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, 2010; Ames and Fiske, 2010).
To read the rest of the “The What, Why and How of Cultural Neuroscience” introductory series, link here.