The What, Why and How of Cultural Neuroscience – Part 2: Why Study Cultural Neuroscience?

6 02 2011

Why is cultural neuroscience important?

Last year, Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan published an article in Behavioral and Brain Science titled “The weirdest people in the world?” (I also highly recommend reading Greg Downey’s review and commentary on the article over at the old Neuroanthropology blog). One of the authors’ claims refers to how most of what we know today about the human mind and behavior is built upon research that examines disproportionately university undergraduates who come from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries: the “WEIRD” people. A similar point was made by Arnett in 2008, in the article “The neglected 95%: Why American psychology needs to become less American“.

Cross-cultural psychology has long been offering evidence that the socio-cultural context influences both high- and low-level cognitive processes like perception, attention, emotion, person- or self-construal. The technological advancement in recent years has introduced neuroscience as another potential level of analysis of human cognition and behavior. A growing number of transcultural neuroimaging studies have already been able to demonstrate that one’s cultural background and/or context can influence both the structure and the function of the neural substrates of human cognition (for a comprehensive review, see Ames and Fiske, 2010; Park and Huang, 2010).

And it is not just the methodological advantages that neuroscience has to offer to the study of culture, that argue for the combination of the two. Zhou and Cacioppo suggest in their 2010 review paper that “the inextricable links between sociocultural and biological levels of organization argue for the incorporation of the neurosciences into the ongoing integration of culture and psychology”. In this regard, Kitayama and Uskul (2011) propose a theoretical framework called “the neuro-culture interaction model” and think of the ecological and societal environment as a context in which certain practices engage the individual with the result of cultural knowledge being accumulated in the brain. Ambady and Bharucha (2009) assume this relationship to be bidirectional because cultural practices adapt to neurobiological constraints on the one hand and human neurobiology adapts to cultural experience on the other. This view is taken one step further by the “biocultural co-constructivism” paradigm, introduced by Paul Baltes and colleagues (2006), which argues that brain and culture are described by a dynamic relationship of interdependence and mutual determination.

Provided that cultural neuroscience has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parent disciplines (an issue that will be discussed in Part 3 of this post series), the field could provide information that is unique and indispensable for theory building and could generate a new generation of paradigm-bridging researchers who collaborate in an interdisciplinary context.

Addtionally, the investigation of culture mappings and the analysis of their sources (cf. Ambady & Bharucha, 2009) yields several advantages: It would help:

  • distinguish culture-sensitive from culture-invariant neural mechanisms;
  • explain the patterns of cross-cultural commonalities or differences:
    • Can differences between two groups be explained by the use of differing neural strategies or by the differing degree of reliance on the same strategy?
    • If two groups display similar behavior patterns, could the neural correlates point to similar or rather differening strategies?
  • investigate which effects of culture are constitutional and/or modulatory (Han & Northoff, 2008);
  • determine whether cultural commonalities and differences have a genetic or environmental cause. Kitayama and Tompson (2010) argue that cultural neuroscience hence carries the potential to integrate both nature and nurture, since the assumption of a strict dichotomy is rather obsolete;
  • determine which specific aspects of culture affect the neural bases of human cognition (Han & Northoff, 2008);
  • investigate the developmental trajectory of cultural differences (Park & Huang, 2010; Choudhury, 2010);
  • bring awareness to the experimental design regarding how the defining features of a category or concept may differ depending on context (Choudhury, 2010);
  • investigate culture specific symptoms pf psychiatric  disorders (Han & Northoff, 2008);
  • investigate how culture is constructed and transmitted in the brain (Chiao et al., 2010);

Some examples of implications for cultural neuroscience findings and application possibilities woud be:

  • Cultural neuroscience might help develop culturally appropriate brain templates for further use in transcultural imaging studies (Chiao et al., 2010).
  • Cultural neuroscience could shed light on the neural substrates of acculturation (Han & Northoff, 2008), which holds implications for multicultural/integration policies.
  • Cultural neuroscience might inform on the effectiveness and consequences of culturally different pedagogical strategies, vulnerabilities to certain kind of distracters, strengths for certain kind of computation methods etc. This could potentially improve education worldwide (Ames and Fiske, 2010).
  • The involvement of neuroscience in (cross-) cultural psychiatry would also influence diagnostic criteria and therapies (Han & Northoff, 2008).
  • Given the cultural differences in conceptualizations of adolescence, cultural neuroscience could help determine when “adolescence” as a category is useful to account for a particular cognitive difference, and if not, to conceptualize alternative variables that may relate to the cognitive process being studied (Choudhury, 2010).
  • Neuroeconomics and neuromarketing are fields that might both profit from and inform cultural neuroscience (e.g. McClure et al., 2004).
  • Cultural Neuroscience research may help shed light on the language and thought debate by providing information about the maleability of neural regions underlying different cognitive functions (Losin et al, 2010Ames and Fiske, 2010).

To read the rest of the “The What, Why and How of Cultural Neuroscience” introductory series, link here.



