Sunday, June 23, 2013

Essentializing the Binary Self: Individualism and Collectivism in Cultural Neuroscience

In this interesting Perspectives paper from the open access Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the authors analyzed current poster abstracts from the 18th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) in Beijing and scientific research published in peer-reviewed journals that addressed the neural foundations of culturally-shaped ways of defining or understanding the self. Their framework consisted of four biases - essentialism, binarity, Eurocentrism, and postcolonial and Orientalist views of the Self.
Both at the level of hypotheses generation and at the level of data interpretation, all research is influenced by specific socio-political and historical contexts. In this respect we argue that all quoted CN studies referring to the self are rooted in a specific context which defines the relevant research questions and topics and the way of interpretation. This context is traversed by social circumstances, political interests, and imbalances of power (Martínez Mateo et al., 2012).
Seems that social constructionist models are also gaining ground in the realm of brain mapping, brain imaging, and cognitive neuroscience more widely.

Full Citation: 
Martínez Mateo M, Cabanis M, Stenmanns J and Krach S. (2013). Essentializing the binary self: individualism and collectivism in cultural neuroscience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience; 7:289. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00289

Essentializing the binary self: individualism and collectivism in cultural neuroscience

M. Martínez Mateo, M. Cabanis, J. Stenmanns, and S. Krach

Within the emerging field of cultural neuroscience (CN) one branch of research focuses on the neural underpinnings of “individualistic/Western” vs. “collectivistic/Eastern” self-views. These studies uncritically adopt essentialist assumptions from classic cross-cultural research, mainly following the tradition of Markus and Kitayama (1991), into the domain of functional neuroimaging. In this perspective article we analyze recent publications and conference proceedings of the 18th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping (2012) and problematize the essentialist and simplistic understanding of “culture” in these studies. Further, we argue against the binary structure of the drawn “cultural” comparisons and their underlying Eurocentrism. Finally we scrutinize whether valuations within the constructed binarities bear the risk of constructing and reproducing a postcolonial, orientalist argumentation pattern.


At the 18th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping which was held in Beijing (June 10–14, 2012) the official program was amended by the philosophical supplement “Entering the Mind's I: Some reflections on the Chinese notion of self.” The supplement begins by explaining that the “concept of the individual as outlined by Western philosophy finds its most successful and most immediate conceptual and visual transposition in the work The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo [da Vinci].” The authors of this supplement pursue by stating that “No iconographic representation could be more antithetical to the concept of an individual characterized by the entirety of Chinese philosophy and culture (…)” (Lietti, 2012). 
During the conference various other contributions, symposia [e.g., “Imaging the sociocultural human brain” by Gao (2012)], i-poster presentations, or posters addressed “culturally” tuned ways of understanding the self. In these presentations the neural basis of “individualistic/Western” and “collectivistic/Eastern” “cultures” and their way of treating the self were discussed in comparison based on new insights from functional neuroimaging. 
But what does it mean to presume a “culturally” imprinted self? And what are the implications of considering two seemingly complementary groups with putatively opposed world- and self-views? The classic review of “cross-cultural” research by Markus and Kitayama (1991) represents the primary inspiration for actual neuroimaging work on “East/West” comparisons. We argue that, by doing so, assumptions implied in classic cross-cultural research are adopted to the functional neuroimaging community without being scrutinized. “Psychological” findings about “cultural differences” are thereby translated onto a “biological” level treating “culture” as a characteristic which can be read out from the body. By means of neuroimaging technology the simplifications of “culture” inherent to many cross-cultural psychological studies receive additional support as cultural differences can now be fostered by biological “evidence.” 
Here we elaborate why such neuroscientific findings bear the risk of constructing and reproducing essentialist (1), binarized (2), and Eurocentric (3) ways of thinking and acting which follow a postcolonial and orientalist tradition (4). These four dimensions build the frame for the current analysis. They all refer to specific traditions of critique which originate from philosophy and social science and which will be introduced in more detail in the respective sections of this manuscript. 
The endeavor to studying “cultural” phenomena by using functional MRI started only in the last decade (Chiao, 2009; Han and Northoff, 2009;Vogeley and Roepstorff, 2009; Kitayama and Park, 2010; Losin et al., 2010; Bao and Pöppel, 2012; Han et al., 2013; Rule et al., 2013). Since the year 2000 the number of publications in the cultural neurosciences (CN) has increased tremendously. Although particular concepts of “culture” are implied, these are only rarely explicitly addressed (Martínez Mateo et al., 2012, 2013). Within the field of CN, however, a particular branch has focused on “culturally” tuned ways of understanding the self [see Martínez Mateo et al. (2012) for a review on different branches in CN]. For the purpose of the present article we searched (i) peer-reviewed English language manuscripts of original functional MRI studies indexed in large databases (e.g., Google Scholar; PubMed) and (ii) abstracts published in the this year's Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) abstract book [pdf] which addressed the neural correlates of the self or self-concepts such as individualism and collectivism in a “cultural” context using cerebral blood flow imaging techniques such as fMRI or fNIRS. Overall, 10 manuscripts and 10 conference abstracts fulfilled these criteria and thus, formed the data pool for the present analysis. 
From these publications we extracted the aforementioned four fundamental dimensions which we problematize by briefly discussing their immanent assumptions, their implications and consequences.
Read the whole article.

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