Cultural Neuroscience: Bridging Lab and Field (Redux)

Update 12/16/10: Link to Shinobu Kitayama and Ayse Uskul, “Culture, Mind, and the Brain: Current Evidence and Future Directions,”Ann Rev Psychol 62 (2011): 419–49.

Next month we will be posting an interview by Karen Frenkel with cultural psychologist Shinobu Kitayama, Director of the Center for Culture, Mind, and the Brain at the University of Michigan and one of the leaders in the field of cultural neuroscience.

In this post, we provide some very brief background on the discipline, as well as the concept of culture from two different perspectives (lab and field), and then mention some possible areas for future collaborations between anthropologists and cultural neuroscientists. References are included at end of post.

Brief background

Cultural neuroscience is an emerging, interdisciplinary field primarily rooted in cultural and cross-cultural psychology and cognitive and social neuroscience that focuses on the influence of culture on brain, mind, and behavior (Chiao & Ambady, 2007; Han & Northoff, 2008; Kitayama & Park, 2010).

The aim of cultural neuroscience is not to “reduce” culture into a description of genetic and neural processes at the expense of the characterization of emergent properties, nor is it intended to replace the language of culture with the language of neurons or molecules. The goal of a cultural neuroscience is empirically to shed light on the extent to which the cultural variation observable in human behavior and mental life is traceable to cultural variation at other levels of analysis and their interaction, including the biological and neural levels. (Chiao & Ambady, 2007, p. 240)

A recent talk by Joan Chiao of Northwestern University provides a good overview:

One year after Chiao and Ambady’s foundational paper was published, Shiyui Han and Georg Northoff (2008) covered the field for Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Anthropologist Daniel Lende responded with a very thoughtful commentary on the old site. [UPDATE 10/31/10: See also Greg Downey’s post “Escaping Orientalism in Cultural Psychology,” on unexamined assumptions about culture in East/West research design.]

I can’t do justice to either account via a blog summary here, but would like to point out that one of Dan’s main concerns is that “we have ‘culture’ and ‘brain’ without context, body, experience or behavior. Neural substrates and cultural cognition are a poor substitute for the role of the body, everyday practices, and potent symbols in our lives.”

Concepts of culture: Can this marriage be saved?

Culture means very different things to anthropologists and neuroscientists. The “culture” in cultural neuroscience, which takes place in laboratory settings, has been operationalized to mean something like a collective-level phenomenon consisting of a set of everyday practices reflecting primary cultural values  that are inscribed on the brain over time (Kitayama & Uskul, 2011).

Much of the research is based on cultural psychology’s distinction between individualistic (i.e., Western) and collectivistic societies (i.e., East Asian) societies (Triandis, 1995), or independent and interdependent selves (Markus & Kitayama, 1991) [1]. Neural correlates of these characterizations have been robustly observed and compared across groups via methodologies like fMRI and/or ERP.

A thoughtful paper on prospects and challenges of the field by neuroscientist Suparna Choudhury of Max Planck and cultural psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer of McGill appeared in Joan Chiao’s handbook Cultural Neuroscience (2009).

Choudhury and Kirmayer’s fundamental issue with cultural neuroscience is the uncritical adaptation of cultural categories (East Asian vs.Western) from the cultural psychology literature and, more generally, the very concept of culture.

Just as a population is a bundle of individual reaction norms, culture in a globalizing world is a bundle of particularities  (material and intangible) “that a person holds in common with other individuals forming a social group.”

Cultures are not . . .  static, bounded entities that denote homogeneity and internal cohesion within groups. Rather, cultures are dynamic, permeable, and changeable systems, with internal tensions and contradictions, which individuals actively use for self-fashioning and social positioning. As a result, in the contemporary world, most individuals participate in multiple cultural systems or streams of influence and show ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting derived from these multiple systems depending on their goals, their relationships with others, the social setting, and their social status or position. (Choudhury & Kirmayer, 2009, p. 268)

In their introduction to the Asian Journal of Social Psychology’s  special issue on cultural neuroscience, Shinobu Kitayama and Steve Tompson basically agree that the culture is a “multifaceted concept” and further argue that “[it] is not at all clear which aspects of culture may be significant in cultural neuroscience and why” (Kitayama & Tompson, 2010, 94).

Where do we go from here?

At then end of Dan’s post, he presented the following challenge:

[T]he anthropologist often goes from critique to critique, and freezes when asked, Well, if you don’t agree, how would you test culture using neuroimaging?

