Latest Roundup: What is Culture; Interdependence/Empathy; OFC & Prediction; More on Salience Processing


What is Culture? Culture is Context-Dependence by Georg Northoff (Culture and Brain, 2013).

What is culture? The concept of culture has been defined in different ways and terms. I here take a different approach and determine the concept of culture as one specific instance the more general feature of context-dependence. The concept of context is here understood in a wider way that includes different kinds of contexts, social, cultural, mental, and bodily. Culture is then one specific instance of context-dependence. What exactly do I mean by the concept of ‘dependence’? Following the philosopher Susan Hurely, there are different forms of context-dependence instrumental and non-instrumental. Instrumental dependence describes the indirect dependence for instance motor functions on the environment via the sensory functions. Non-instrumental context-dependence refers to a more direct dependence of the motor functions themselves on the context independent of the sensory functions. I now postulate that such non-instrumental context-dependence can also be observed in the brain that encodes its neural activity in direct dependence on its respective context. This is illustrated by three examples, reward, interoception, and social self. Such direct or better non-instrumental context-dependence of the brain’s neural activity is possible only if the neural activity is encoded in a particular way in terms of differences between different stimuli rather than single stimuli themselves; this amounts to what I describe as difference-based coding as distinguished from stimulus-based coding. Does this entail cultural context-dependence? This is illustrated by a fourth example from depression as a psychiatric disorder. In conclusion, I here advocate the view that culture can be determined by direct or non-instrumental context-dependence which I postulate to be mediated by a particular encoding strategy of the brain, that is, difference-based coding.


Differential Neural Activation to Friends and Strangers Links Interdependence to Empathy by Meghan L. Meyer, Carrie L. Masten, Yina Ma, Chenbo Wang, Zhenhao Shi, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Matthew D. Lieberman, Shihui Han (Culture and Brain, Dec 2014)

Two competing views implicate interdependence in empathy. One suggests that interdependence may generally enhance empathy (Woltin et al., British Journal of Social Psychology 50:553–562,2011), whereas another suggests that interdependence enhances empathy for targets with whom one is in a relationship, at the cost of decreasing empathy for strangers (Markus and Kitayama, Perspectives on Psychological Science 5(4):420–430, 2010). Here, we show evidence in support of the latter account. We observed that trait-level interdependence positively correlated with trait-level empathic abilities in perspective-taking and empathic concern. However, using an empathy for social exclusion paradigm, we found that neural responses to a friend’s compared to a stranger’s social exclusion (vs. inclusion) differentially related to interdependence, perspective-taking and empathic concern. During the observation of a friend’s social exclusion (vs. inclusion), neural responses in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), and to a lesser extent the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and anterior insula (AI), positively correlated with self-reported trait interdependence, perspective-taking, and empathic concern. In contrast, during the observation of a stranger’s social exclusion (vs. inclusion), neural responses in the MPFC, and to a lesser extent the dACC and AI, negatively correlated with self-reported trait interdependence, perspective-taking and empathic concern. These findings suggest that while trait interdependence may correspond with enhanced ability to empathize, as indicated by self-report measures, interdependent individuals may preferentially recruit this ability for close others relative to strangers.



The Orbitofrontal Oracle: Cortical Mechanisms for the Prediction and Evaluation of Specific Behavioral Outcomes by Peter H. Rudebeck and Elizabeth Murray (Neuron, Dec 2014)

The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) has long been associated with the flexible control of behavior and concepts such as behavioral inhibition, self-control, and emotional regulation. These ideas emphasize the suppression of behaviors and emotions, but OFC’s affirmative functions have remained enigmatic. Here we review recent work that has advanced our understanding of this prefrontal area and how its functions are shaped through interaction with subcortical structures such as the amygdala. Recent findings have overturned theories emphasizing behavioral inhibition as OFC’s fundamental function. Instead, new findings indicate that OFC provides predictions about specific outcomes associated with stimuli, choices, and actions, especially their moment-to-moment value based on current internal states. OFC function thereby encompasses a broad representation or model of an individual’s sensory milieu and potential actions, along with their relationship to likely behavioral outcomes.

more on dysfunctions in salience processing

Salience Processing and Insular Cortical Function and Dysfunction by Lucina Uddin (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Jan 2015)

Repeated Social Stress Increases Reward Salience and Impairs Encoding of Prediction by Rat Locus Coeruleus Neurons (Neuropsychpharmacology, Jan 2015)

Discrete Alterations of Brain Structural Covariance in Individuals at Ultra-High Risk for Psychosis by Heinze, Reniers, Nelson, Yung, Lin, Harrison, Pantelis, Velakoulis, McGorry, Wood (Biological Psychiatry, 2014)

This entry was posted in challenges of interdisciplinary research, culture mind brain roundup 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.

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