The What, Why and How of Cultural Neuroscience – Part 1: What is Cultural Neuroscience?

28 01 2011

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).

In the following paragraphs, I would like to introduce a framework to describe the aims and objectives of cultural neuroscience, based on work by Han & Northoff, 2008 and Ambady & Bharucha, 2009.

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:

  1. genetic commonality or difference,
  2. cultural learning mediated by brain plasticity (e.g. exposure & experience) and
  3. 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.




7 responses

28 01 2011
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3 02 2011
Rob Geurtsen

Interesting summary of the field of cultural neuroscience. One of my research topics is ECLET (the Emergent Cyclical levels of Existence Theory, devloped by Clare W. Graves, a contemporary of Maslow and Festinger). A hypothesis in this theory is that neural substrates are interdependent with world-views, rooted in existential problems. The way you described the field of cultural neuroscience offers a new perspective of the neuroscoence for ECLET:

Currently I am writing a paper, and I destilled from your summary:

“There appears a huge potential in the research aims of cultural neuroscientists to provide indicative answers to questions ECLET asks of neurosciences in general. Reversely ECLET might explain phenomena and correlates, or lack of, that cultural neuroscience finds.

Working questions of cultural neuroscience which bear relevance to ECLET are:
a. How are different environments processed differently by individuals of a given culture?
b. How is the same environment processed differently by individuals from different cultures?
One of the shared research topics is:
c. How cultural adaption and learning is mediated by brain plasticity (e.g. exposure & experience).

To ECLET the most challenging and relevant research question of cultural neuroscience will be:
d. How do neurobiological mechanisms facilitate the emergence and transmission of culture? ”

Thanks for the inspiration, hope your blog will gain momentum, in the meantime I will be checking every few days.

14 02 2011

Hi Rob!

First of all, please excuse my extremely delayed reply!

I am glad that the post was helpful in the sense that it enabled you to relate the field of cultural neuroscience and ECLET to each other. And thank you for making this interesting comment and introducing me to this theory!

If I understand correctly, one of the ideas behind ECLET is that (on a macro-level) the way culture shapes neural processes is by requiring the individuals of a society to concern themselves and interact with potential social and existential challenges in order to achieve balance.

ECLET seems to be very helpful indeed, because it could represent a modulator for the interaction between culture and the brain. Such a theory could explain the difference in the system of values of different generations, which have been exposed to different existential and social problems. This shift of values is a reality in many East-Asian cultures which up to this point have so often been part of the popular East-West paradigm, hence arguing for more dynamism. What ECLET is also very helpful with is that it emphasizes the bidirectionality of the relationship between culture and the brain. ECLET seems like a good framework for neuroscience and psychology/sociology to work together! Thank you!


15 03 2011
How Cultures Impact The Brain and Expat Lives? « Anne Egros, Zest and Zen International Coaching

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21 04 2014

I am writing to request information for further study. I am currently holding a BA in social/cognitive sciences but would love to link into cultural neuroscientific research and theory as a graduate student. How can this be accomplished?

29 04 2014

Please excuse my late reply. In general, I recommend that you do some literature search and reading, find out a question or general topic that might interest you and try to contact potential collaborators who might be interested to supervise you or work with you on that topic. You can get in touch with me via email and we can try to discuss this further and see whether I can help you with your request. Or you can check out the “links” section of the blog and browse through the research labs who work on this topic to see if there is anything that might apply for you.


16 12 2014

I’m an amateur in this field but it appears this focus is leaving out some key pieces. One of the areas I’d like to see explored is the list of instinctual behavioral models of primates and what that list looks like in humans. Until we have the human models we can’t know how culture modifies them. I’m pretty sure that list will correspond to distinct brain components, and each culturaly modified behavior model will exhibit a corresponding brain modification.

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