A lot of good stuff coming out around cultural neuroscience right now. Here are the three main things up front, so people can have them. Then I’ll go over them in turn. And finally, a reflective comment at the end highlighting potential differences between cultural neuroscience and neuroanthropology.
Cultural Neuroscience special issue in Psychological Inquiry, with a target article by Joan Chiao and colleagues and commentaries by leaders in the field.
The inaugural issue of the new journal Culture and Brain, with Shihui Han serving as editor-in-chief
A 2013 Annual Review of Psychology article, A Cultural Neuroscience Approach to the Biosocial Nature of the Human Brain, also by Shihui Han and a long-list of leaders in cultural neuroscience
Cultural Neuroscience: Progress and Promise
First off, the new issue of Psychological Inquiry has a target review article “Cultural Neuroscience: Progress and Promise” by Joan Chiao, Bobby Cheon, Narun Pornpattananangkul, Alissa Mrazek & Katherine Blizinsky. Like a BBS article, it comes with a series of commentaries by leaders in the field, followed by a response from the authors. As I write this, the target article is open-access, but the commentaries are not. Here’s the link to the entire special issue.
The abstract for the Chaio et al. review:
Contemporary advances in cultural and biological sciences provide unique opportunities for the emerging field of cultural neuroscience. Research in cultural neuroscience examines how cultural and genetic diversity shape the human mind, brain, and behavior across multiple time scales: situation, ontogeny, and phylogeny.
Recent progress in cultural neuroscience provides novel theoretical frameworks for understanding the complex interaction of environmental, cultural, and genetic factors in the production of adaptive human behavior. Here, we provide a brief history of cultural neuroscience, theoretical, and methodological advances, as well as empirical evidence of the promise of and progress in the field. Implications of this research for population health disparities and public policy are discussed.
Chiao et al. review a wide range of studies, which heartily demonstrates how this field is growing rapidly. Everything from “Individualism–Collectivism and the Serotonin Transporter Gene (5-HTTLPR)” to “SES and Neural Bases of Social Cognition”.
This section comes closest to representing the core summary of cultural neuroscience provided by Chiao et al.:
Our understanding of culture–biology interactions not only across the lifespan but also across evolutionary timescales has advanced with the discovery of culture–gene coevolutionary models of human behavior, including the cultural and genetic selection of specific traits in the production of adaptive behavior (Chiao & Blizinsky, 2010; Nikolaidis & Gray, 2010; Way & Lieberman, 2010).
A neuro-culture interaction model was then developed to suggest a causal trajectory such that cultural practices reinforce values and tasks that become “culturally patterned neural activities” due to neuroplasticity or neuronal change, which then facilitates social survival via biological adaptation and reproductive success (Kitayama & Uskul, 2011).
Culture–gene coevolutionary processes may also produce cultural variation in core cognitive and neural architecture (e.g., structure and function) across phylogeny and generations, due to geographical variation in environmental pressures (Chiao & Immordino-Yang, in press). For instance, environmental factors, such as pathogen prevalence, are known to lead to cultural selection of individualism-collectivism, due at least in part to genetic selection of the short (S) allele of the serotonin transporter gene (Chiao & Blizinsky, 2010).
In other words, it’s an ambitious field. The approach aims to understand human variation across time and space, with a focus on the brain as the key site for research and for understanding difference. Genes and evolution as well as culture and environment shape the linked variation of brain and behavior. Individual/collectivism, for example, is not simply a cultural trait in this model; it has identifiable neural correlates, in part formed by past evolutionary history and in other part by the intersection of culture, development, and neuroplasticity.
The commentaries on the article are really informative. I particularly recommend the one by Denise Park, Kudos and Cautions for Advances in Cultural Neuroscience. A pioneer in cross-cultural neuroimaging, Park brings a broad sense of the strengths and potential problems her field faces moving forward in both its research and its public impact.
