Posted: 08/25/2010; Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2010;5(2):111-129. © 2010 Oxford University Press
Abstract and Introduction
Cultural neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field of research that investigates interrelations among culture, mind and the brain. Drawing on both the growing body of scientific evidence on cultural variation in psychological processes and the recent development of social and cognitive neuroscience, this emerging field of research aspires to understand how culture as an amalgam of values, meanings, conventions, and artifacts that constitute daily social realities might interact with the mind and its underlying brain pathways of each individual member of the culture. In this article, following a brief review of studies that demonstrate the surprising degree to which brain processes are malleably shaped by cultural tools and practices, the authors discuss cultural variation in brain processes involved in self-representations, cognition, emotion and motivation. They then propose (i) that primary values of culture such as independence and interdependence are reflected in the compositions of cultural tasks (i.e. daily routines designed to accomplish the cultural values) and further (ii) that active and sustained engagement in these tasks yields culturally patterned neural activities of the brain, thereby laying the ground for the embodied construction of the self and identity. Implications for research on culture and the brain are discussed.
Introduction…familiar categories of behavior—marriage customs, food taboos, folk superstitions and so on—certainly do vary across cultures, but the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that generate them may be universal and innate (Pinker, 2002, p. 39).
What Steve Pinker is referring to in this quote is a view of the human mind as an autonomous computational machine. Now a half century old, this view became a dominant metaphor of the mind around the 1950s when a computer was invented. This metaphor presented an appealing possibility that the human mind might also have a set of algorithms that enable it to receive an input and perform intelligent transformations on it (see Posner, 1989 for this history). Ever since then, the computer metaphor has held sway on social and behavioral sciences in general and on psychology in particular. It was central in cognitive psychology (Neisser, 1967), which had important influences on social cognition and social psychology in general (Fiske and Taylor, 1991; Wyer and Srull, 1994).
Any powerful metaphors can highlight issues and research agendas. Such metaphors can therefore contribute to the development of empirical and theoretical knowledge. The computer metaphor is not an exception. The enormous progress the above-noted fields have undergone over the last half century may owe importantly to this single metaphor. At the same time, however, any powerful metaphors, including this one, can also hide and background some other aspects that are equally important and fundamental. We believe that useful as it obviously is, the computer metaphor is limiting in some important ways especially if taken too literally, thereby hampering a further development of the related fields. In particular, the computer metaphor would portray the mind as fixed, bounded and housed neatly in the head, and but for sensory receptors nearly completely insulated from the external environment. However, recent demonstrations of neural plasticity and epigenesis emphasize the significance of experience in brain development by suggesting that non-genetic, environmental factors can lead to dramatic changes in gene expression (e.g. Suomi, 1999; Gunnar et al., 2001; Meaney and Syzf, 2005; Lee et al., 2006). Given this emerging evidence, it has become increasingly clear that 'the mind itself' is significantly influenced by socio-cultural contexts insofar as experience is powerfully organized by culture. This possibility, however, is often back-grounded, underappreciated and thus under-researched within the general theoretical framework informed by the metaphor endorsed by Pinker and many contemporary researchers of the human mind.
A new theoretical framework of cultural neuroscience, which we will suggest later in this article, is intended to restore a much needed balance in emphasis (see Ambady and Bharucha, 2009; Dominguez et al., 2010; Kitayama and Uskul, in press; Kitayama and Tompson, 2010; Losin et al., in press; Malafouris, in press; Seligman and Brown, in press for related perspectives). It seeks to establish an alternative view of the human mind as biologically prepared and, yet, supplemented, transformed and fully completed through active participation and engagement in the eco-symbolic environment called culture. In our view, then, cultural neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field of research that investigates interrelations among culture, mind and the brain (Kitayama & Tompson, 2010; Kitayama & Uskul, in press). Drawing on both the growing body of scientific evidence on cultural variation in psychological processes and the recent development of social and cognitive neuroscience, this emerging field of research aspires to understand how culture as an amalgam of values, meanings, conventions and artifacts that constitute daily social realities might interact with—that is, both constructing and being constructed by, the mind and its underlying brain pathways of each individual member of the culture. As we will see, this new field has potential of bridging social and biological sciences, thereby contributing to a new integrative theoretical framework for the study of the human mind.
