August 03, 2010
Brain Structure Differences Between Cultures

Do brain structures develop differently in different cultures?

Where you grow up can have a big impact on the food you eat, the clothes you wear, and even how your brain works. In a report in a special section on Culture and Psychology in the July Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientists Denise C. Park from the University of Texas at Dallas and Chih-Mao Huang from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discuss ways in which brain structure and function may be influenced by culture.

There is evidence that the collectivist nature of East Asian cultures versus individualistic Western cultures affects both brain and behavior. East Asians tend to process information in a global manner whereas Westerners tend to focus on individual objects. There are differences between East Asians and Westerners with respect to attention, categorization, and reasoning. For example, in one study, after viewing pictures of fish swimming, Japanese volunteers were more likely to remember contextual details of the image than were American volunteers. Experiments tracking participants' eye movements revealed that Westerners spend more time looking at focal objects while Chinese volunteers look more at the background. In addition, our culture may play a role in the way we process facial information. Research has indicated that when viewing faces, East Asians focus on the central region of faces while Westerners look more broadly, focusing on both the eyes and mouth.

Westerners have thicker frontal cortexes for reasoning whereas East Asians have thicker cortex areas for perception.

While numerous studies suggest that culture may affect neural function, there is also limited evidence for the effect of cultural experiences on brain structure. A recent study conducted by Park and Michael Chee of Duke/National University of Singapore showed evidence for thicker frontal cortex (areas involved in reasoning) in Westerners compared to East Asians, whereas East Asians had thicker cortex in perceptual areas.

Whether the cause is genetic or cultural (or possibly a mix of both) people with different brain structures are going to perceive reality differently.

What I want to know: When it becomes possible to choose between genetic variants that control some aspects of brain structure will people in different cultures on average choose brain structures that produce offspring who basically are better adapted for and more comfortable with a single culture? Will different human populations therefore drift further apart in how they conceptualize and process their environments?

It is possible that psychological differences around the world have been drastically understudied because most psychological research is still done in the United States and mostly on populations of unrepresentative university students.

Also see my previous posts Mandarin Language Uses More Of The Brain Than English and Parts Of Brain Used For Math Differ For English, Chinese Speakers.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 August 03 10:43 PM  Brain Society


Comments
PeterB said at August 4, 2010 12:10 PM:

This seems an ideal opportunity for a twins study.

Twin A: Asian ancestry and raised in asian culture and twin B: Of asian ancestry (obviously if they're twins) raised in the US. If the American raised twin shows the "asian neural structures" then they're genetic, otherwise they're cultural.

I'll make a bet that you're "mixture of both" suggestion is correct. Also the influence of culture vs genetics on the brain ignores the issue of genetics on culture. Are the differences between asian and western culture a reflection (at least in part) of underlying genetic differences. I think this may be a chicken and the egg thing. If genetics are shown to play a part a big question arises. Do the different cultures reflect genetically determined neural architecture or do different cultural pressures select for genes which favor the neural structures most useful in navigating that culture? Did the culture select for genes or did genetic differences create the culture?

PacRim Jim said at August 4, 2010 2:37 PM:

Do the brains differ because of the cultures? Or could it be that the cultures differ because of the brains?

Engineer-Poet said at August 4, 2010 8:53 PM:

That's a very good question, and I bet we'll see hints as gene sequencing gets cheaper and data accumulate.

If it is genetic, which came first:  genetics changed the brain and culture followed, or the culture selected for different brain traits?

Vic said at August 5, 2010 4:08 PM:

Would it be also interesting to look for differences in the brain that could be related to cultural issues like, for example, the tendency of people from Northern Europe to isolate and to try to live far from cities or for example, what I have observed here in Eastern Europe in an empiric way, that I don't see that frequent in Latin America: often I find persons that say that it is so difficult to talk on the phone for them, like a mind-blocking.Specially among Baltic States.

Matt said at August 7, 2010 8:38 AM:

"East Asians focus on the central region of faces while Westerners look more broadly, focusing on both the eyes and mouth."

I still don't understand why looking broadly over a whole face is analytic while looking a single central feature is holistic. It seems in contradiction to the statement that "Experiments tracking participants' eye movements revealed that Westerners spend more time looking at focal objects while Chinese volunteers look more at the background."

Of relevance on the face topic: http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2009/08/east-vs-west-differences-in-facial.html

"Eastern observers use a culture-specific decoding strategy that is inadequate to reliably distinguish universal facial expressions of fear and disgust. Rather than distributing their fixations evenly across the face as Westerners do, Eastern observers persistently fixate the eye region."

Easterners generally lack a holistic face strategy in many ways. Of course, faces are very atypical in terms of processing (prosopagnosia and so on).

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