Culture Influences Brain Function

Been out for the holidays among other things but of interest on my return is a news release indicating that cultural bias can influence physiological brain function.  ScienceDaily, in this post, states that people from different cultures use their brains differently to solve the same visual perception tasks.  Using the binary cultural differentiation broadly characteristic of Eastern and Western cultures (emphasis upon the individual as opposed to emphasis upon the group), the study found that –

. . . the two groups showed different patterns of brain activation when performing these tasks. Americans, when making relative judgments that are typically harder for them, activated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks. They showed much less activation of these regions when making the more culturally familiar absolute judgments. East Asians showed the opposite tendency, engaging the brain’s attention system more for absolute judgments than for relative judgments.

Making judgments outside of one’s cultural comfort zone involves more brain processing activity.  As one of the study authors suggests –

“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,” Gabrieli says. “It’s fascinating that the way in which the brain responds to these simple drawings reflects, in a predictable way, how the individual thinks about independent or interdependent social relationships.”

Of related interest is the impact of culture on the brain’s mirror neuron system, the system that operates both when we do something as well as when we merely observe someone doing something.  It is this observation aspect that is significant as neuroscientists presently think that this “mirroring” is the neural mechanism by which people are able to empathize with others.

A recent study indicates that mirror neuron activation increases when one is observing someone from one’s own cultural background as opposed to someone from a different cultural background, even when both are making the same culturally understood gestures.  “All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions,” this study’s author states.

And that has interesting implications for empathy, group dynamics, communication, and other issues.

This idea that culture not only trains and influences how we behave, but actually impacts the physiological ways in which we use our brains is an interesting springboard for further exploring how we relate to one another, and more importantly, how we can develop better communication and coaching tools for the building of community.

2 thoughts on “Culture Influences Brain Function”

  1. Would this mean that individuals of different racial and religious backgrounds could be taught to empathize with one another?

    And is the lack of empathy a consistent characteristic of those who kill and hate?


  2. I think that empathy can be taught. The degree to which an individual is able to empathize will vary depending upon a variety of factors.

    One thing that this research on mirror neurons suggests is that there may be physiological parameters wired within human brains that influence the process of empathy. If this is indeed the case, then knowing, for example, that people empathize more easily with someone of their own culture can allow us to factor that piece of information into the process of teaching on empathy, coaching, and other related activities. On the flip side, it also would also allow individuals to realize that cross-cultural efforts at empathy, etc. require more effort.

    As to killing and hating – it is certainly logical that lack of empathy would be characteristic of those activities. All “us vs. them” scenarios divide groups into opposing camps in which the differences rather than the similarities are stressed. This is the opposite of empathy. Such scenarios in which the process of gradually “demonizing” another group or individual and stressing such differences has been characteristic of non-passion provoked killing and hate. Empathy, however, is but one factor among many.

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