3×5: Culture, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry Weekly Roundup: Empathy (August 6)

UPDATE: New links from Lori Hogenkamp via Facebook at end of post.

Brief note: I’ve come to realize that empathy (and its putative component processes – mirror neuron networks, affect sharing, mentalizing) brings out almost everything that’s problematic in social neuroscience research: problems of a conceptually vague cover term, problems with extrapolating from animal models (e.g., monkeys don’t imitate); problems with fMRI/ROI, problems with science writing for the public (e.g., this publisher blurb for Marco Iacoboni’s Mirroring People: “From imitation to morality, from learning to addiction, from political affiliations to consumer choices, mirror neurons seem to have properties that are relevant to all these aspects of social cognition”), problems with a too-powerful metaphor (err, the mirror) that’s hard to repack in the box after that last quote :( problems with extrapolating in other ways (see Emily Willingham’s post on what she describes as the “no empathy in autism meme” – as Ian Hacking said, “The history of late 20th century medicine will … also [be] a history of advocacy groups”), etc., etc.

On second thought, there are many positive implications that hover over all this work – for theory of mind, radical embodied cognition, network science approaches to the brain’s structural and functional connectivity  . . .

Many thanks to the Neuroanthropology Interest Group on Facebook for suggestions and Center for Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion for inspiration! 


1. “Empathy as cultural process: Insights from the cultural neuroscience of empathy” by Bobby Cheon, Vani Mathur, and Joan Chiao (WCPRR, 2010).

2. Via Eugene Raikhel (Neuroanthropology Interest Group): See the just-published special issue of “Science in Context” on “The Varieties of Empathy in Science, Art, and History.” It includes an article by Shaun Gallagher (“Empathy, Simulation, and Narrative“), one by Allan Young (“The Social Brain and the Myth of Empathy“) and a number of others.

3. Roundup on “Anthropology, Teaching, and Empathy” in early 2012 by Jason Antrosio of Anthropology Report and a related post by Rex on Savage Minds, “Empathy, or, seeing from within.”

4. Hollan, D. C., & Throop, C. J. (2011). The anthropology of empathy: Experiencing the lives of others in Pacific societies. New York: Berghahn.

5. Blog post by Emily Willingham (Dec 2011): “Autistic people: Insensitive to social reputation, sure, but what about empathy?” on the website Autism and Empathy.


1. Bernhardt, B. C., & Singer, T. (2012). The neural basis of empathy. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 35, 1–23.

2. Decety, J. Norman, G. J., Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). A neurobehavioral evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms underlying empathy. Progress in Neurobiology, 98(1), 38–48. See also, Decety, J. (2011b). The neuroevolution of empathyAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1231, 35–45.

3. Zaki, J., & Ochsner, K. N. (2012). The neuroscience of empathy: Progress, pitfalls and promiseNature Neuroscience: Focus on Social Neuroscience [Perspective], 15(5), 675–680.

4. Decety, J. (2011a). Dissecting the neural mechanisms mediating empathy. Emotion Review, 3,92–108. See also, Decety, J. (2010). To what extent is the experience of empathy mediated by shared neural circuits? Emotion Review, 2(3), 204–207.

5. “Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats” Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason. See also 2011 Science paper by same group.



1. Cheng, Y., Hung, A., & Decety, J. (2012). Dissociation between affective sharing and emotion understanding in juvenile psychopathsDevelopment and Psychopathology, 24, 623–636.

[From Abstract]. . . youth with HCU [high callous-unemotional traits] exhibit atypical neural dynamics of pain empathy processing in the early stage of affective arousal, which is coupled with their relative insensitivity to actual pain. Their capacity to understand intentionality, however, was not affected. Such uncoupling between affective arousal and emotion understanding may contribute to instigating aggressive behaviors in juvenile psychopaths.

[From the paper] It is  important that the affective arousal deficit . . . cannot be explained by a lack of sensorimotor resonance [i.e., mirror neurons], as measured by mu wave suppression [this was an ERP study], which was present in a ll participants. This finding indicates that affective arousal is not mediated by the mirror neuron system.

