What is Cultural Neuroscience?
The term “cultural neuroscience” was coined by Joan Chiao, a former graduate student of Nalini Ambady at Harvard University. It describes an emerging interdisciplinary field focused on investigating the multidirectional interactions between culture, mind, genes and the brain (Chiao & Ambady, 2007 in the Handbook of Cultural Psychology, edited by Kitayama and Cohen). The relationship is not assumed to be unidirectional because cultural practices adapt to neurobiological constraints on the one hand and human neurobiology adapts to cultural experience on the other (Ambady & Bharucha, 2009).
Cultural neuroscience requires an interdisciplinary approach and attempts to bridge theory and methods from a variety of fields including anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and genetics. Some of the pioneers in cultural neuroscience are Nalini Ambady (IPC Lab, Tufts University), Joan Chiao (SACN Lab, Northwestern University), Shinobu Kitayama (CCMB Lab, University of Michigan) and Shihui Han (CSCN Lab, Peking University).
Han and Northoff (2008) suggest that cultural neuroscience would aim at determining which neural substrates of human psychology are culture-sensitive and which are culture-invariant. In this line, Ambady and Bharucha (2009) suggest the term culture mapping and refer to the investigation of the extent to which cognitive and neural processes are tuned to the cultural environment (e.g. How are different environments processed differently by individuals of a given culture? How is the same environment processed differently by individuals from different cultures?).
Ambady and Bharucha (2009) mention another main objective of cultural neuroscience: Source analysis is the attempt to determine the causes of culture mappings (i.e. found cultural universals and differences). They mention three possible sources for culture mappings, which potentially interact with each other:
- genetic commonality or difference,
- cultural learning mediated by brain plasticity (e.g. exposure & experience) and
- the degree of similarity between cultural environments (e.g. stimuli and pattern structures).
Han and Northoff (2008) further try to categorize source analysis and suggest that cultural neuroscience would additionally aim at uncovering a modulatory effect of culture on the neural substrates of human psychology on the one hand and a constitutional effect on the other: ”If two different [cultural] groups differ, in the activity of a particular brain region during a task, one might assume that the region’s activity is modulated by the cultural difference. If culture has a constitutional influence, one’s cultural background would determine whether a particular brain region is recruited at all.”
In order to mirror the bidirectional character of the relationship between culture and neurobiology in a framework describing the objectives of this area of research, one could add another question to the list that cultural neuroscience should try to answer: How do neurobiological mechanisms facilitate the emergence and transmission of culture (Chiao et al., 2010)?
If you have any comments, suggestions or ideas related to this post, please let me know in the comment section below.
Part 2 (Why study cultural neuroscience) and Part 3 (How to study cultural neuroscience) of this series as well as a post dedicated to the best review papers and suggested readings in this field will follow (hopefully) in the course of next week.
To read the rest of the “The What, Why and How of Cultural Neuroscience” introductory series, link here.