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100 Things You Should Know About People: #26 — Culture shapes our brains



college students
Photo Credit: Katie Ricard

My entire career I’ve been worried about the fact that most psychology research is conducted on 18-24 year old college students. What if the way 18-24 year old college students react, think, and behave is not the same as everyone else? We are drawing conclusions about PEOPLE in general, but only collecting data from a small subset of people whose brains are still changing. It seemed silly that there were rigorous rules about how to conduct scientific studies in psychology, and yet this basic premise about who was being researched and how applicable the research was to different people was ignored. It’s made me secretly skeptical about research. Which is ironic, since I spend a fair amount of time searching out research, thinking about it, interpreting it and writing about it. I guess some research is better than no research?

Does culture shape “basic” cognitive processes?– And now I’ve come across an entirely new reason to be skeptical about the theories we have about how the brain works — cultural effects. In his book, The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbitt discusses research that shows that how we think — our cognitive processes — are influenced and shaped by culture. For example, if you show people from “the West” (US, Europe) a picture, they focus on a main or dominant foreground object, while people from Asia pay more attention to context and background. Asian people who grow up in the West show the Western pattern, not the Asian pattern, showing that this is based on culture, not genetics.

Is most of our research in psychology based on what “westerners” think? — This has profound implications for some of the theories we have about cognitive processing. We have research about how people think, how many items can be stored in memory, etc. What if these theories about how people think are really theories about how Western people think and are not universal?

Do cultural differences show up in brain activity? — Sharon Begley recently wrote about this in Newsweek. She reports on recent neuroscience research that confirms the cultural effects. “… when shown complex, busy scenes, Asian-Americans and non-Asian–Americans recruited different brain regions. The Asians showed more activity in areas that process figure-ground relations—holistic context—while the Americans showed more activity in regions that recognize objects. To take one recent example, a region behind the forehead called the medial prefrontal cortex supposedly represents the self: it is active when we (“we” being the Americans in the study) think of our own identity and traits. But with Chinese volunteers, the results were strikingly different. The “me” circuit hummed not only when they thought whether a particular adjective described themselves, but also when they considered whether it described their mother.”

Will it ever end? — This is the curse of research. Just when we think we know something, we find out there are more questions than answers!  One trend that should help is that there is more and more research coming out of Asia. If you peruse the psychology scientific journals you will see that more than half of the research that is being published today comes from Asia. Another big chunk comes from Europe, so the psychology research now is not so US centric. This will help, or will it? Will we now have to worry that the results from Asia don’t apply to the West? Should all psychology research be done using different cultures?

What do you think?

For more reading:

Ambady, N., Freeman, J. B., Rule, N. O. (in press). Culture and the neural substrates of behavior, perception, and cognition. In J. Decety & J. Cacioppo (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sharon Begley’s article in Newsweek:  West Brain, East Brain

Click the link below to find out more about The Geography of Thought, by Richard Nisbett (affiliate link):


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2 responses to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #26 — Culture shapes our brains”

  1. Armen Shirvanian Avatar

    Hi Susan.

    This is an interesting concept here. I do have the feeling that research from each area has small skews in results related to the people of that area. Having more psychology research done outside the US is not so great for the US, but is still beneficial to people as a whole.

    This also reminded me of how language differences can affect how our brains functions, like from the idea that Chinese numbers are all one-syllable words(if I remember correctly), and so Chinese children are much quicker to learn math than US children who think a bit slower due to numbers being longer. I think I read about that in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

    The example you pointed out about US folks focusing on the foreground or dominant object, as opposed to the background material for Asian folks, leads to a substantial difference in perception of our surroundings. Information like this gives us some understanding, as opposed to just saying “person C is just different”. I like to see details about why.

    Great series here.
    .-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..Others Won’t Create The Perfect Circumstances For You =-.

  2. Shannon Assion Avatar

    I worry about the fact that most of what we consider human behavior is actually only “western” behavior due to the research, and mistakenly applied in other cultures.

    I hear my XM or Experiential Marketing peers saying the reason we but toothpaste is universal ie you want to attract a mate for sex. but not all cultures value white pristine teeth, only Western Cultures do.

    Inuit and many other international tribal cultures have VERY differing ideas about beauty and what is desirable in a mate. Do we think it’s sexy to stretch our necks with rings, no, do those people value white teeth? No, they barely have any teeth, at least that aren’t rotten or filed to nubs, certainly aren’t pearly white!

    Surely something like high heels creating lordosis in a woman is some what universally appealing, speaks to the old brain to the animalistic brain. But as a modern woman I know that most of what’s sexy is actually the interaction with the person and mental/intellectually based, or so I like to believe.

    It’s an interesting topic, and I believe we are a bit arrogant to think all cultures think and react the same because our western data says we do.

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