2. “Empathy and alterity in cultural psychiatry” by Laurence Kirmayer (Ethos, 2008).

3. “Empathy and otherness: Humanistic and phenomenological approaches to psychotherapy of severe mental illness” by Elizabeth Pienkos and Louis Sass (Pragmatic Case Studies in Psychotherapy, 2012).

4. Empathy in mental illness edited by Tom Farrow and Peter Woodruff (CUP, 2007).

5. “Zero degrees of empathy” by Simon Baron-Cohen, covering disorders of empathy (borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, narcissism) and genetic, endocrine, and social influences.



What Are We Talking About When We Talk About X? (Embodied Cognition, Phenomenological Psychiatry, Theory of Mind): FPR Roundup

Here’s a short list of new(ish) books focusing on embodied cognition, phenomenological psychiatry, and theory of mind.

Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds by Louise Barrett (Princeton University Press, 2011)

Removing our human-centered spectacles, Louise Barrett investigates the mind and brain and offers an alternative approach for understanding animal and human cognition. Drawing on examples from animal behavior, comparative psychology, robotics, artificial life, developmental psychology, and cognitive science, Barrett provides remarkable new insights into how animals and humans depend on their bodies and environment – not just their brains – to behave intelligently. . . . Arguing that thinking and behavior constitute a property of the whole organism, not just the brain, Beyond the Brain illustrates how the body, brain, and cognition are tied to the wider world.

Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience: Philosophical Perspectives edited by Matthew Broome and Lisa Bortolotti (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience is a philosophical analysis of the role of neuroscience in the study of psychopathology. The book examines numerous cognitive neuroscientific methods, such as neuroimaging and the use of neuropsychological models, in the context of a variety of psychiatric disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, dependence syndrome, and personality disorders.

Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience includes chapters on the nature of psychiatry as a science; the compatibility of the accounts of mental illness derived from neuroscience, information-processing, and folk psychology; the nature of mental illness; the impact of methods such as fMRI, neuropsychology, and neurochemistry, on psychiatry; the relationship between phenomenological accounts of mental illness and those provided by naturalistic explanations; the status of delusions and the continuity between delusions and ordinary beliefs; the interplay between clinical and empirical findings in psychopathology and issues in moral psychology and ethics.

Mindreaders: The Cognitive Basis of Theory of Mind by Ian Apperly (Psychology Press, 2010)

Theory of mind, or “mindreading” as it is termed in this book, is the ability to think about beliefs, desires, knowledge and intentions. It has been studied extensively by developmental and comparative psychologists and more recently by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists. This book is the first to draw together these diverse findings in an account of the cognitive basis of “theory of mind”, and establishes the systematic study of these abilities in adults as a new field of enquiry. Apperly focuses on perceptions, knowledge and beliefs as paradigm cases of mindreading, and uses this as a basis from which more general lessons can be drawn. The book argues that an account of the cognitive basis of mindreading is necessary for making sense of findings from neuroscience and developmental and comparative psychology, as well as for understanding how mindreading fits more broadly into the cognitive system. It questions standard philosophical accounts of mindreading, and suggests a move away from the notion that it consists simply of having a “theory of mind”.

CMB 2012 hot topic: “Functional and Clinical Neuroanatomy of Morality”

Alberto Priori of Università degli Studi di Milano, has just sent me an advanced copy of his co-authored review on morality for Brain.  (This was in response to our email blast about the FPR-UCLA 2012 conference, “Culture, Mind, and Brain: Emerging Concepts, Methods, and Applications.”)  Unfortunately, we don’t have the space to give morality its full due in the conference program, but I’m posting the abstract and link since this is sure to be a “hot topic” for discussion and debate at the conference.

Brain. 2012 Feb 13. [Epub ahead of print]

Functional and clinical neuroanatomy of morality.


Dipartimento di Scienze Neurologiche, Università degli Studi di Milano, Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda, Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico, 20122 Milano, Italy.


