I have written before about how the way we use our brain actually alters its neurocircuitry. But the same principle also applies to culture. We now know that cultural assumptions, norms and habits actually alter our brain structures in ways which then play back to reinforce those very patterns of thought. (See my Salvo Magazine article ‘The Neuro-Transformers: Culture & the Malleability of the Human Brain‘.)
One primary way that culture influences our brain is through language. New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world. In particular, the way we relate to the world and to people is often the result of how we conjugate our verbs. (If you don’t believe me, see the Wall Street Journal article ‘Lost in Translation.’)
Culture also influences brain structures in non-linguistic ways. A fascinating example of this is the difference between ‘Western thinking’ and ‘Eastern thinking.’ In 2004, researcher Richard Nisbett published a treaties titled The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. Nisbett’s book shares the results of studies showing that Westerners and Easterners have different approaches to logic, causality, categorization, etc.
One example was Nisbett’s famous fish experiment. Subjects at Kyoto University in Japan and the University of Michigan were shown animated video clips of an underwater scene. Each scene had a ‘focal fish’ that swam among various objects. When later asked about this scene, the Japanese students described a different relationship between the fish and their environment than the American students. Nisbett explained that “Americans and Japanese made about an equal number of references to the focal fish, but the Japanese made more than 60 percent more references to background elements.”
While these differences may seem trivial, Nisbett suggests that this is paradigmatic of two different approaches to the world. “Asians” he writes, “view the world through a wide-angle lens, whereas Westerners have tunnel vision.” Put another way, people with an Eastern way of thinking tend to see the bigger picture, being able to grasp the wood for the trees. By contrast, Westerners do a better job at incisive focus on a single aspect. An Eastern mindset starts with the whole and understands the part in reference to that; a Western mindset starts with the parts and then builds up an understanding of the whole from that.
While much more research would need to be done, this may well relate to the difference between the harmonious-vs.-individualistic contrasts that have been widely observed by cultural anthropologists to mark some of the key differences in Eastern and Western philosophy respectively.
It almost goes without saying that all this is an over-simplification and in danger of becoming either reductive or exaggerated. Certainly there are numerous qualifications and nuances that need to be put in place. Nisbett’s observations are obviously broad generalizations and not true in every case. At the end of the day, people are individuals, not simply the products of their cultural environment. Yet the research does seem to suggest that cultural differences do play a part in influencing significant neurological differences. In 2010 the APA reported as follows about other experiments which point in the same direction:
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.
Meghan Meyer shares further research about this in her article ‘How Culture Shapes Our Mind and Brain.’
Similarly, scientists working in the field of emotion have discovered that the way we express emotion differs from culture to culture.
Finally, in his fascinating book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell gives example after example of how many of the things we take for granted have actually been instilled in us through hundreds of years of cultural training. Writing for a popular audience, Gladwell channels some of the research conducted by Nisbett and others.
If there is a practical lesson here for us, it is this: be self-conscious about the way you think, and about the forces that are influencing your brain.