuroscience, with the ability to carry out imaging research around the globe, offers a reach that is amazing. New understandings of how to address methodological issues in this research and how to think about culture in increasingly sophisticated ways ensure a strong future for cultural neuroscience.

I think it will be exciting to watch how we can help bring together cultural neuroscience and neuroanthropology in ways that did not happen with previous generations of research on cultural psychology and psychological anthropology. In this case, the lessons learned from past research and the common focus on the brain provides great potential for exciting new syntheses.

Link to Beth Azar’s article Your Brain on Culture.

Main Researchers Mentioned in the Azar Article

Yiyuan Tang – Dalian University

Joan Chiao – Northwestern

Denise Park – University of Texas at Dallas

Nalini Ambady – Tufts

Trey Hedden – Massachusetts General Hospital

Shinobu Kitayama – Michigan

Hazel Rose Markus – Stanford

Articles and Abstracts in Order Mentioned

Ying Zhu, Li Zhang, Jin Fan and Shihui Han (2007). Neural basis of cultural influence on self-representation. NeuroImage 34(3): 1310-1316.

Culture affects the psychological structure of self and results in two distinct types of self-representation (Western independent self and East Asian interdependent self). However, the neural basis of culture–self interaction remains unknown. We used fMRI to measured brain activity from Western and Chinese subjects who judged personal trait adjectives regarding self, mother or a public person. We found that the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) showed stronger activation in self- than other-judgment conditions for both Chinese and Western subjects. However, relative to other-judgments, mother-judgments activated MPFC in Chinese but not in Western subjects. Our findings suggest that Chinese individuals use MPFC to represent both the self and the mother whereas Westerners use MPFC to represent exclusively the self, providing neuroimaging evidence that culture shapes the functional anatomy of self-representation.

Jonathan B. Freeman, Nicholas O. Rule, Reginald B. Adams Jr. and Nalini Ambady (2009). Culture shapes a mesolimbic response to signals of dominance and subordination that associates with behavior. NeuroImage 47(1): 353-359.

It has long been understood that culture shapes individuals’ behavior, but how this is accomplished in the human brain has remained largely unknown. To examine this, we made use of a well-established cross-cultural difference in behavior: American culture tends to reinforce dominant behavior whereas, conversely, Japanese culture tends to reinforce subordinate behavior. In 17 Americans and 17 Japanese individuals, we assessed behavioral tendencies towards dominance versus subordination and measured neural responses using fMRI 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. Correspondingly, Americans self-reported a tendency towards more dominant behavior whereas Japanese self-reported a tendency towards more subordinate behavior. Moreover, activity in the right caudate and mPFC correlated with behavioral tendencies towards dominance versus subordination, such that stronger responses in the caudate and mPFC to dominant stimuli were associated with more dominant behavior and stronger responses in the caudate and mPFC to subordinate stimuli were associated with more subordinate behavior. The findings provide a first demonstration that culture can flexibly shape functional activity in the mesolimbic reward system, which in turn may guide behavior.

Joshua O. S. Goh, Eric D. Leshikar, Bradley P. Sutton, Jiat Chow Tan, Sam K. Y. Si3, Andrew C. Hebrank and Denise C. Park (2010). Culture differences in neural processing of faces and houses in the ventral visual cortex. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 5(2-3): 227-235.

Behavioral and eye-tracking studies on cultural differences have found that while Westerners have a bias for analytic processing and attend more to face features, East Asians are more holistic and attend more to contextual scenes. In this neuroimaging study, we hypothesized that these culturally different visual processing styles would be associated with cultural differences in the selective activity of the fusiform regions for faces, and the parahippocampal and lingual regions for contextual stimuli. East Asians and Westerners passively viewed face and house stimuli during an functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment. As expected, we observed more selectivity for faces in Westerners in the left fusiform face area (FFA) reflecting a more analytic processing style. Additionally, Westerners showed bilateral activity to faces in the FFA whereas East Asians showed more right lateralization. In contrast, no cultural differences were detected in the parahippocampal place area (PPA), although there was a trend for East Asians to show greater house selectivity than Westerners in the lingual landmark area, consistent with more holistic processing in East Asians. These findings demonstrate group biases in Westerners and East Asians that operate on perceptual processing in the brain and are consistent with previous eye-tracking data that show cultural biases to faces.

Trey Hedden, Sarah Ketay, Arthur Aron, Hazel Rose Markus and John D.E. Gabrieli (2008). Cultural influences on neural substrates of attentional control. Psychological Science 19(1): 12-17.