Morality is among the most sophisticated features of human judgement, behaviour and, ultimately, mind. An individual who behaves immorally may violate ethical rules and civil rights, and may threaten others’ individual liberty, sometimes becoming violent and aggressive. In recent years, neuroscience has shown a growing interest in human morality, and has advanced our understanding of the cognitive and emotional processes involved in moral decisions, their anatomical substrates and the neurology of abnormal moral behaviour. In this article, we review research findings that have provided a key insight into the functional and clinical neuroanatomy of the brain areas involved in normal and abnormal moral behaviour. The ‘moral brain’ consists of a large functional network including both cortical and subcortical anatomical structures. Because morality is a complex process, some of these brain structures share their neural circuits with those controlling other behavioural processes, such as emotions and theory of mind. Among the anatomical structures implicated in morality are the frontal, temporal and cingulate cortices. The prefrontal cortex regulates activity in subcortical emotional centres, planning and supervising moral decisions, and when its functionality is altered may lead to impulsive aggression. The temporal lobe is involved in theory of mind and its dysfunction is often implicated in violent psychopathy. The cingulate cortex mediates the conflict between the emotional and the rational components of moral reasoning. Other important structures contributing to moral behaviour include the subcortical nuclei such as the amygdala, hippocampus and basal ganglia. Brain areas participating in moral processing can be influenced also by genetic, endocrine and environmental factors. Hormones can modulate moral behaviour through their effects on the brain. Finally, genetic polymorphisms can predispose to aggressivity and violence, arguing for a genetic-based predisposition to morality. Because abnormal moral behaviour can arise from both functional and structural brain abnormalities that should be diagnosed and treated, the neurology of moral behaviour has potential implications for clinical practice and raises ethical concerns. Last, since research has developed several neuromodulation techniques to improve brain dysfunction (deep brain stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation), knowing more about the ‘moral brain’ might help to develop novel therapeutic strategies for neurologically based abnormal moral behaviour.

Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind (AToM): Selves (Part 2)

Last month a small, international gathering of twenty-seven anthropologists and psychologists took place at the Stanford Humanities Center, organized by Stanford anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann and Culture and Mind postdoctoral fellows Julia Cassaniti, and Jocelyn Marrow, with financial support from the Robert Lemelson Foundation. (See end of post for full list of participants; a summary of the session on “interiority and boundedness available here.)

The session on “selves” in many ways revisited some classic questions in psychological anthropology: “To what extent are selves culturally constituted? If selves are only partially constituted by culture, what other factors play a part in their makeup? Are those other factors – social, biopsychological, etc. – universal in nature?”

The difference is that the questions Doug Hollan (1992) and others before him asked may not have been answerable then. But new work emerging from anthropology, psychology, and the social cognitive, cultural, and critical neuroscience research programs is beginning to elucidate the different perceptions and mechanisms underlying the self, both stable individual differences as well as the idea of self as a (neuro-)cultural “product and process,” in either case, with the beneficial effect of “markedly expanding the range of the normal” (Markus & Kitayama, 2010).

In the first talk, Stanford social psychologist Hazel Markus whose work often focuses on comparisons of people living in North America and East Asia, discussed cultures and selves. She defined the self as “a person’s ongoing sense of himself or herself. It’s the “me” at the center of experience, and it’s a continually developing sense of awareness and agency that guides action and takes shape as the individual, both brain and body, becomes attuned to the various environments [he or she] inhabits.” She described selves as “implicitly and explicitly at work in all aspects of behavior – perception, cognition, emotion, motivation, relationships, group processes.”