Park highlights important concerns and potentials: (1) that cultural neuroscience “does not inadvertently become enmeshed in variations of arguments that genetic endowment is primarily causal of neural activity, endowment, and behavior; (2) the need to distinguish clearly between a hard-wired approach and a processing approach in cultural neuroscience, such that task demands can drive differences in processing rather than being something placed immutably there by culture; (3) the importance of thinking about cultural saturation, where sustained experiences actually can generate structural changes in the brain, both within and across societies; and (4) caution about over-generalizing, particularly in such a young field that works with small sample sizes but which examines such broad questions that matter to so many people.
Among the commentaries is one from neuroanthropologist Andreas Roepstorff, Why Am I Not Just Lovin’ Cultural Neuroscience? Toward a Slow Science of Cultural Difference. He applauds the comprehensive review by Chiao et al., but also highlights some of this discomfort he feels in reading the research as an anthropologist engaged in similar work, one who brings a more reflexive approach and who has a broader approach to culture than simply treating it as a broad trait that identifies difference.
Here’s the finish to his commentary:
In the nutritional realm, the slow food movement has been restating a simple fact: Food is not just something we consume, it is also something we produce. Of importance, they say, the way we grow it, cook it, and eat it is part of making us who we are. It is not so much a matter of “you are what you eat” but equally a matter of “you become how you cook.”
Like food, culture is not just something that constitutes humans. Cultural differences are not just passive categories to be picked up, they are also distinctions that are made and used, and as such they are important vectors actively shaping our understanding of the world.
This looping effect of human knowledge (Hacking, 1995) may be a critical part of that which makes humans cultural, and this seems to be a mechanism, which cultural neuroscience cannot escape.
This is not a bad thing. In the years to come, cultural neuroscience may become one of the very important venues for identifying and reflecting on differences and identities within and between groups of people.
Realizing this may call for a slow science of cultural difference. This is very different from a happy meal of fast facts that are more concerned with generalizing by the millions or billions than understanding individual differences, strategies, and identities.
A slow science approach would care about how we grow, cook, exchange, and share knowledge about ourselves and others, and it would be interested in mapping out how that affects the world we jointly live in.
New journal Culture and Brain
The inaugural issue has four articles.
In the present study, we examined the contribution of the MPFC to self and close other-referential processing of psychological traits in Chinese participants, newly arrived to the United States, in both their native language and in English. We predicted that, contrary to prior findings, the MPFC would differentially represent psychological traits for self and mother.
While brain operations can be viewed as computational in nature, both the design and the properties of the brain deviate radically from those of man-made computers. This might be why brains, unlike computers, are capable of moral and esthetic judgment and of experiencing joy and sorrow, friendship and love and other human values.
Manipulations of cognitive strategies and intergroup relationships in laboratory can significantly reduce the racial bias in empathic neural responses by increasing the neural activity to perceived pain in other-race individuals. The current study further investigated whether real-life cultural experiences with other-race individuals can reduce the racial bias in empathic neural responses to others’ suffering.
Results showed that 24 loci showed Hardy–Weinberg disequilibrium among college students, but only two of these were in disequilibrium in the 1000 Genomes sample. These loci were found to be associated with mathematical abilities, executive functions, motivation, and adjustment-related behaviors such as alcohol use and emotion recognition. Generally, genotypes overrepresented in the college sample showed better performance and adjustment than under-represented or non-biased genotypes.
Some fascinating research! I’m hopeful this journal will become a meeting place for this type of synthetic research, and encourage neuroanthropologists to consider it for publication.
Cultural Neuroscience in Annual Review of Psychology
A Cultural Neuroscience Approach to the Biosocial Nature of the Human Brain is a 2013 Annual Review article authored by Shihui Han, Georg Northoff, Kai Vogeley, Bruce Wexler, Shinobu Kitayama, and Michael Varnum.
