Study Examines the Influence of Culture on Brain Activity
> 1/21/2008 2:18:27 PM

The values that define our culture can have a large impact on the way we think about cognitive tasks, according to a new study published in the January issue of Psychological Science. By studying brain scans of American and East Asian subjects, the team of researchers found that some differences in brain activity correspond to cultural differences.

Previous research has already demonstrated that brain activity reflects culture. American culture traditionally values independence, and researchers have found that when looking at pictures, American subjects tend to pay more attention to foreground objects than background objects. The opposite is true of East Asian subjects, whose culture places emphasis on communal interests over individual interests. This study involved 10 Americans and 10 recent East Asian immigrants. While in a fMRI scanner, the participants answered questions about a series of images comprised of lines and squares. In some instances, they were asked to make an absolute judgment, which ignores context: are the lines the same length? At other times, they were asked to make a relative judgment, which does incorporate context: are the lines in proportion to the surrounding squares?

Rates of accuracy between the two groups were similar, but brain imaging revealed culture-based differences. While making relative judgments, the American subjects had greater activity in regions of the brain involved with attention, a sign that they needed to apply greater effort in order to made a decision. The East Asian subjects had greater brain activity in these regions when making absolute judgments. The subjects also filled out questionnaires evaluating the amount of importance they placed on their cultural beliefs. Those who most valued their beliefs also showed the greatest amount of brain activity when asked to make a judgment not reinforced by their culture.

Cultural beliefs can have a great effect on our thought patterns, as the study's head researcher, John Gabrieli from the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, explained in a press release: "Everyone uses the same attention machinery for more difficult cognitive tasks, but they are trained to use it in different ways, and it's the culture that does the training."

More research looking at the effects of culture on thought patterns could further our understanding of cultural differences. The researchers question the flexibility of our values and ways of thinking, surmising that even a small amount of time spent within another culture might have a large effect on an individual's thought patterns. Studies like this one continue to demonstrate how our beliefs influence our lives, and future studies may expand our understanding of the interplay between culture and brain activity.

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