We don’t have “one self,” but multiple selves attuned to different social and cultural contexts (some of which cultural neuroscientists like Daphne Oyserman have found can be easily “primed” or elicited in experimental settings). The one that is “on” operates as the foundational schema, she said, “which organizes more specific schemas.” Since at least Geertz (1974/1984), we’ve known that the particular, western conception of the self as “bounded, unique” is “a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures,” but despite our best efforts, she continued, “I would say that the social sciences as a whole have made virtually no progress” in trying to “animate any other conception of mind” because the current, bounded, interior one, a product of our particular philosophy and history, “is so built into our cultures and science.” Behavioral neuroscience, in particular, has focused on an unrepresentative sample of “WEIRD” (i.e., western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) subjects (Henrich, 2010). The project for psychologists and anthropologists is to minimize our differences, with the understanding that “minds can be and are differently formed, and when they are . . . those different theories . . . matter for everything a person does.”

Hazel also mentioned that neuroscientists across subdisciplines (interested in, e.g., the effects of stress) share the same names for common units of analysis, like the HPA axis, suggesting a similar kind of agreement might help our theorizing about what is a self in socio-cultural contexts. For a start, she described the different theories of agency that come up in different contexts – e.g., the independent vs. interdependent model of self. (This model has been robustly supported by experimental evidence in cultural neuroscience with respect to even basic processes like visual perception; see Goh & Park, 2010.) She suggested focusing on identifying some key dimensions of the non-western models of mind, such as how interior or bounded the self is, which would go hand in hand with the independent vs. interdependent model of agency.

For example, feelings predict physical and mental health in cultures like the US that are organized around an independent model, whereas among the Japanese, who have significantly more negative feelings about themselves than Americans do, feelings are not predictive of health and wellbeing (but, interestingly, “level of relational harmony” is; see Kitayama, Karasawa, Curhan, Ryff, & Markus, 2010). This is not just an East/West dichotomy; Hazel said she’s seen very similar patterns of data – such as more holistic processing – among working-class Americans and more independent patterns among people living in northern Japan.

In the discussion that followed, Allen Tran was reminded of Heather Spector Hallman’s research on Japanese friendship among adolescents, for whom good friends are those who point out one’s faults (Hallman, 2011). The purpose of self and other criticism is to point out ways to improve, Hazel said. Allen asked Hazel to describe the differences in how negative affect is internalized in Japan vs. the West, which led to some interesting questions regarding feelings and health and wellbeing, at some (physiological) level does negative affect appear the same for both American and Japanese populations?

The next talk by Stanford Culture and Mind postdoctoral fellow Jocelyn Marrow, which was based on her 2001–2004 ethnographic research in Varanasi (North India) on emotional and psychiatric distress, discussed “how the specific theory of mind and self changes the appropriateness of emotional expressiveness throughout the life course.” Previous work on hierarchy, self and interpersonal relationships in India has found that, as persons become elder and more socially powerful, they experience themselves as more independent.  Jocelyn was particularly interested in the perceptions of women (and other family members) living with mental disorder regarding their experience of psychosocial interventions at public Indian psychiatric clinics. Patients and family members described the professionals’ psychosocial interventions at the clinic as “being made to understand” or exhorted regarding how to manage difficult family situations. Jocelyn said that “she quickly learned that samjhaana (‘making others understand’) was a cultural trope pertaining to many aspects of life. She said that samjhaana was a lifelong process of “empathy socialization undertaken by persons in positions of authority on behalf of their dependents and subordinates.” Those higher up in family, work, religious, and social hierarchies, who are perceived as embodying the best qualities (more wise, more perfect, closer to God than those below, which according to Indian ethnopsychology can permeate to others via touch, speech, glances, gestures,etc.) have a duty to socialize junior members “to attend to the demands, instructions, inclinations, and desires” of their seniors. (This most often concerns making juniors aware of their own impact on others’ wellbeing.)

Jocelyn then described an interesting asymmetry: “Hierarchical juniors were expected to shoulder the labor of understanding the minds and hearts of their superiors, while seniors had no equivalent responsibility to interpret the minds and hearts of their juniors from the immediate context” of juniors’ words and deeds. The different temporal dimensions were particularly interesting, i.e., although seniors bear “heavy responsibility” for juniors’ wellbeing in a general sense over the latters’ life courses, they privilege their own sense of what is best for juniors, rather than focusing on fulfilling juniors’ expressed wishes.   Ideally, seniors behave benevolently paternalistic towards their charges. Juniors’ transgressions, on the other hand, may be perceived as the fault of their elders.

