I recently returned from the first meeting of the International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium, hosted by Joan Chiao at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. As a cultural neuroscientist myself, I was incredibly excited to be attending one of the first meetings focused specifically on questions concerning the interactions between culture and the brain, but even I was not prepared for the breadth and depth of cultural neuroscience research that this meeting showcased. I also found that the meeting’s attendees were impressively diverse, not only in terms of their cultural backgrounds, but also their areas of expertise and career stage.
In this post, I’ll highlight research presented at the meeting from several of the most compelling current research areas in cultural neuroscience, particularly work that underscores emerging themes in cultural neuroscience. Here I’ll cover presentations on culture and emotion, intergroup processes, and gene-culture interaction.
The meeting took place over three days. Presentations included 1) Poster sessions featuring the work of a number of graduate students, 2) Symposia about current research, as well as conceptual and methodological issues in cultural neuroscience, 3) Workshops on areas of the field’s growth, such as defining culture in cultural neuroscience research, 4) A keynote lecture by an anthropologist and one of the early pioneers in neuroimaging, Robert Turner, and finally, 5) Talks by several members of the NIH on the ever-important topic of funding.
Current Themes in Cultural Neuroscience:
Culture and Emotion
I thought one of the most interesting research topics at the meeting focused on the ways that culture shapes people’s emotional experiences – and the physiology that accompanies such experiences. This theme was epitomized by the work of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her graduate student Xiao-Fei Yang based at University of Southern California. Dr. Immordino-Yang studies the relationship between emotions and bodily states.
It’s well established that one bodily component of emotion, its outward expression in terms of gestures and facial expression, is shaped by cultural norms. For example, East Asians tend to value less emotional expressivity than European Americans. What has been unclear is whether these cultural display rules also influence people’s internal experiences of emotion.
Dr. Immordino-Yang described a study aimed at answering this question. She used anthropology-style open-ended interviews about emotional stories to induce emotion and measure its expression in her study participants. She paired these interviews with brain imaging and heart rate measurements to measure the bodily states accompanying the emotions the induced.
Interestingly she found that it was not people’s assessments of emotion that differed based on cultural background, but the relationship between these feelings and the bodily states (both heart rate and brain activity) that accompanied them, suggesting that cultural experience may be shaping the way people translate bodily reactions into emotional feelings, rather than the intensity of those emotions themselves.
Although there were many other excellent presentations on culture and emotion, Dr. Immordino-Yang’s work stood out because her she measured both the cultural and biological sides of her question in great depth, inducing a full-blown emotional experience in the lab and measuring multiple biological correlates of emotion. I believe such approaches, which combine anthropological and neuroscience methods, are what will be necessary to allow cultural neuroscience research to reach its full potential. Research like Dr. Immordino-Yang’s, focusing on how cultural norms shape emotion will likely be critical for increasing the customization and efficacy of mental health treatment.
Another theme at the meeting, one that’s especially near and dear to my heart, was that of intergroup processes, i.e. the interactions between people from different cultural/ethnic/racial groups. Although this topic has previously been subsumed under the umbrella of social neuroscience, and is undeniably social in nature, I believe cultural neuroscience has much to contribute to this research.
I especially enjoyed the presentation of Dr. Bobby Cheon, a postdoctoral researcher at the Nanyang Business School in Singapore. Dr. Cheon studies how cultural and social context influences between- and within-group social processes, such as prejudice and empathy. It is all too well known that discrimination and prejudice exist, but we still don’t have a complete understanding of the factors that drive these intergroup processes.
Dr. Cheon presented a series of studies aimed at elucidating both the social-environmental and biological factors that make people perceive groups other than their own (i.e., “outgroups”) as threatening. He found that those with a genetic variant that has been associated with greater sensitivity to environmental threats (a variant of of the serotonin transporter gene) were more likely to be influenced by prior negative experiences with outgroup members – and even general perceptions that the environment was threatening – and then discriminate against outgroup members. Dr. Cheon’s findings suggest that biological and environmental factors interact to shape prejudicial behavior.
One thing that was particularly convincing about these results is that he found the same genetic effect on prejudicial behavior against both real-world stigmatized ethnic and social groups and artificially created social groups in the lab, giving us increased confidence in the generality of these findings. Having a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying negative intergroup behavior like discrimination and prejudice is important in an increasingly globalized world, and may inform interventions aimed at lessening the incidence of such behavior.
A final theme that stood out to me at the meeting was the interaction between specific genetic variants and the cultural environment, such that the same genetic variant can produce dramatically different influences on behavior depending on the cultural environment of the person who carries it. In fact Dr. Chuangsheng Chen, a geneticist based at UC Irvine, said in his presentation that many geneticists now believe that one of the primary drivers of modern day evolution is human culture.
One of the highlights in this research domain for me was the work of Dr. Heejung Kim based at UC Santa Barbara. Dr. Kim studies the interplay between human culture and human psychology and biology. As highlighted in the previous work by Dr. Cheon, there are now a number of well-established relationships between genetic polymorphisms and behavioral tendencies. What is less well understood is whether these gene-behavior relationships manifest themselves the same way in every cultural environment.
Dr. Kim asked this question in terms of the oxytocin receptor polymorphism (OXTR rs53576), which is related to socio-emotional sensitivity. She compared the effects of different gene variants between Americans and East Asians, two cultural groups in which the norms about social behavior are known to differ.
She found that among those with the more socially sensitive variant of the polymorphism (those with at least one “G” allele), Americans reported seeking social support to deal with stress, whereas East Asians – living in a culture where emotional support seeking is often considered inappropriately burdensome to others – did not report such behavior. Similarly, she found that Americans with the socially sensitive variant reported greater emotional well-being than those without it (presumably due in part to their emotional support seeking behavior), whereas East Asians did not show a relationship between this genetic variant’s presence and emotional well-being.
I found Dr. Kim’s work especially strong because she made a direct connection between a gene-environment interaction and a clinically relevant measure, emotional well-being. This work suggests that we need to understand the ways that genes and the environment interact if we want to treating medical conditions effectively across cultures.
As you can see this was an amazing meeting that highlighted both the breadth and depth of the emerging field of cultural neuroscience. Stay tuned for a follow-up post with some observations about the future directions of cultural neuroscience!