How Culture Wires Our Brains

Insights from cultural neuroscience

Posted Jan 26, 2017

Culture has been called “an amalgam of values, meanings, conventions and artifacts that constitute daily social realities” (Kitayama & Park, 2010). As a system of meaning and shared beliefs, culture provides a framework for our behavioral and affective norms. Countless studies in cultural psychology have examined the effect of culture on all aspects of our behavior, cognition and emotion, delineating both differences and similarities across populations. More recently, findings in cultural neuroscience have outlined possible ways how cultural scripts that we learn during childhood and cultural practices that we observe as adults influence our brains.

What is cultural neuroscience?

royyimzy/Adobe Stock
Source: royyimzy/Adobe Stock

As an interdisciplinary field of research, cultural neuroscience investigates the relationship between culture and the brain, particularly, the ways in which culture “both constructs and is constructed by the mind and its underlying brain pathways” (Kitayama & Park, 2010). Exactly how might culture wire our brains? According to findings from cultural neuroscience, the mechanism has to do with the brain’s plasticity: the brain’s ability to adapt to long-lasting engagement in scripted behaviors (i.e. cultural tasks). The capacity of our brains to undergo structural changes from recurrent daily tasks has been well documented (e.g., larger hippocampi - a region that is intimately involved in spatial memory - of London taxi drivers; increased cortical density in the motor cortex of jugglers). Analogously, in order to process various cultural functions with more fluency, culture appears to become “embrained” from accumulated cultural experiences in our brains. Numerous fMRI studies have shown how cultural background can influence neural activity during various cognitive functions. For instance, cross-cultural differences in brain activity among Western and East Asian participants have been revealed during tasks including visual perception, attention, arithmetic processing, and self-reflection (see Han & Humphreys, 2016 for review).

Culture and self-construal

One of the widely studied traits to interpret cross-cultural differences in behavior, cognition and emotion is self-construal. Self-construal refers to how we perceive and understand ourselves. Western cultures promote an independent self-construal, where the self is viewed as a separate, autonomous entity and the emphasis is on the self’s independence and uniqueness. East Asian cultures, on the other hand, foster an interdependent self-construal, with a self that is more relational, harmonious and interconnected with others. Recent cultural neuroscience studies have given a glimpse into the interaction between self-construal, culture and the brain. In particular, research has suggested that self-construal mediates differences in brain activity across different cultures by activating a framework for various neural processes involved in cognition and emotion. In other words, because the self is formed in the context of our cultural scripts and practices, continuous engagement in cultural tasks that reflect values of independent or interdependent self-construals produces brain connections that are “culturally patterned”. This neural blueprint, according to researchers, is the foundation of the cultural construction of the self.

One way researchers have studied the influence of cultural values on neurocognitive processes is by priming participants towards independent and interdependent construals and then examining how the brain reacts to various situations afterwards. Priming can be done, for example, by asking participants to read stories containing different pronouns (“we” or “us” for interdependent self-construal and “I” or “me” for independent self-construal) and asking them to think about how similar or different they are to others. Findings have demonstrated various differences in neural activity after priming for independent or interdependent construals. For instance, priming has been shown to modulate the response to other people’s pain, as well as the degree with which we resonate with others. In another study, when participants were primed for independent construals during a gambling game, they showed more reward activation for winning money for themselves. However, when primed for interdependent construals, participants showed similar reward activation as when they had won money for a friend.

Culture also appears to influence the way the self is represented in our brains. In one experiment, Western and Chinese participants were asked to think about their selves, their mothers, or a public person. The fMRI data showed that the same parts of the brain (Medial Prefrontal Cortex) were activated when both groups thought about themselves. However, unlike with the Western participants, the MPFC was also activated among Chinese participants when they thought of their mothers. These results were interpreted as suggesting that the Chinese participants (interdependent self-construals) use the same brain area to represent both the self and their mothers, while the Western participants use the MPFC exclusively for self-representation.  

Recent cultural neuroscience research is shedding light on how culture shapes our functional anatomy, biases our brains, affects our neural activity, and even influences the way we represent the self and others in our brains. Whether due to daily activities or genes, when neurons fire repeatedly in scripted ways for a prolonged time (essentially what cultural practices entail), brain pathways can be reinforced and established – all to enable a more seamless execution of cultural tasks and to “facilitate a cultural and biological adaptation” (Kitayama & Park, 2010). Thus, as some researchers have suggested, our endorsement of particular cultural values may leave a greater imprint on our brains than on our behaviors. 


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