6 responses

9 02 2011
Wednesday Round Up #141 | Neuroanthropology

[…] @CulturalNeuroscience, The What, Why and How of Cultural Neuroscience – Part 2: Why Study Cultural Neuroscience? *Continued good coverage of this emerging […]

12 03 2011
Carlos Velasco

I agree, good converage of this emerging field.
I’ve got one thought and one comment, though. My thought: is there an agreement on what is culture in this emerging field or are there are different approaches?
Comment: It would be very interesting to discuss how can Social Neuroscience and Cultural Neuroscience mutually profit and inform each other. They share information that could help integrally approach these processes.

13 03 2011

Thank you, Carlos, for your comment!

Regarding your thought: You’ve mentioned one the most sensitive topics in cultural neuroscience! While most people do agree upon a definition of culture, this definition is far too general (the construct itself being incredibly complex) and a big problem arises at the operationalization level. Some research has operationalized culture as language, ethnicity and/or nationality. But these categories are extremely limited because they bear little information with regard to the factors that actually shape perception and cognition. Therefore, most cultural neuroscience research so far has focused on different effects of culture: different perceptual environments, cultural syndromes (most notably individualistic vs collectivistic systems) or culturally determined self-construal strategies: independent vs interdependent. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages and new approaches that focus on subsystems within cultures are emerging (e.g. religion, social class)

Regarding your comment: Such a dialogue would indeed be very fruitful and I hope this will be realized to a greater extent in the future. Cultural Neuroscience should be careful not to become merely Cross-Cultural Social Neuroscience. One advantage it has, that has the potential to make it a valuable source of information for Social Neuroscience is its strong interdisciplinary character.


8 04 2011

Thanks Ada!
Did you look at genetic epidemiology as possible tool of your explorations?
Do you prefer Hegelian or Marxian dialectical materialism?
Do you think there is a place for deontology within Cultural Neuroscience?
Do you think that immediate community (family, friends, etc.) has most significant role in culture formation?
What do you think of self-influence?
Good Luck with everything!

4 05 2011


Thank you for the comment and the wishes and please excuse the very late reply! Unfortunately, I don’t think I can answer all your questions, although they are very interesting and stimulating!

“Did you look at genetic epidemiology as possible tool of your explorations?” – I am preparing a post on “the How of Cultural Neuorscience”, where I will try to give an overview of methods. Indeed, that is one valuable tool!

“Do you think that immediate community (family, friends, etc.) has most significant role in culture formation?” – I think this is a great question which takes us to the nature/nurture debate. I think the immediate environment is particularly important because it constitutes a setting in which social interaction takes place. This, in turn, is likely to drive implicit learning as an essential way of cultural acquisition.

“What do you think of self-influence?” – If by “self” you mean one’s own self-concept, I would say that it is equally culturally influenced. Whether the self can also influence culture is an interesting question and I believe it does so, but the manner in which this happens is much more complex and not so straight-forward as the other way around.


9 05 2011

Hey Ada! Thanks for a reply.

It is OK to leave questions about philosophical perspective unanswered, despite it is very important with respect to the definitional and exploratory methodologies you are planning to employ.
My point in discussing self-influence is, that any person at the point of puberty (which has enormous relation to genetic epidemiology) internally faces the dilemma of accepting or rejecting cultural preferences of the environment, she (he) grew up in until that point. Rejection explains the fact that most of the revolutionary behavior displayed by young people. Predictively, society with high portion of elderly population will exhibit more conservative views and young minority will force to accept more conservative views.
I also want to point out in the process of beliefs formation (separate from faith) as the most important point of the behavior development. Even many authors suggested that external factors (e.g. culture) are influential at large, my argument is, that physiology of the brain (that genetically predisposed to some changes-adaptations) is responsible for our behavior. The self-influence is internal process and responsible for accepted knowledge (that may include religious faith), generally called learning. So far, no one look at the believing as physiological process.
I also want to make it clear, that absolutely all cellular receptors (not brain’s only) are involved in that process. There is also some evidence, that it starts during prenatal period, meaning we are normally born with some set of beliefs. All we need to learn how to successfully survive, is trustworthy source of information (by definition it is a nurturing parent), that becomes one of the subjects for a challenge during puberty and thereafter. Puberty (and some period after) is important point for securing continuum of the future generations (that points at genetic cycles of our behavior). In this case nature/nurture debate becomes nuisance, because both are equivalently important. I think, believing is the most significant function of the brain in cognition formation and responsible for our individual psych in general.
The society is a spectrum of arranged (naturally or artificially) groups of individuals in different communities with aspect on the perception, as form inside (community member), as from outside (observer). It is very hard to draw boundaries between separate communities. Social events are indicators of activities within communities that may result in cultural changes. Because communities are not isolated in general, it is very important to find links and interconnection between them. That bring you back to the individual beliefs.
By saying that “self-concept is equally culturally influenced”, you deny individual responsibility for own behavior and that is very slippery slope, from deontological perspective. We always have some choice, even when we believe there is no choice.
Good Luck with everything!

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