The Frontal Cortex

The Cultural Self (East vs. West)

What is the neural correlate of the self? The easy answer is that nobody knows. We have yet to discover a neurological patient who has lost their sense of identity, but still retained their conscious sensations. Nevertheless, certain brain areas have been implicated in distinguishing the self from non-self.

This 2006 paper by Todd Heatherton of Dartmouth, for example, detected increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) when people were forced to perform “self-referrent tasks”. In other words, the mPFC is what recognizes your reflection in the mirror. It might not be the source of our identity – the self probably isn’t reducible into any single brain region – but it is certainly part of the self-awareness network.

In a fascinating paper in the new Neuroimage, scientists in China explore the cultural implications of this research. As they observe in their paper, our sense of self is subject to a wide variety of cultural influences:

Social psychologists have found that Westerners (North Americans and Europeans) tend to view the self as an autonomous entity separating from others and to behave according to their own internal attributes and thoughts (the independent self). In contrast, East Asians emphasize the interconnectedness of human beings along with contingencies between the individual’s behavior and the thoughts and actions of others in the relationship (the interdependent self). However, it remains unknown how the cultural influence on self-representation is accomplished in the human brain.

To test this sociological truism, the Chinese neuroscientists imaged people of “Western” and “Eastern” heritage. As Heatherton had found a year before, Westerners used the mPFC to distinguish between themselves and others. On the other hand, the activity of the mPFC of Chinese subjects did not correlate with the representation of the self. Instead, it was activated both by images of themselves and by images of loved ones, like their mother. Their self was literally “interdependent”.

The authors conclude that culture has profound effects on even the most basic elements of brain processing:

These fMRI results showed strong empirical evidence that MPFC mediates cultural influence on the neural substrates of representation of self and close others. While social psychological studies suggest that cultures create habitual ways of processing information related to the self and one’s important others, our fMRI results indicate that these habitual cognitive processes are accompanied by detectible parallel neural processes. The relatively heavy emphasis on interpersonal connectedness in Chinese culture has led to the development of neural unification of the self and intimate persons such as mother, whereas the relative dominance of an independent self in Western cultures results in neural separation between the self and others (emphasis mine).

Hat Tip: Neuroeconomics blog

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 16, 2007

    East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet… except at the Corpus Callosum?

    Is this related to the experiments on visual perception of forground versus background in Western and Eastern subjects?

  2. #2 Agnostic
    January 16, 2007

    An interesting result, but the poor study design precludes any conclusion on causation since race / genes are totally confounded with culture / nationality. The proper study design is simple: test East Asians reared in East Asia, East Asian adoptees reared in mainstream Western culture, European-descended people in the West, and Europeans reared in East Asian culture. The last category may be hard to find, but the other three are easy to find.

    I hate to sound cranky, but this fatal methodological flaw is stupefyingly common in studies that investigate the difference in Asian vs European brains. Given that it’s obviously a bad design, and that correcting it would be simple, the parsimonious inference is that researchers don’t want to have their results be clearly interpretable — especially if genes were found to play a non-trivial role.

    I understand that people don’t want to jeopardize their careers and whatnot, but I still wish there were asterisks in their studies & in the popular press reminding the readers that, frustratingly, the studies allow no conclusions to be drawn regarding causation.

  3. #3 Christopher Gwyn
    January 16, 2007

    “I hate to sound cranky, but this fatal methodological flaw is stupefyingly common in studies that investigate the difference in Asian vs European brains. Given that it’s obviously a bad design, and that correcting it would be simple, the parsimonious inference is that researchers don’t want to have their results be clearly interpretable — especially if genes were found to play a non-trivial role.”

    I think that the parsimonious inference is that the researchers have a deeply conflated understanding of ‘cultural traits’ and ‘racial traits’. I grew up in a multi-racial adoptive family, the number of people that I have encountered who are surprised that my siblings and I ‘do not act like we look’ is both astounding and depressing. I have even had people assume that because one of us was ‘x’ by biological ancestory that that sibling could, of course, speak that language, would have those dietary habits, and so on.

    I doubt that the researchers want their results to be hard to interpret, they just do not understand that they are being very unclear in their study and presentation.

  4. #4 Abie
    January 17, 2007

    This article raises up two questions :

    – Why would researchers go through all the trouble of doing an actual study, collecting data and so on, to get a result with no scientific value whatsoever? Especially when a little calm thinking could save it the bin, and get it interesting?
    Is the cause a faulty understanding of the scientific standard or, god forbid, a political agenda?

    – How on Earth can such a paper get accepted in a peer-reviewd journal?
    what about refusing it, explaining why, and publishing six months later a dashing article that will be quoted everywhere, because whatever the results (Easterners and Westeners are alike, or “they” are not like “us”), everybody will be talking about it.

  5. #5 annon
    January 17, 2007

    On the comment that such research has no actual scientific relevance, this research could be a slight spark in the future bonfire of cultural evolution and social genetics research that will have to be done to account for the governing and guiding of the future population apex that will occur as world society builds itself into a global governing body and accepts the truth of what is beyond us. In other words, if you deny the importance of studying something important, like culture, then you assume all racially influenced cultural evolutions are at the same level and we have no real differences. We are different and don’t be jealous about it.

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