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Culture Gets Into The Mind

Interesting article with far-reaching implications for those of us who are hyphenated Americans. Here are the Cliff Notes with my italics and bolding:

It’s no secret culture influences your food preferences and taste in music. But now scientists say it impacts the hard-wiring of your brain. New research shows that people from different cultures use their brains differently to solve basic perceptual tasks.

Neuroscientists Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research asked Americans and East Asians to solve basic shape puzzles while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They found that both groups could successfully complete the tasks, but American brains had to work harder at relative judgments, while East Asian brains found absolute judgments more challenging.

Previous psychology research has shown that American culture focuses on the individual and values independence, while East Asian culture is more community-focused and emphasizes seeing people and objects in context. This study provides the first neurological evidence that these cultural differences extend to brain activity patterns…

“For the kind of thinking that was thought to be culturally unpreferred, this system gets turned on,” Gabrieli said. “The harder you have to think about something, the more it will be activated.”…

“There’s a hint that six months in a culture already changes you,” he said, referring to psychological, rather than neurological, research. “It suggests that there’s a lot of flexibility.”

Scientists have long wondered about the biological root of cultural differences.

“One question was, when people see the line and box, do they look different all the way, starting at your retina?” Gabrieli said. “Or do you see the same thing to start with but then your mind focuses on one dimension or another. These data indicate that it’s at that later stage. In parts of the brain that are involved in early vision, we didn’t see a difference. Rather we saw a difference in higher-processing brain areas. People from different cultures don’t see the world differently, but they think differently about what they see.”

Gabireli said he does worry about unintended consequences of his research.

“The downside of these cultural studies is that one ends up stereotyping a culture,” he said. “Are you creating big differences between people? I like to think the more you understand different cultures, the better you understand their perspectives.”

No wonder we have such a hard time understanding ourselves. It’s like having two different brains!

About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

6 responses to “Culture Gets Into The Mind

  1. Josh

    whoa! that’s crazy. but I wonder, do we have two different brains, or maybe two sides mushed together…

  2. Pingback: How does Culture Alter the Brain? | Reflections

  3. djchuang

    I would speculate that brain activity is more descriptive than prescriptive. That is, a person who is culturally conditiioned to think a certain way (individualistically or collectively) will use different parts of the brain, simply because of different neural network areas are used for different types of thinking. Case in point: left-brain vs. right-brain thinking, one for creativity, one for logic. Different parts of the brain can be more actively used, and with more use, one part gets more neurons developed and habitually becomes more and more default.

    But, then again, what do I know – I’m not a brain surgeon 🙂

  4. elderj

    very interesting… I wonder what affects bi-culturality or living as part of a sub-dominant culture have on ones’ brain.

  5. Jarrett ⋅

    yes, quite interesting. . . if 6 months changes you– what about 4 years? and Korean America for 5 before that? I’ve felt changed in many ways, but this gives some substance to that feeling. . .

  6. Letitia

    Values aside, I see a lot of this has to do with brain use. For example, I have heard that NYC cab drivers have the most active brains of adults. Having to navigate through NYC and knowing where everything is in a city that large is quite an impressive skill. I would imagine restaurant servers also display the same abilities, given the demands of their job.

    I dunno. Relevant?


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