Revisiting Concerns About Cultural Neuroscience

Cultural neuroscience is a young field that suddenly seemed to flower following publication of Joan Chiao and Nalini Ambady’s paper (“Cultural Neuroscience: Parsing Universality and Diversity Across Levels of Analysis”) in Shinobu Kitayama and Dov Cohen’s Handbook of Cultural Psychology (Guilford Press, 2007). In a four-year period it has attracted all kinds of attention, produced an impressive amount of research, garnered critical responses, and stirred up feelings of general uneasiness from historians, scholars, researchers, and clinicians. (“If cultural differences are so fundamental, Sharon Begley of Newsweek wondered, “perhaps … ‘universal’ notions such as human rights, democracy, and the like may be no such thing.”)

Two very recent publications should be of interest to those of us who try to follow the work (in addition to reading Ada’s terrific blog on WordPress). The first – which helps put the effort of elucidating the neural underpinnings of culture into some kind of perspective – is Davi Johnson Thornton’s Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media (Rutgers University Press, 2011), which the author describes as “a study of brain science at the level of culture, or in terms of its impact on the practices of everyday life.” Though I haven’t read this book yet, it’s a fresh reminder to be mindful of the bits and pieces of lay ideology that turn up in neuroscience and vice versa.

That is precisely what five colleagues from neurology and the social and psychological sciences at the Philipps-University Marburg do in far more depth in a newly published paper (“Concerns About Cultural Neuroscience: A Critical Analysis“), which critiques cultural neuroscience’s “unexamined” assumptions about the concepts of culture, race, and ethnicity. Following up on some earlier reflections by Suparna Choudhury and Laurence Kirmayer, which were published in Joan Chiao’s edited volume Cultural Neuroscience: Cultural Influences on Brain Function (Elsevier, 2009), Mateo et al. reviewed 40 original research papers using fMRI on human subjects to investigate psychological processes (e.g., emotion, cognition, language, self, memory, motor processes) with cultural content. They argue that cultural neuroscience research does one of two things: it either implicitly assumes that universal biological mechanisms underlie the formation of different cultural groups, practices, and perceptions of the world, including automatic ingroup/outgroup biases (“universalism”), or it assumes that cultural differences are neurally as well as culturally distinguishable (“differentialism”).

The authors consider both assumptions problematic. Universalism “biologizes” discrimination by considering the propensity for ingroup/outgroup bias an innate part of human nature. (An example that immediately comes to mind are the fMRI and ERP studies of “uncontrolled” responses to “stigmatized” faces.) On the other hand, differentialism biologizes cultural differences by, for example, correlating interdependent vs. dependent self construals with different patterns of neural activation or individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures with a polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene.

The point is well taken, particularly when the technologies are new and it’s easy to make sweeping generalizations from brain imaging studies.  But cultural neuroscience may not be so at odds with a more dynamic approach (e.g., “human bodies are not everywhere the same; they are the products of evolutionary, historical, and contemporary social change resulting from ceaseless interactions among human beings, their environments, and the social and political mileux in which they live”) that Mateo et al. seem to endorse. In the work of Margaret Lock (quoted above) and others lies a viable third assumption that has often been alluded to in social and cultural neuroscience publications and presentations that I’ve read/attended in the past year or two, one in which culture, environment (physical, social/political, economic), and biology “make each other up” over different time scales (e.g., Markus and Kitayama’s recent essay, “Cultures and selves: A cycle of mutual constitution”). This is an assumption that makes the possibility of productive exchanges and eventual collaborations over disciplinary fences so tenable.

Selected References

Choudhury, S., &  Kirmayer, L. (2009).  Cultural neuroscience and psychopathology: prospects for cultural psychiatry. In J. Chiao (Ed.), Progress in Brain Research, pp. 263–283. New York: Elsevier.

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

Lock, M., & Nguyen, V.-K. (2010). An anthropology of biomedicine. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Marcus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. Cultures and selves: A cycle of mutual constitution. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 420–430.

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

About Constance Cummings

Constance A. Cummings, Ph.D., is Project Director of the non-profit The 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 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). She received her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from New York University.

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