Cultural neuroscience (CN) is an interdisciplinary field that investigates the relationship between culture (e.g., value and belief systems and practices shared by groups) and human brain functions. In this review we describe the origin, aims, and methods of CN as well as its conceptual framework and major findings. We also clarify several misunderstandings of CN research. Finally, we discuss the implications of CN findings for understanding human brain function in sociocultural contexts and novel questions that future CN research should address.
Han et al. recognize that most cultural neuroscience research so far melds cultural psychology with neuroimaging. Cultural psychology demonstrated differences in psychological process across societies; neuroscience steps in to document those differences at the neural level. Cross-cultural cognition meets cross-cultural neuroimaging.
But their ambitions for the field are much larger. Here are how they describe the aims of cultural neuroscience.
The goal of CN studies is to investigate human brain function and structure in diverse sociocultural contexts. Like cultural psychologists (Markus & Hamedani 2007), CN researchers have little interest in using brain activity as a way to classify people into groups. Instead, CN research investigates whether and how the functional organization of the human brain is shaped by culture and by the interaction between culture and genes on different time scales (Chiao & Ambady 2007, Han & Northoff 2008).
In addition, CN research aims to investigate how neurobiological processes in the human brain contribute to the rise of divergent cultures in the world. Theories built on CN findings will eventually help to explain how cultural differences in human brain function mediate divergent social behaviors across cultures while at the same time pointing out the neural predispositions of psychosocial commonalities across different cultures.
CN considers culture as a highly dynamic system of continuous interaction and exchange among individuals. This system of social interaction feeds back into social practices, values, and belief systems, thereby establishing circular, recursive, and reciprocal influences between interacting individuals and culture (Hacking 1999, Vogeley & Roepstorff 2009).
The implications section of this review article are among the most interesting parts. Here they write a more existential piece that also points to substantive issues long engaged by anthropology.
The human brain develops in a specific sociocultural context during interactions with others. Because there are large variations across cultures, how to fit into one’s specific society and how to cooperate with others efficiently is a challenge for each person. CN studies indicate that the human brain has the capacity to develop culture-specific neurocognitive processes that help an individual to function in a specific sociocultural environment.
And they discuss two potential models for CN, something that I will also discuss in my commentary just below.
The context-dependent nature of the human brain can be understood in two different senses. One possibility is that the culturally different stimuli merely modulate already preexisting neural activity that, as such, remains independent of any contextual effects.
This amounts to what has been called modulatory context dependence (Han & Northoff 2008, Northoff 2012). Alternatively, the constitution of any neural activity is dependent upon the context; this amounts to what can be described as constitutive context dependence (Han & Northoff 2008, Northoff 2012)…
In the case of modulatory context dependence, neuronal and social activities interact with each other while remaining independent from each other in their respective constitution. The brain is then purely neuronal and thus biological, whereas culture is social.
This differs from the model of constitutive context dependence, which posits that, if the constitution of the brain’s neuronal activity depends on the respective social context, a clear-cut distinction between the biological domain of the brain and the social domain of culture is impossible. Rather than being exclusively and completely biological, the brain and its neuronal activity must then be considered to be a hybrid of both biological and social influences. In other words, our brains are biosocial.
Cultural Neuroscience and Neuroanthropology: Two Models?
The two fields have different historical origins – cultural psychology meets neuroimaging, and field research meets neuroscience. Such differences might push these approaches apart for institutional reasons. However, the similarities are more striking to me. Both fields are interested in questions of human variation and similarity across time and space, and both draw on evolution, culture theory, and neuroplasticity.
That said, the issues of problem scale and of theoretical models can separate the fields. A rough generalization for problem scale could be that cultural neuroscience is examining more population-level variation and neuroanthropology more local variation. Or, cross-cultural differences versus within-culture differences.
That said, neuroanthropology looks at field-based variations by drawing on anthropology, which has over a century of research on human variation extending back more than two million years. At times, that vast scope can only come into focus in one specific study – one time and place. Whereas cultural neuroscience’s more narrow scope comes through the laboratory methods, and using neuroimaging to try to understand patterns of neural structure and function.
