A new study of East Asians and Westerners suggests that culture can shape the way some people see the world—literally.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers in Illinois and Singapore tracked brain activity in young and elderly participants as they were shown a series of images depicting different objects against varying backgrounds. Their analysis focused on the lateral occipital complex in the brain, which processes visual information about objects.
“These are the first studies to show that culture is sculpting the brain,” says senior researcher Denise Park, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The effect is seen not so much in structural changes, but at the level of perception.”
While all younger participants showed similar brain activity, researchers noted a stark contrast in the neural response between the older groups. In Westerners, the lateral occipital complex remained active; in East Asians, the region responded only minimally.
The difference noted between older people in the two cultures can be explained in part by earlier research that suggests East Asian culture is less individual-oriented than Western culture, Park says.
“East Asian cultures are more interdependent and individuals spend more time monitoring the environment and others,” Park says. “Westerners focus on individuals and central objects because these cultures tend to be independent and focused more on self than others.”