View Full Version : Culture Seems to Influence Brain Function

01-14-2008, 02:49 PM
Culture Influences Brain Function, Study Shows

ScienceDaily (Jan. 13, 2008)
People from different cultures use their brains differently to solve the same visual perceptual tasks, MIT researchers and colleagues report in the first brain imaging study of its kind.

Psychological research has established that American culture, which values the individual, emphasizes the independence of objects from their contexts, while East Asian societies emphasize the collective and the contextual interdependence of objects. Behavioral studies have shown that these cultural differences can influence memory and even perception. But are they reflected in brain activity patterns?

To find out, a team led by John Gabrieli, a professor at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, asked 10 East Asians recently arrived in the United States and 10 Americans to make quick perceptual judgments while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner--a technology that maps blood flow changes in the brain that correspond to mental operations.

Subjects were shown a sequence of stimuli consisting of lines within squares and were asked to compare each stimulus with the previous one. In some trials, they judged whether the lines were the same length regardless of the surrounding squares (an absolute judgment of individual objects independent of context). In other trials, they decided whether the lines were in the same proportion to the squares, regardless of absolute size (a relative judgment of interdependent objects).

In previous behavioral studies of similar tasks, Americans were more accurate on absolute judgments, and East Asians on relative judgments. In the current study, the tasks were easy enough that there were no differences in performance between the two groups.

However, the two groups showed different patterns of brain activation when performing these tasks. Americans, when making relative judgments that are typically harder for them, activated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks. They showed much less activation of these regions when making the more culturally familiar absolute judgments. East Asians showed the opposite tendency, engaging the brain's attention system more for absolute judgments than for relative judgments.

The results are reported in the January issue of Psychological Science. Gabrieli's colleagues on the work were Trey Hedden, lead author of the paper and a research scientist at McGovern; Sarah Ketay and Arthur Aron of State University of New York at Stony Brook; and Hazel Rose Markus of Stanford University.

"We were surprised at the magnitude of the difference between the two cultural groups, and also at how widespread the engagement of the brain's attention system became when making judgments outside the cultural comfort zone," says Hedden.

The researchers went on to show that the effect was greater in those individuals who identified more closely with their culture. They used questionnaires of preferences and values in social relations, such as whether an individual is responsible for the failure of a family member, to gauge cultural identification. Within both groups, stronger identification with their respective cultures was associated with a stronger culture-specific pattern of brain-activation.

How do these differences come about? "Everyone uses the same attention machinery for more difficult cognitive tasks, but they are trained to use it in different ways, and it's the culture that does the training," Gabrieli says. "It's fascinating that the way in which the brain responds to these simple drawings reflects, in a predictable way, how the individual thinks about independent or interdependent social relationships."

This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and supported by the McGovern Institute.

Adapted from materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080111102934.htm

It sounds somewhat subtle but distinctive enough to be distinguishable.

Culture matters.

But cultural diversity might likely be optimal. Like variant sensor cells of the retina respond to different frequencies of light, giving us color vision.
Diversity of culture allows us, collectively to perceive things we might otherwise be blind to, & to do so with more detail & clarity.

01-14-2008, 04:04 PM
Brain imaging and measuring is one of the technologies that will revolutionize human life in the next 50 years.

Probably in bad ways as well as, hopefully, in terms of increased human self-knowledge.

(bad ways, in the sense of increased government intrusions into consciousness, increased advertising manipulation, increased media hypnosis, etc.)


However, I'm not entirely sure that your argument about cultural diversity follows, because I didn't think the article you quoted defined when (in the lifespan of the individual) and how the differences in brain function were created and established.

We already know the brain is a tremendously plastic computer, able to adapt to massive injuries at times with complete rewiring of functions.

Also, the article doesn't seem to address specialized areas of the brain, like the Broca area that deals with speech, or the brain stem that manages bodily functions.

The article suggested to me they were mostly measuring areas of the neocortex.

However, in general, I'm extremely interested in brain imaging, and I'd love to have the time to spend a year or two studying the latest brain imaging results.

Little Red Dog
01-15-2008, 02:30 PM
I used to be a ski instructor in Colorado, and I can tell you fer sure that culture influences learning styles.

Broadly speaking, Europeans, Americans, and Asian cultures had very different perceptions about things like competence, skills acquisition, and learning curve.

I would adjust a lesson plan accordingly, and the results were measurable. It was pretty fascinating.

Oddly, I never had any students from Latin America, so I can't speak for them.

01-15-2008, 02:53 PM
I suppose it is the way brain organizes or is organized relating to culture. [cause or effect? or both? neither?]

it is kind of anxiety causing that there is no absolute paradigm of organization.

We really are probably just making this up as we go along.
I wonder if historic circumstances help sculpt & create cultures?
I wonder if 'on the ground' circumstances affect cultural bias?
like various resources aka diet, construction materials, population densities, etc affect the way we perceive & relate to the world at large.

It is like trying to take a stand on jello,
not sure there is a firm footing anywhere,
all you can do is deeply, broadly & complexly root one's self in it & work from there.

jello wrestling, but not just for prurient purposes, ;)

01-15-2008, 03:04 PM
I can relate to Little Red. I've introduced technology to about 30 different countries and had to do a lot of training. Each culture had different learning styles and problem solving skills. I was always amazed at how they could take totally different paths and wind up in the the same place.

In my case it was most notable with Japanese. Two techs that couldn't speak any English took manuals home the day that I arrived. They memorised the manuals including page numbers of where information was located. They couldn't figure out how to solve the customer's problem which seemed obvious to me but they knew every technical spec that was presented.

01-15-2008, 03:13 PM
Consciousness is rooted in jello,

what can you expect?

Just keep your hands out of my jello.

Supports 2nd amendment in defense of personal jello supply.
Will shoot necroton aliens on sight.

Little Red Dog
01-15-2008, 04:25 PM
In my case it was most notable with Japanese. Two techs that couldn't speak any English took manuals home the day that I arrived. They memorised the manuals including page numbers of where information was located. They couldn't figure out how to solve the customer's problem which seemed obvious to me but they knew every technical spec that was presented.

LOL. The skiing corollary? The Japanese I taught were very strong on technique. Groomed slopes - no problem. And they could ski moguls pretty well. But they WAY sucked in the off-piste steeps.

Moguls are pretty predictable. Off-piste (ungroomed) slopes are emphatically not. Your game plan has to be instantly flexible to adjust to changing conditions.

Now that the Japanese are putting greater emphasis on creativity, I wonder if, in a generation or so, we'll see that change.