Here’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.