In response to a question from Joel Robbins (“What happen when the junior has more knowledge or experience than the elder?”) Jocelyn clarified that her model related more to moral behavior than to expertise in certain areas (like driving or computers). Julia Cassaniti wondered what happened if elders gave bad advice. Tanya mentioned the work of Bambi Chapin who suggested that “the seniors failure to understand, failure to respond to the demands of the juniors” may have contributed to the civil war in Sri Lanka. Jocelyn said bad advice might lead to anger that an elder misled them or failed to take care of them. Another participant wondered if family therapy was much more prevalent than individual therapy. Jocelyn said yes, but she also said – and this may not be typical for other parts of India – there was a strong sense among the therapists that certain patients were being mistreated and that the therapists needed to modify things in the family environment. Another common intervention was to bring in an outside senior to make a senior in the family understand what they were doing was wrong.

Tanya asked Jocelyn if the general situation she described represented an asymmetry of mind reading? Jocelyn said, yes, a close mind reading of one’s elders helps juniors become better people. Tanya asked if the asymmetry resonated with any other features of social life. Jocelyn said the psychiatrists in psychosocial interventions “sort of insert themselves as an über-family elder.” The same asymmetry is prevalent in work environments: the boss’s personality comes to pervade the organization. A participant wondered if there were another piece to the dialogue. If a father criticized a son, for example, the son might (appropriately) respond to the father that he hadn’t been guided properly. Joel suggested the son can say or think that, but he would also bear the responsibility of following his father’s guidance. Hazel Markus felt social scientists, who may automatically assume an independent view of self, “haven’t taken seriously how important hierarchy is in organizing so much of the world, in organizing so much of (people’s) thinking, feeling, acting, and perceiving.”  She felt that Jocelyn’s data and observations, showing the positive consequences of hierarchical arrangements, are “really powerful.” (Jocelyn’s talk also reminded me of an interesting, recent face-processing study on the “boss effect” in American and Chinese graduate students by Liew, Ma, Han, & Aziz-Zadeh [2011], which offers some initial evidence for how deeply ingrained our perceptions of social hierarchy and social status are.)

In the final talk of the session, University of Chicago linguistic anthropologist John Lucy discussed his research on the relation between language and thought from a developmental perspective, particularly how individual languages might affect speaking and thinking in distinctive ways (which happens around middle childhood starting around age 8). The language patterns that we see in very young children are in place long before the associated cognitive patterns develop during middle childhood, i.e., overall this is a lengthy process. There are interesting costs and gains in middle childhood, he said. The costs are “that we begin to lock in our accent,” for example, another higher order feature (vis-à-vis the previous discussion) that is “quite durable and resistant to transformation.”  There is also a “deeper . . . engagement with the surrounding reality. It’s as if the language code has had a certain amount of autonomy and now begins to systematically connect to the presuppositions of a culture” as part of a process that is more a reorganization of the system than the incorporation of something new. He said that there are substantial gains at this time: the ability to narrate or to interact discursively in an appropriate manner with other people in the community, for example. He also said that some of the constructs  – language, culture, mind, self – are actually products of middle childhood, that is, “they are formal developments around which some of this reorganization is taking place.” (Thus, ToM means different things at different ages.)

