People often talk about cultural differences between the East and the West. For example, someone might point out differences between the interdependent nature of East Asian cultures compared to a more independent-oriented Western culture. More specifically, an Asian might identify as “the mother of X” or the “wife of X,” while a European American woman might more readily identify as a doctor or Nobel Prize winner. In essence, East Asians more readily identify themselves based on their relationships with other people, while Westerners tend to identify with their careers or accomplishments that relate only to them.
In another example, the anthropologists Tobin, Wu, and Davidson looked at preschools in Japan, China, and the U.S. and found different styles of teaching. Chinese preschools aimed to emphasize discipline to avoid spoiling children, while Japanese preschools emphasized cooperating with others in group settings. In the West, American preschools favored emphasizing creativity and independence, but also aimed to provide a structure and system of rules.
How one ideally portrays oneself is also different between the East and the West. Studies by Tsai (2007) have shown that European Americans prefer high arousal positive states (e.g. excitement), while East Asians prefer low arousal positive states (e.g. calm). This preference has been examined in the context of Affect Valuation Theory, which proposes that people’s conception of their ideal affect can differ from how they actually feel. Nevertheless, scientists conclude that the culture that one comes from is a primary shaping force for people’s preference for ideal affect.
How far can these differences go? Are there neurobiological differences that can help provide another piece of the puzzle? One study examined neural activity underlying cultural differences in perception of ideal affect. According to this study by Park et al. (2015), European Americans showed greater neural activity related to reward when viewing faces in high arousal positive states compared to Chinese participants (these participants had recently immigrated to the U.S.). More specifically, the Ventral Striatum (VS) is a region of the brain associated with decision-making, motivation, reinforcement, and reward perception, and the difference in VS activity between European Americans and Chinese was captured in this study. Chinese participants showed greater VS activity compared to European Americans when viewing faces with low arousal positive states.
In addition, within the Chinese group, participants showed significantly less VS activity when viewing faces high arousal positive states when compared to viewing faces in low positive arousal states.
Supporting these results, in the Chinese group, medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) activity was stronger when viewing Asian low positive arousal faces compared to White low positive arousal faces. MPFC activity is implicated in value integration as well as in consideration of one’s own self, suggesting an added layer of higher-order value for Chinese participants when viewing faces of their own ethnicity in low positive arousal states.
Finally, in a follow up several months later, the authors found that this greater VS activity correlated with preference of excited vs calm facial expressions. For instance, European Americans tended to show a preference for high positive arousal faces compared to Chinese, and vice versa for the Chinese compared to European Americans.
In another study that could help support these findings, Murata et al. (2013) found that Asians who were instructed to “suppress” their emotional reactions to stimuli showed decreased activity in the parietal late positive potential (LPP) as measured by EEG compared to European Americans. In simpler terms, Asians were more able to dampen their emotional processing, even neurologically.
These cultural differences can be measured in brain activity even as simple as visual processing. Goh et al. (2013) found culture-related differences in visual processing, even extending to the Default Mode Network, which is important for measuring self-referencing. Their results caused the authors to conclude “the extent to which cultural differences are present in brain function may now be seen to be more widespread and ingrained in neurocognitive processes than previously thought” (pp. 140).
Circling back to findings such a Tsai’s on ideal affect, there are other interesting cultural differences. For example, Choi et al. (1999) found that East Asians believe someone’s disposition can be malleable, and that social contexts are more important when explaining human behavior, whereas Westerners prefer explanations of human behavior in terms of their traits, dispositions, or other internal attributes.
Markus and Kimiyaka (1991) found that East Asians emphasize fundamental social connections and are sensitive to information related to significant others, even to the extent of attending to intimate others as much as to the self. In contrast, Westerners are more inclined to attend to self-focused information and to the self more than to others.
Can these differences also be accounted for by neurological explanations? According to a meta-analysis by Hana & Ma (2014), East Asian cultures are characterized by enhanced activity in dorsal-medial prefrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus, which are part of the social brain network underlying perception and inference of others’ mind. The authors proposed that this increased activity provides a neural basis for increased sensitivity to contextual social information including others’ mental states.
In contrast, Western cultures exhibit enhanced activity in the social brain network that underlies coding of self-relevance (in the ventral-medial prefrontal cortex) and increased activity in the social brain network that supports emotional responses (in the dorsal-anterior cingulate cortex and insula).
Since it’s established that many of these cultural differences have supporting neurological, an interesting question is, does one’s culture help shape the functional organization of the brain, or do these differences in brain activity help shape behavioral differences in culture? Cultural neuroscientific research is young enough that there is not a definitive answer; however, one sure thing is that it’s an exciting time to get involved in the field!