How culture impacts your brain

This post is also available in Dutch.

Our brains adapt to our everyday life and social context. Even integrated cultural values shape our brains and how we perceive ourselves and others.

Woman wearing traditional clothing and accessories to an Indian wedding.

Imageby Qazi Ikram Ul Haq from Pexels (license).

A trip to a foreign country often illustrates the impact culture on everything from values, behaviors and manners, food preferences to living environments. One of the most noted cultural differences is differences in behavior due to living in an individualistic versus collectivistic culture. While European and North American societies tend to focus more on an independent lifestyle and self-development, East Asian societies are more associated with socially interdependent cultures in which individuals tend to view themselves within a larger context. Researchers from the University of Michigan indicated that living in an individualistic versus collectivistic culture changes the way we process information. Accordingly, individuals from an individualistic culture tend to process and categorize single objects present in a given environment, whereas persons from collectivistic cultures tend to relate objects to their environment instead of categorizing them individually. How can culture impact the way we process information?

Our brains adapt to our environment and everyday life
Our brains dynamically wire, and rewire their connections, resulting in changes in brain function as well as anatomical changes. One great example that highlights the impact of social experiences on the human brain is a study showing that London taxi drivers, who engage daily in complex navigation, had enlarged brain areas for spatial memory. Our daily experiences are influenced by our jobs but also by the societal context, or culture, we live in. According to the American Sociologist Association (ASA), cultureintegrates languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, and collective memories held by members of a social group.

Cultural values and traditions influence how we see ourselves and others
The distinct values that individualistic and collectivistic cultures hold shape the way we make judgments about ourselves or others. A study showed that British participants had larger brain activity when responding to photo of their own face than those of a familiar face (i.e., a friend’s face), whereas Chinese participants showed the opposite pattern. Notice that these activation patterns did not depend on someone’s culture of origin but how much the individual integrated collectivistic or individualistic values. For example, the more acculturated East Asian participants were to a Western individualistic culture, the stronger they showed the “Western pattern“ of brain activation.

As always, these results are not that simple and need to be carefully evaluated to make sure the differences are solely driven by individualistic vs. collectivistic values and not some other systematic differences such as socioeconomic status, health, age of the study population, religion, etc. However, one thing remains: our social context deeply marks our life experiences, which further impact our brain and behaviors.

Written by Mahur. Edited by Joao.

References:
Source article: Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective.

Study showing increased brain areas for spatial memory in taxi drivers.

 

 

 

 

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