Choudhury and Kirmayer suggested that future studies of cultural neuroscience focus on “the particularities of culture within participants’ ways of life.” Here’s a list that incorporates their suggestions and adds a few others:

  • diet
  • religious beliefs
  • early experiences  (parenting styles)
  • emotion repertoires
  • rituals
  • work
  • socioeconomic status
  • adolescent rites of passage
  • migration and acculturation status
  • ideas about self and others

Incidentally, the cultural neuroscience literature has some fascinating examples of systematic differences based on specific routines and beliefs. For example, the brains of abacus masters and London cab drivers  substantially differ from controls in areas associated with spatio-visual processing and spatial navigation, respectively (Hanakawa et al., 2003; Maguire et al., 2000). See also Uskul, Nisbett, & Kitayama [2008] on farming, fishing, and herding communities in Turkey and Shihui Han et al. (2008) on religious beliefs.

Finally, anthropologists who are interested in working with cultural neuroscientists might consider attending the 2011 Summer Institute for Cultural Neuroscience, hosted by Shinobu Kitayama at the University of Michigan (applications are due in March). Future work on brain/mind/environment interactions that combines field and lab observations should be mutually enriching.


[1] Americans and Europeans are considered “Westerners.” People from Japan, Korea, and China are considered East Asian. Nisbett theorizes that the differences originated from distinct systems of thought – holistic vs. analytic (see, e.g., Nisbett, Peng, Choi & Norenzaya, 2001; Nisbett & Masuda, 2003).


Ames, D. L., & Fiske, S. T. (2010). Cultural neuroscience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13, 72-82.

Chiao, J., & Ambady, N. (2007). Cultural neuroscience: Parsing universality and diversity across levels of analysis. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of cultural psychology (pp. 237-254). New York: Guilford Press.

Chiao, J. Y. (2009). Cultural neuroscience: A once and future discipline. Progress in Brain Research, 178, 287-304.

Choudhury, S., & Kirmayer, L. (2009). Cultural neuroscience and psychopathology: Prospects for cultural psychiatry. Progress in Brain Research, 178, 263–283.

Downey, G. (2009, April 30). Escaping Orientalism in cultural psychology [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Han, S., Mao, L., Gu, X., Zhu, Y., Ge, J., Ma, Y. (2008). Neural consequences of religious belief on self-referential processing. Social Neuroscience, 3, 1–15.

Han, S., & Northoff, G. (2008). Opinion: Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: A transcultural neuroimaging approach. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 646-654.

Hanakawa, T., Honda, M., Okada, T., Fukuyama, H., & Shibasaki, H. (2003). Neural correlates underlying calculation in abacus experts: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuroimage, 19(2), 296-307.

[Abstract] Experts of abacus operation demonstrate extraordinary ability in mental calculation. There is psychological evidence that abacus experts utilize a mental image of an abacus to remember and manipulate large numbers in solving problems; however, the neural correlates underlying this expertise are unknown. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we compared the neural correlates associated with three mental-operation tasks (numeral, spatial, verbal) among six experts in abacus operations and eight nonexperts. In general, there was more involvement of neural correlates for visuospatial processing (e.g., right premotor and parietal areas) for abacus experts during the numeral mental-operation task. Activity of these areas and the fusiform cortex was correlated with the size of numerals used in the numeral mental-operation task. Particularly, the posterior superior parietal cortex revealed significantly enhanced activity for experts compared with controls during the numeral mental-operation task. Comparison with the other mental-operation tasks indicated that activity in the posterior superior parietal cortex was relatively specific to computation in 2-dimensional space. In conclusion, mental calculation of abacus experts is likely associated with enhanced involvement of the neural resources for visuospatial information processing in 2-dimensional space.

Kitayama, S., & Park, J. (2010). Cultural neuroscience of the self: Understanding the social grounding of the brain. SCAN, 5(2–3), 119–129.

Kitayama, S., & Tompson, S. (2010). Envisioning the future of cultural neuroscience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13, 92-101.

Kitayama, S., & Uskul, A. (2011). Culture, mind, and the brain: Current evidence and future directions. Annual Review in Psychology, 62, 419–449.

Current research on culture focuses on independence and interdependence and documents numerous East-West psychological differences with an increasing emphasis placed on cognitive mediating mechanisms. Lost in this literature is a time-honored idea of culture as a collective process composed of cross-generationally transmitted values and associated behavioral patterns (i.e., practices). A new model of neuro-culture interaction proposed here addresses this conceptual gap by hypothesizing that the brain serves as a crucial site that accumulates effects of cultural experience, insofar as neural connectivity is likely modified through sustained engagement in cultural practices. Thus, culture is “embrained” and, moreover, this process requires no cognitive mediation. The model is supported in a review of empirical evidence regarding (a) collective-level factors involved in both production and adoption of cultural values and practices and (b) neural changes that result from engagement in cultural practices. Future directions of research on culture, mind, and the brain are discussed.