As for theoretical models, cultural psychology has generally taken a trait-based approach to culture – individualism vs. collectivism, for example. This approach, and its increasing use of genetics, has led to a more factor-based approach to explaining variation. The culture measure contributes this much to the outcome variable, and the gene marker this much. This discrete approach to measuring variables is both powerful and reductive. It generates results quickly, leads to better comparability across studies, and can provide broad outlines of what variables are at play with what sorts of problems. That said, the anthropological concept of “culture” is hard to reduce to just one measure, for that misses the immersive, interactive, and shared dimensions of culture – the really operative parts of the concept.
This measurement approach is also hard to apply to the interactive, dynamic, and embodied approach to the “biosocial” brain that Northoff (with his colleagues) outlines in the Annual Review article. Neuroanthropology explicitly takes that approach, positing neurocultural processes as central to how brains operate, and that an embodied nervous system (and not just brain) is crucial to understanding how human variation gets produced. Some cultural neuroscientists surely agree with this approach. But given the history of their field, and the use of both neuroimaging and cross-cultural measures, they often haven’t taken this approach in the actual research. Thus, questions of theoretical models and of evidence can separate the fields.
That said, the more determinist/computational model versus the more embodied/dynamic model splits cognitive science and neuroscience more generally. Both approaches have their uses. I think it’s useful to recognize how the scale of problems addressed, the theoretical models used to understand the patterning of human neural function and structure, and the measurement models and what counts as evidence are the pragmatic concerns that make cultural neuroscience and neuroanthropology different fields at present. They both broadly examine similar issues, and I believe greater collaboration will lend strength to both sides. But right now? The two fields started from different points, and have to figure out how best to find a common meeting ground even amidst those different historical dimensions of research.
Update: John Hawks was kind enough to feature this post on his blog with Cultural neuroscience and pedigree-based neuroimaging.
John focuses on my comments near on the end, on the difference between a trait-based approach and a more dynamic one to culture, and then generalizes that more broadly to analyzing complex traits more generally, and drawing parallels to his work with genetics and the linkage to complex behaviors and traits.
Besides the emphasis on statistical design and better sampling, John also raises another important point, of using an historical and phylogenetic approach (or pedigree-based approach), one that would be broadly analogous to the emphasis on history and tradition within cultural anthropology. The historical approach to culture is often contrasted to older views, that took snap shots of culture (a frozen in place view) and assumed a certain degree of timelessness in its analytic approach. So not a theory of culture change…
Here’s the relevant excerpt from Hawks’ post:
The problems here are very much like those facing complex trait genetics more generally. We won’t get answers to many questions until we are able to look at much larger samples of people. And because the motivating factors for behavior are often very personal and local, we need to compare close relatives and members of individual communities on a massive scale.
I am thinking explicitly about the “missing heritability” problem in human genetics. One solution to this problem is that the causal genes are rare, meaning that they can be most productively identified by comparing relatives to each other. Those relatives need to be embedded in large pedigrees for the comparisons to have any statistical power to test associations.
Why should we expect studies of brain imaging to be any different? These studies are famously subject to the “dead fish” problem; small random differences between cases and controls show up as statistically important. Moreover, in small samples the appearance of correlations among uncorrelated variables creates a severe problem. The power to examine small differences between individuals randomly drawn from a population will be swamped out by variations throughout the brain. By comparing large sets of relatives, it may become possible to get some traction on the relationship of small brain differences and behavior. By looking within local communities in a stratified design, it should be possible for neuroscientists to pick apart the cultural influences on brain development from the genetic and individual influences. But there has been relatively little pedigree-based or community-based neuroimaging (much of it done on captive primates, not people).
I raise this issue to reinforce what Lende has written about anthropology: These kinds of community-based and family-based approaches are naturals for anthropologists. And they provide a way for cultural neuroscientists to move beyond the “East versus West” comparisons of America and China, and move toward a much finer-grained understanding of how genetic and cultural levels of causation may interact within individuals.