Behavioral research has shown that people from Western cultural contexts perform better on tasks emphasizing independent (absolute) dimensions than on tasks emphasizing interdependent (relative) dimensions, whereas the reverse is true for people from East Asian contexts. We assessed functional magnetic resonance imaging responses during performance of simple visuospatial tasks in which participants made absolute judgments (ignoring visual context) or relative judgments (taking visual context into account). In each group, activation in frontal and parietal brain regions known to be associated with attentional control was greater during culturally non-preferred judgments than during culturally preferred judgments. Also, within each group, activation differences in these regions correlated strongly with scores on questionnaires measuring individual differences in culture-typical identity. Thus, the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.

Joan Y. Chiao and Katherine D. Blizinsky (2010). Culture–gene coevolution of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene. Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences 277(1681): 529-537.

Culture–gene coevolutionary theory posits that cultural values have evolved, are adaptive and influence the social and physical environments under which genetic selection operates. Here, we examined the association between cultural values of individualism–collectivism and allelic frequency of the serotonin transporter functional polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) as well as the role this culture–gene association may play in explaining global variability in prevalence of pathogens and affective disorders. We found evidence that collectivistic cultures were significantly more likely to comprise individuals carrying the short (S) allele of the 5-HTTLPR across 29 nations. Results further show that historical pathogen prevalence predicts cultural variability in individualism–collectivism owing to genetic selection of the S allele. Additionally, cultural values and frequency of S allele carriers negatively predict global prevalence of anxiety and mood disorder. Finally, mediation analyses further indicate that increased frequency of S allele carriers predicted decreased anxiety and mood disorder prevalence owing to increased collectivistic cultural values. Taken together, our findings suggest culture–gene coevolution between allelic frequency of 5-HTTLPR and cultural values of individualism–collectivism and support the notion that cultural values buffer genetically susceptible populations from increased prevalence of affective disorders. Implications of the current findings for understanding culture–gene coevolution of human brain and behaviour as well as how this coevolutionary process may contribute to global variation in pathogen prevalence and epidemiology of affective disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are discussed.

Joan Y. Chiao, Tokiko Harada, Hidetsugu Komeda, Zhang Li, Yoko Mano, Daisuke Saito, Todd B. Parrish, Norihiro Sadato, and Tetsuya Iidaka (2009). Neural basis of individualistic and collectivistic views of self. Human Brain Mapping 30(9): 2813-2820.

Individualism and collectivism refer to cultural values that influence how people construe themselves and their relation to the world. Individualists perceive themselves as stable entities, autonomous from other people and their environment, while collectivists view themselves as dynamic entities, continually defined by their social context and relationships. Despite rich understanding of how individualism and collectivism influence social cognition at a behavioral level, little is known about how these cultural values modulate neural representations underlying social cognition. Using cross-cultural functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we examined whether the cultural values of individualism and collectivism modulate neural activity within medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) during processing of general and contextual self judgments. Here, we show that neural activity within the anterior rostral portion of the MPFC during processing of general and contextual self judgments positively predicts how individualistic or collectivistic a person is across cultures. These results reveal two kinds of neural representations of self (eg, a general self and a contextual self) within MPFC and demonstrate how cultural values of individualism and collectivism shape these neural representations.

Elizabeth Reynolds Losin, Miraella Dapretto, and Marco Iacoboni (2010). Culture and neuroscience: additive or synergistic? Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 5(2-3): 148-158.

The investigation of cultural phenomena using neuroscientific methods—cultural neuroscience (CN)—is receiving increasing attention. Yet it is unclear whether the integration of cultural study and neuroscience is merely additive, providing additional evidence of neural plasticity in the human brain, or truly synergistic, yielding discoveries that neither discipline could have achieved alone. We discuss how the parent fields to CN: cross-cultural psychology, psychological anthropology and cognitive neuroscience inform the investigation of the role of cultural experience in shaping the brain. Drawing on well-established methodologies from cross-cultural psychology and cognitive neuroscience, we outline a set of guidelines for CN, evaluate 17 CN studies in terms of these guidelines, and provide a summary table of our results. We conclude that the combination of culture and neuroscience is both additive and synergistic; while some CN methodologies and findings will represent the direct union of information from parent fields, CN studies employing the methodological rigor required by this logistically challenging new field have the potential to transform existing methodologies and produce unique findings.

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7 Responses to Cultural Neuroscience – Culture and the Brain

  1. gregorylent says:

    this field of study, along with plasticity, will create the crack through which the basic model of neuroscience gets flipped. it will be seen that brain is an effect of consciousness, and not the cause.

    keep going.

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  3. In response to Gregory Lent:

    It is tiring to hear people still making polarized comments on the nature/nurture argument. “Man is organic with the world”. We are both influenced by our environment and we exert an influence upon our environment. It is a simultaneous process, not an either-or process. As we interact more deeply with a variety of cultures and contexts, we will develop our brain capacity to pay attention to things in much more sophisticated ways. This increased social learning will also affect the way that human beings use their thought process to create new realities. The beginning science of this fascinating process is beautifully documented in this excellent article. Thank you Daniel.

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