Author: elosin

International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium meeting: The Breadth and Depth of Cultural Neuroscience

ICNC_2013I 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

emoticons2I 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.


Intergroup Processes

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.


Gene-Culture Interactions

hands_holding_two_puzzle_piecesA 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!






Category: Announcements, Brain, Culture | 4 Comments

The Making of a Cultural Neuroscientist

My name is Liz Losin and I’m a social and cultural neuroscientist. I’m currently a postdoctoral researcher in Tor Wager’s lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I’m delighted and honored to be joining Neuroanthropology!

Here, in my first post, I’ll tell you how I came to study cultural neuroscience and give you an insider’s perspective on how the field has grown. I’ll also tell you a bit about my specific research interests and give you an idea of what I’ll be blogging about.

I started on the path towards a career in science in the 4th grade when I read Koko’s Kitten, the children’s book about Koko, the gorilla whom Dr. Penny Patterson taught to use American Sign Language. I, too, wanted to communicate with apes and find out how they thought! I had set my sights on studying primate cognition.

In middle school and high school, my journey towards a career in primatology was facilitated by information, advice and encouragement from a number of generous scientists, which I was able to parlay into my web page for other young people interested in primatology: Primatology Future Tense. I am especially grateful that these scientists were willing to engage in science outreach at a point when this had to be done by answering my emails through Gopher and sending me books in the mail rather than simply directing me to a pertinent blog. I realized my childhood dream in college when I completed an honors thesis on chimpanzee communication with Bill Hopkins at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Although I was passionate about this work, I realized that part of what led me to study apes was a curiosity about the origins of human cognition. It seemed that some of the questions that fascinated me the most, such as the mechanisms underlying complex human cultural capacities, could not be answered from studying nonhuman primates alone.

This interest in studying human culture and cognition solidified when, in a single semester, I took Joe Henrich’s Psychological Anthropology class and Jim Rilling’s Social Neuroscience class at Emory University. Psychological Anthropology opened my eyes to cultural diversity in cognition and behavior, but I was left wondering how this diversity was instantiated in the brain. In contrast, Social Neuroscience provided insights about the neural correlates of human social behavior using functional neuroimaging. I was surprised, however, that none of the studies we discussed in class, not even studies of racial perception, considered subjects’ own cultural backgrounds.

I realized that neither discipline was providing a complete picture of human behavior and its underlying mechanisms, and this realization led me to my next goal, the one I am still pursuing: to use my training in anthropology and neuroscience to study the bidirectional interactions between culture and the brain.

When discussing this career goal in my graduate school interviews 7 years ago, studying culture and the brain was practically unheard of. The reactions I got from many of the faculty in the neuroscience programs to which I applied gave me a clue as to why. They ranged from questioning the feasibility of studying such high-level questions with neuroscience methods to telling me, in as many words, that I was committing career suicide.

It was clear that in 2006, the disciplinary boundaries between the social and natural sciences were a formidable barrier to studying culture and the brain at many of the universities where I interviewed. Although many of these boundaries still exist today, the field has come a long way. We now have a journal, Culture and Brain, a conference, the International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium conference, and a summer school, The University of Michigan Center for Culture, Mind, and the Brain Summer Institute in Cultural Neuroscience (which will be in it’s 4th year this summer). In addition to a host of empirical papers, there have been a number of review articles, special issues and conference symposia devoted to cultural neuroscience. The field has a Wikipedia page, and searching for “Cultural Neuroscience” on Google yields over 21,000 hits.

As for my own growth as a cultural neuroscientist, although I did not accomplish the goal I expressed to my graduate school advisor of being the first researcher to use the term cultural neuroscience- I believe that honor goes to  Joan Chiao at the Northwestern University- I was able to find an academic home in the FPR-UCLA’s Culture, Brain and Development program and participate in the growth of this promising new field.

My dissertation research (supervised by Mirella Dapretto and Marco Iacoboni) focused on examining the neural mechanisms underlying cultural learning.

I began by considering anthropological theories about imitative biases, theories to which I was introduced to in that Psychological Anthropology class as an undergraduate. According to those theories, people’s tendencies to imitate certain kinds of individuals over others (e.g. to prefer others like them, or those high in status) would likely increase the efficiency of cultural learning. I used functional MRI to investigate a) what neural systems support these imitative biases and b) how they may differ depending on one’s own cultural background.

This work was supported, both intellectually and financially, by the FPR-UCLA Culture, Brain and Development Program (CBD). CBD is an interdisciplinary, cross-departmental program that provides students training, mentorship and funding to facilitate research that combines theory and methods from these three disciplines. I believe that such programs will be critical in advancing fields that bridge the social and biological sciences, such as cultural neuroscience, because they help students overcome what might otherwise be insurmountable disciplinary boundaries, and provide financial support for work that might be considered too risky for some traditional funding agencies.

In my postdoctoral research, I’m taking my cultural neuroscience research in two new directions that I hope will further increase the potential impacts of its findings. First, I am investigating socio-cultural influences on human health. Specifically, I am investigating how socio-cultural norms and sociocultural similarity between doctors and their patients influence pain perception and other aspects of the medical care experience. I believe that asking cultural neuroscience questions in the context of research on human health is one of the best ways to allow this work to have a direct impact on the lives of others. I also believe that this work represents an important, but mostly overlooked, aspect of human health and disease.

Second, I’m applying new multivariate statistical analysis methods, such as machine learning, to cultural neuroscience questions. Such techniques are better than traditional neuroimaging analysis methods for establishing close connections between brain and behavior. For this reason, I think these new methods will be especially useful in tackling the often thorny questions posed by cultural neuroscience.

In broader strokes, my research interests encompass the use of neuroscience methods to investigate the reciprocal interactions between social and cultural processes in the brain. I’m equally passionate about science outreach. I hope to integrate these interests and my own research experience into my blog posts here on Neuroanthropology.

Some of the areas I plan to cover are: 1) recent advances in cultural neuroscience and related fields, 2) the interaction between this work and society, including its potential applications and impacts on human health, and 3) how cultural neuroscience can inform, and learn from, research on non-human animals. I’m looking forward to being part of the Neuroanthropology community, and I encourage you to add your own thoughts to the conversation in the comments section below! Thanks!

Photo Credits:
Portrait: Neil Losin
Race Research Image: Race modulates neural activity during imitation (abstract)
Liz Demo: Cynthia Lee

Category: Announcements, Brain, Culture, Learning, Mind, Plasticity, Society, Variation | 3 Comments