November 30, 2010

Your brain on culture

The burgeoning field of cultural neuroscience is finding that culture influences brain development, and perhaps vice versa.

(November, 2010)  When an American thinks about whether he is honest, his brain activity looks very different than when he thinks about whether another person is honest, even a close relative. That’s not true for Chinese people. When a Chinese man evaluates whether he is honest, his brain activity looks almost identical to when he is thinking about whether his mother is honest.

That finding — that American and Chinese brains function differently when considering traits of themselves versus traits of others (Neuroimage, Vol. 34, No. 3) — supports behavioral studies that have found that people from collectivist cultures, such as China, think of themselves as deeply connected to other people in their lives, while Americans adhere to a strong sense of individuality.

The study also shows the power of cultural neuroscience, the growing field that uses brain-imaging technology to deepen the understanding of how environment and beliefs can shape mental function. Barely heard of just five years ago, the field has become a vibrant area of research, and the University of Michigan, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Emory University have created cultural neuroscience centers. In addition, in April a cultural neuroscience meeting at the University of Michigan attracted such psychology luminaries as Hazel Markus, PhD, Michael Posner, PhD, Steve Suomi, PhD, and Claude Steele, PhD, to discuss their work in the context of cultural neuroscience.