Brain Scan Reveals Cultural Differences

Magnetic resonance imaging

I’ve just finished writing a news article for the MRI ezine and wanted to expand on some of the implications of the work here. The item describes the results of recent research that purportedly show differences in how born-and-bred Americans differed from immigrant East Asians tackling a simple visual test based on displayed sequences of boxes and lines.

The functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study looked at differences in activity between 10 Americans and 10 East Asians while they carried out that task. Apparently, they found significant differences depending on whether or not the volunteers were working out the solution to the task based on individual lines or the lines in the context of others. The volunteers were also asked to complete a questionnaire about their cultural attitudes. The research doesn’t intend to imply that either group did better or worse than the other, this is simply about different regions of the brain lighting up during the task and whether that might be correlated with differences in cultural heritage.

It’s interesting work and the researchers claim to have shown for the first time that a person’s cultural upbringing and the extent to which one identifies with those cultural influences can affect brain activity patterns when faced with a specific task.

In the current study, however, the researchers seem to make the rather sweeping generalisation that American culture values the individual and so emphasizes the independence of objects from their context, while East Asian culture tends to emphasize the collective and the interdependence of objects based on context. This, they say, explains why they see such a big difference in brain activity between the two groups of volunteers, the Americans focusing on the individual aspects of the task and the East Asians seeing the collectiveness of the boxes and sticks in the sequence.

My first thought while writing the news item, was whether or not their initial assumptions about cultural stereotypes remains valid in an increasingly globalised world. Do Americans focus on the individual and do East Asians think more in terms of society as a whole? More to the point the study was carried out with just ten individuals from each culture. Yes, those two groups may have different attitudes and aptitudes, but are those results statistically significant?

How random was the choice of the ten East Asians. Apparently, they were people coming to the USA to live! Does that make them “typical” of their fellow countrymen? I would suggest not at all. People who leave their home country are often very different from their stay-at-home counterparts in attitude and outlook . Perhaps these ten individuals had a very different cultural attitude to their former countrymen. Indeed, what if by virtue of their wishing to emigrate to the USA had coloured their whole outlook and notions of their own culture. Maybe they carried out the task in a way they hoped would be more American, or conversely, maybe they tried to be more East Asian to help the researchers. Similarly, who’s to say anyone taking part in such experiments behaves as they normally would given that they’re stuck in a noisy MRI machine being put under pressure to perform.

fMRI is a powerful tool. The burgeoning list of results it generates grows day by day and I will continue to report them for the ezine assuming they are worthy of reporting. The present results are intriguing, but I do feel that they are stretching the perceived prowess of fMRI a little too far. To my mind, there is an enormous gulf between demonstrating some difference in brain activity while a a few individuals carry out an esoteric task and correlating that with alleged cultural differences, especially given the circumstances of those who are supposed to have essentially polarised outlooks.

7 thoughts on “Brain Scan Reveals Cultural Differences”

  1. The hypothesis of brain scans revealing brain differences across dominant cultures is plausible. The cerebral structures are not rigid or beyond structural manipulation. There are some studies suggesting that depending on the majority of the type of task favoured by a culture, areas of teh brain cortical structure can vary in form and synaptic complexity. Yes, teh brain is a dependent variable and should enrich the pluralism that exists. I enjoyed this paper very much for initiating this discussion!

  2. Yes Robert, as I was writing this, it did occur to me that this kind of research teeters along a very narrow precipice and could fall either way in the wrong hand.


  3. Poor quality research, or just early, tentative, exploratory, even clumsy, studies using an available tool in a poorly understood area? This post primed me to notice other reports on using fMRI, PET scans, even old fashioned EEG looking at peoples brains trying to figure out what the heck the darn things are doing. The only real problem with this one looking at supposed cultural differences is the possibilty of some evil racist b*****d using the results out of context.

  4. There’s lots of flawed research around to be sure. Yes, Uri Geller, there was an expose of his spoon bending years ago, where they used a hidden camera and you basically saw him wacking the spoon back and forth under the table. What a wacker!


  5. Sometimes, poor quality research says more about the logic and mental faculties of those behind such experiments than the research itself.

    Maybe this flawed research is worthy of research in it’s own right! ;-)

    But seriously, this reminds of the time I read about a bunch of researchers trying to figure out if Uri Geller and his “powers” were for real, only to realize afterwards he had run rings around the lot of them…

  6. Thanks for your comment, Michelle, you’re right about making the title rhetorical, it was meant to be, but for some reason the query mark doesn’t always translate across browsers, so I try to avoid using it in titles.


  7. I enjoyed this article and feel the major biases were touched on. I have to agree that the way one believes, whether it is individually or collectively has a lot to do with their upbringing which is impacted by culture. I think the title should be changed to a question, Brain Scan Reveals Cultural Differences? The answer to the new questionable title would be no, it is extremely unlikely.

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