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Does Culture Effect Brain Function? SBU Joint Imaging Study Suggests Cultural Influences Play a Role In Neural Activation

Jan 18, 2008 - 1:46:06 PM

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Art Aron, Ph.D.
STONY BROOK, N.Y., January 18, 2008 – People from East Asian cultures use their brains differently than people from American culture when solving the same mental task based on simple visual perception. This finding is based on the results of a brain imaging study by researchers from Stony Brook University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University. The finding shows for the first time that the culture one is raised in and the extent to which one identifies with that culture influences brain activity patterns. The study appeared in the January issue of Psychological Science in a research report titled “Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control.”

Co-investigator Arthur Aron, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Stony Brook University, and colleagues developed the study from established cultural concepts in psychological research. More specifically, American culture values the individual, and therefore emphasizes the independence of objects from their context, compared with East Asian cultures, which emphasize the collective and interdependence of objects based on context.

The researchers tested the brain patterns of 10 East Asians recently arrived in the United States and 10 Americans during a mental task. Each participant made quick perceptual judgments related to the task while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The participants’ responses to the task tested their perception of the independence or interdependence of objects as the fMRI measured the neural basis of their responses.

The task involved participants viewing a series of diagrams, each consisting of a vertical line inside a box. Participants decided whether each square-and-line combination in a series matched the one before it, using one of two rules. One rule required them to ignore the context and match the absolute line lengths ignoring the size of the squares. The other rule required them to take the context into account and match the proportions of the lines to their squares. Participants from both cultures were scanned while making judgments using both types of rules. The primary question was whether the pattern of brain activity would differ when making judgments using the two kinds of rules.

“Our major finding was that the frontal-parietal brain region known to be engaged during attention-demanding tasks was more activated for East Asians when making judgments ignoring context but was more activated for Americans when making judgments when they had to take context into account,” says Dr. Aron. “The finding illustrates that each group engaged this attention system more strongly during a task more difficult for them because it is not generally supported by their cultural context.”

The researchers point out in their report that the findings show how experience in and identification with a cultural context may shape brain responses associated with the basic process of attentional control. The fMRI result illustrates how cultural differences in the preferred and encouraged judgment style in the task powerfully influences brain function, completely reversing the relation between task and activation across a widespread brain network.

Another important finding was that the degree of this culture-specific brain-activation pattern was greatest for individuals who most strongly identified with their particular culture. To gauge cultural references, the researchers had participants answer a separate questionnaire on social and cultural identities.

Dr. Aron notes that ultimately the study findings complement those of behavioral studies and provide important and novel neurobiological insights into cultural differences.

Dr. Aron’s colleagues include Trey Hedden, Ph.D., lead author of the report and a research scientist from Stanford University and MIT; Sarah Ketay, Ph.D., Stony Brook University; Hazel Rose Markus, Ph.D., Stanford University; and John D.E. Gabrieli, Ph.D., of MIT.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and supported by the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.


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