Why Add 'Neuro' to the Study of Culture?
Over the last two decades, a number of researchers have argued that psychological processes are malleably shaped to a degree that is far greater than was previously considered possible by exposure to, and active engagement in, socio-cultural environments. This thesis has received considerable support from the last two decades of research in cultural psychology (e.g. Markus and Kitayama, 1991, 1994; Nisbett et al., 2001; Kitayama et al., 2006; Heine, 2008, for reviews). Nevertheless, increasingly more compelling evidence has begun to emerge from recent adoption of neuroscience measures in the field. In fact, the present special issue of Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience is a testament to this observation.
Before the modern rebirth of cultural psychology, a number of cross-cultural studies in psychology had been largely based on survey methods (e.g. Hofstede, 2001; Schwartz, 1992). Although powerful and capable of demonstrating a broad bird's eye view of world cultures (e.g. Inglehart and Baker, 2001), the methods had left open the question of how culture might influence psychological processes, mechanisms, and structures of each individual. One important strength of the cultural psychology literature was that, unlike its predecessors, it took advantage of a variety of experimental paradigms and tasks to investigate underlying processes and mechanisms (see Kitayama and Cohen, 2007, for a review). Although important and crucial in theory development in psychology in general, there is an important limitation in this endeavor as well because any psychological paradigms or tasks necessarily involve observations of downstream outcomes of hypothesized processes or mechanisms, such as response time, recall or recognition, and judgment.
Neuroscience measures have enabled researchers to observe neural processes underlying the psychological processes more rapidly and concurrently than was ever before possible with traditional behavioral measures alone. For example, the processing of socially significant stimuli (e.g. one's own face) can be enhanced. Moreover, this enhancement can be detected as early as one tenth of a second. With traditional psychological measures, a phenomenon such as this is simply unobservable. Yet, with neuroscience measures, especially with event-related potentials (ERPs; which have extremely high time resolution), a variety of hypotheses regarding early visual processing or early spontaneous attention can be tested with relative ease. Initial neural evidence is indicative of strong cultural effects on such processing (Park et al., 2009; Sui et al., 2009; Ishii et al., in press).
Moreover, with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it is possible to identify specific brain regions that are recruited in a variety of psychological operations such as perception, judgment, and decision making (see e.g. Adolphs, 2009; Lieberman, 2010, for reviews). With putative functions of these regions of the brain reasonably specified, the technique enables researchers to specify the nature of brain mechanisms underlying such psychological operations. Again, culture has proven to be quite powerful in modulating psychological processes. As we will see, when solving simple arithmetic problems, native English speakers engage the left perisylvian cortices—areas that are typically involved in linguistic processing. Surprisingly, however, native Chinese speakers show very little activation in this area. Instead, they show marked activation in a pre-motor association area (Tang et al., 2006). A finding like this is especially powerful because it demonstrates that the same behavioral outcome is accomplished by different brain pathways. This suggests that people carry out the same tasks by recruiting varying component neural operations depending on their social or cultural backgrounds.
In what follows, we will present a brief review of recent cultural neuroscience evidence that demonstrates the degree to which brain pathways are shaped by culture. We will document that cultural tools and cultural practices have powerful influences on brain pathways. Importantly, there is a growing body of literature demonstrating that symbolic aspects of culture, including certain normative mandates of culture such as independence and interdependence, also influence brain pathways. We will then ask a more fundamental question of exactly how culture might influence the brain. Our answer is premised on the hypothesis that recurrent, active, and long-term engagement in scripted behavioral sequences (called cultural tasks) can powerfully shape and modify brain pathways. Relying on this idea, we will propose a theoretical framework for understanding the culture–mind interaction. We will then examine some implications of the framework to suggest several future directions of research in cultural neuroscience.
Read the rest of the article:
- Culture and the Brain: New Evidence
- Culturally Patterned Neural Activities: Toward a Comprehensive Theoretical Framework