Puzzles and Cultural Differences

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHere’s some interesting research where neuroscientists are using brain scans to show that cultural differences reach down to the level of functional activation in the brain.  Americans had a harder time with visual puzzles that required manipulating objects in context than “East Asians.”  Here a quote from the news article:


Neuroscientists Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research asked Americans and East Asians to solve basic shape puzzles while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They found that both groups could successfully complete the tasks, but American brains had to work harder at relative judgments, while East Asian brains found absolute judgments more challenging. Previous psychology research has shown that American culture focuses on the individual and values independence, while East Asian culture is more community-focused and emphasizes seeing people and objects in context. This study provides the first neurological evidence that these cultural differences extend to brain activity patterns.

Thankfully, the neuroscientists in question are also aware of some of the cultural stereotypes and possible negative implications of the research: “Gabireli said he does worry about unintended consequences of his research.  ‘The downside of these cultural studies is that one ends up stereotyping a culture,’ he said. ‘Are you creating big differences between people? I like to think the more you understand different cultures, the better you understand their perspectives.’

 For my side, I’d like to see a bigger and better drawn sample than 10 Americans and 10 “East Asians,” and surely better measurements of “identification” with their “culture” (and of course some ethnography!).  But at least some neuroscientists seem to be getting the cultural message.

 We can also use this research when we argue with hard-core types who want to use biology to explain everything.  Here we see that the patterns of activation are important, both at a functional and at a wiring level (“what fires together wires together” being a basic motto of the brain).  In other words, there are not gross differences in anatomy, nor are there gross differences in ability (both groups can manipulate objects).  Rather, the pattern of processing matters: 

 “One question was, when people see the line and box, do they look different all the way, starting at your retina?” Gabrieli said. “Or do you see the same thing to start with but then your mind focuses on one dimension or another. These data indicate that it’s at that later stage. In parts of the brain that are involved in early vision, we didn’t see a difference. Rather we saw a difference in higher-processing brain areas. People from different cultures don’t see the world differently, but they think differently about what they see.”

 Here’s the citation and abstract from the actual research:

 Trey Hedden, Sarah Ketay, Arthur Aron, Hazel Rose Markus, John D.E. Gabrieli (2008). Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control.  Psychological Science 19 (1), 12–17. 

ABSTRACT—Behavioral research has shown that people from Western cultural contexts perform better on tasks emphasizing independent (absolute) dimensions than on tasks emphasizing interdependent (relative) dimensions, whereas the reverse is true for people from East Asian contexts. We assessed functional magnetic resonance imaging responses during performance of simple visuospatial tasks in which participants made absolute judgments (ignoring visual context) or relative judgments (taking visual context into account). In each group, activation in frontal and parietal brain regions known to be associated with attentional control was greater during culturally nonpreferred judgments than during culturally preferred judgments. Also, within each group, activation differences in these regions correlated strongly with scores on questionnaires measuring individual differences in culture-typical identity. Thus, the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.

4 thoughts on “Puzzles and Cultural Differences

  1. I agree that this sort of research seems to be a bit of a double-edged sword. The data (even with caveats due to the small sample size) is fascinating; the interpretation of it is thorny. So often, whatever language we use, there’s a tendency to essentialize the source of the difference. That is, because a ‘culture’ is different, a processing pattern is different; or because an ‘ethnic group’ is different, the brain is not the same; or because native languages are different, there are fundamental differences between the brains.

    I suspect that the differences between the processing styles are less clear cut and less essential than this sort of interpretation would suggest. The explanations are devilishly difficult to pull off, and too often, they sound like the same old ‘West is individualist (or creative or absolutist…) and East (or whoever else) is collectivist (or conformist or relativist…).” That is, we tend to get very subtle data and research with very blunt theoretical instruments. Anthropological discussions of culture could lend so much more to this discussion IF anthropologists didn’t just throw up their hands in the face of this sort of data and complain about the nature of science (that is, treating the research methods or data, rather than the interpretation, as the source of problems like essentializing).

    To me, the issue of stereotyping or unintended consequences is secondary to the intellectual issue of lousy explanatory mechanisms. For example, between the third and fourth paragraphs of the original article that Daniel is discussing, an absolutely Devil’s Canyon-sized leap is made between spatial perception of lines and boxes to notions of collective identity in ‘Asian culture’ and individualism in the West. To me, the answer to the profound differences is MUCH more likely to lie in the area of spatial perception, habitual forms of graphic representation, motor-perceptual skills, and the like. To link visual perception to some very abstract over-arching single-sentence description of ‘Asian culture’ (which, of course, is itself already a nearly impossible synthesis of the cultures of over one-half of the world’s population) is a tragically bad explanatory strategy.

    I also doubt very much that the researchers can make assertions, as they do, about whether or not the subjects ‘perceive’ things differently (at the retina, as they suggest) or just ‘process’ visual information differently. I’m suspicious, firstly, because I’m convinced by ecological psychologists like James Gibson that ‘seeing’ is better understand as the active process of ‘looking’ accomplished by an entire perceptual system (a theoretical objection). Secondly, I’m dubious on empirical grounds because I don’t see the evidence that they’ve actually done any research on this subject (such as looking at visual scanning patterns on the puzzles). Thirdly, I am not inclined to support this argument because other recent research suggests that cultural differences actually DO affect very low-level perceptual sensation through a host of mechanisms, including downward-re-entrant synaptic links that modify the strength of perceptual stimuli.

    Clearly, the research team is on to something. People are perceiving and attempting to solve the same puzzles in different fashion, and there may be significant statistical differences in the distribution of those strategies between populations (did all ‘Westerners’ try to solve the puzzles in the same way? It doesn’t sound like it is if people’s strategies correlated with the degree to which they expressed stereotypical ‘cultural attitudes.’ Mind you, this is differentiation in a sample N of 10!). I wouldn’t even object so much if the cultural explanation weren’t so ham-handed and elliptical. But I’m damn glad that you pointed this piece out to us, Daniel. I’ll be coming back to it as I try to work on some new stuff on the senses…

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