Lende, D. (2008, August 14). Cultural neuroscience [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 97(8), 4398-4403.

[Abstract] Structural MRIs of the brains of humans with extensive navigation experience, licensed London taxi drivers, were analyzed and compared with those of control subjects who did not drive taxis. The posterior hippocampi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects. A more anterior hippocampal region was larger in control subjects than in taxi drivers. Hippocampal volume correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver (positively in the posterior and negatively in the anterior hippocampus). These data are in accordance with the idea that the posterior hippocampus stores a spatial representation of the environment and can expand regionally to accommodate elaboration of this representation in people with a high dependence on navigational skills. It seems that there is a capacity for local plastic change in the structure of the healthy adult human brain in response to environmental demands.

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224–253.

Ng, S. H., Han, S., Mao, L., & Lai, J. C. L. (2010). Dynamic bicultural brains; fMRI study of their flexible neural representation of self and significant others in response to culture primes. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13, 83-91.

Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzaya, A. (2001). Culture and systems of thought: Holistic versus analytic cognition. Psychological Review, 108, 291–310.

Nisbett, R. E.,  & Masuda, T. (2003). Attending holistically vs. analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 922–934.

Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism and collectivism. Boulder, CA: Westview Press.

Uskul, A. K., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2008). Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 105(25), 8552-8556.

Zhou, H., & Cacioppo, J. (2010). Culture and the brain: Opportunities and obstacles. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13, 59-71.

This entry was posted in challenges of interdisciplinary research, cultural neuroscience by Constance A. Cummings. Bookmark the permalink.

About Constance A. Cummings

Constance A. Cummings, PhD, is Project Director of the non-profit Foundation for Psychocultural Research, which supports and advances interdisciplinary research and scholarship at the intersection of brain, mind, culture, and mental health and illness. She is co-editor (with Carol Worthman, Paul Plotsky, and Dan Schechter) of Formative Experiences: The Interaction of Caregiving, Culture, and Developmental Psychobiology (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and (with Laurence Kirmayer and Rob Lemelson) the forthcoming Re-Visioning Psychiatry: Cultural Phenomenology, Critical Neuroscience, and Global Mental Health (Cambridge, 2015). She received her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from New York University.

5 thoughts on “Cultural Neuroscience: Bridging Lab and Field (Redux)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Cultural Neuroscience: Bridging Lab and Field (Redux) «'s blog --

  2. Really nice commentary on the discussion, FPR. You put your finger on an issue that a lot of us are talking about. When Daniel and I put together a neuroanthropology conference, Joan Chiao and Shinobu Kitayama both came.

    The discussion was really congenial and productive, and it was clear that the anthropologists who were overly critical weren’t recognizing how open some of the cultural neuroscientists were to the criticism. Operationalizing culture for research purposes seemed to be the key issue — although the cultural neuroscientists were also aware of the criticisms, they were proceeding awaiting the arrival of a better way to integrate cultural difference into their work.

    I think we’re going to see a lot of new and intriguing work over the next few years, as people find innovative ways to turn hunches and field research into good research questions. I think that the key now is to be generous to each other, to recognize complementarity of approaches and diversity of research problems. I’m really glad to read such a thorough and integrative discussion of the ongoing conversations because I think that this is precisely what we need — bridge building rather than battleline drawing.

    You may have inspired me to post a piece of something that I just submitted for publication because it addresses precisely the question of coming up with a sufficiently supple operationalization of culture for the concept to be useful at multiple levels of inquiry. Because the scale can shift, from sociological to neurological, the trick may be to capture a set of phenomena that look quite different depending on level of analysis (e.g., homogeneity at one scale might dissolve into much greater variation at another without invalidating the higher order emergence of pattern).

    Nice post!

    • In terms of multiple levels of analysis, Kitayama and Park (SCAN, 2010) mention that one particularly interesting area to explore is adolescence, due to the second wave of neurogenesis that putatively occurs around puberty (see Giedd et al., 1999, 2006; Choudhury, SCAN, 2010). According to Kitayama and Park, if culture is a means to biological adaptation, then “[i]t makes very good sense . . . to acquire the most up-to-date culture when one enters the reproductive market.” At the same time, during the swirl of “adolescence” (a concept itself in part culturally constructed, as Choudhury argues) homogeneity at one scale may be more likely to dissolve at another!

  3. Pingback: Sunday/Monday blogs round-up - 07/08 November 2010 - blog by Gurdur - Blogs on the Heathen Hub

  4. Pingback: Joan Chiao on Cultural Neuroscience and the Collective Good « Cultural Neuroscience

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