The rest of the talk focused on where some of this reorganization is occurring, which he suggested can be located in the deictic system, which, through the use of pronouns, tense markers, demonstratives this, that, etc., maps the speaker’s utterance onto the external world and which develops over childhood in order to handle a more abstract perspective about oneself in relation to others as well as to cross-link to other contexts. He described four broad types: (1) deictic forms that tell us something about the participants in the interaction; (2) a set that tells us about events, (3) a set that tells us about the speaker’s stance on what’s happening, and (4) a set that tells us about the relation of this event to other events. Referring to a handout of a story about a schoolyard fight narrated by a ten-year-old girl, he pointed out elements in the somewhat chaotic nature of the storytelling that were typical for that age. He then pointed out all the features that don’t occur in younger children’s narratives, including how the narrator was able to embed dialogue in the story, as well as many culturally shaped ideas about social status, rights and privileges, etc. By simply watching how children talk about things in nonexperimental settings, he said, it’s possible to see how narrative skills, interaction skills, and cultural knowledge, and self are built into the apparatus, in one way or another. In view of all this, one final point he made in his position paper is the ease with which we project intentional mental states onto animals or children and, at the same time, the difficulty we have attributing mental states, “or at least good ones, to those from other cultures, who speak other languages [especially those that are structurally quite different, e.g., no overt tense markers], or who suffer from some communicative incapacity.” “[N]otice again,” he wrote, “how essentially social differences are construed psychologically, as deficiencies of self.”

Regarding John’s method of focusing on children’s speech in naturalistic settings (how grammatical and linguistic information is “interpenetrated” with pragmatic conventions related to the perceived needs of a specific listener, or “recipient design”), NYU linguistic anthropologist Bambi Schieffelin suggested also looking at things like clarifications, self repair, other-initiated repair, etc. Strategies for those instances in which something is not making sense to the listener may reveal significant cultural differences. John agreed that somewhere between experiments designed to reveal some feature that’s hidden and metatheories about where mind is located in the body, “there’s this other sphere which is both public and visible on the one hand and yet not necessarily consciously reflective. . . . And I think it would be a useful place to tie the two traditions together. ”

A question about translation turned the focus of the discussion to the more general issue of how minds interact on a nonverbal as well as verbal basis. In general, as one participant observed, very little is known about the mechanisms that mediate social interaction. Hazel Markus related the lack of theorizing about intersubjectivity to our cultural ideas of self and mind (independent, interior, bounded). John Lucy said our (over-psychologized) ToM is a solution to a problem of social coordination that tries to solve it without reference to social coordination. Tanya noted a possible generalization: in some cultures oriented toward an interdependent view of self (like Japan), social coordination is achieved via heightened mind-reading, whereas in other cultures, like that of the Urapmin, coordination is achieved via nonverbal acts like the social exchange of objects. Joel said that what counts as social coordination differs in different places. The Urapmin will put up with all kinds of misfires, even across hierarchies; despite the gift exchange, there is a lot of tolerance for lack of or less coordination without dissecting the underlying intention (the same verb means “to lie” and “to be wrong”). Social coordination includes the different ways in which we physically interact with each other, as Julia pointed out. (People may be less verbally attuned to one another.) Another participant asked Joel whether conversations among the Urapmin ever look chaotic, particularly when – Joel continued the thought – you can’t ask a speaker what she means? Another question, do we (especially “WEIRD” Americans with an independent view of self [Henrich, 2010]) misrepresent in the other direction, by focusing on the capacity for mind-reading? Aparecida Vilaça (Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), with reference to Roy Wagner (1975/1981), observed that it depends on what the culture “creates as innate.” For westerners, “the innate is individualities” and action is focused on what one needs to coordinate or regulate. For other cultures, the “innate” is relationships and action is focused on differentiating, on improvisation.

Turning to John’s suggestion that ToM is a solution to a problem of social coordination, Julia asked what happens if it is not culturally expected that communication should always work, then the definition of the problem should also be different. The theories of mind that develop in different cultures may be solutions to the different ways in which we create sociality. Even our tacit concepts of time and the strength of our attachment to controlling understanding differ, another participant observed, which brings me back to the Markus and Kitayama paper: the mutual constitution of cultures and selves is as much a biological as a social (and psychological) issue. This is particularly evident in the direction of work by Hazel Markus, Shinobu Kitayama, Georg Northoff, Shihui Han, Joan Chiao, and others (see, e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 2010; Northoff, Qin, & Feinbert, 2011; Chiao , 2010, and Han & Northoff, 2008), presaging more collaboration incorporating the critical insights that anthropologists bring to bear on the culture–biology interface in the not-too-distant future


Chiao, J., Harada, T., Komeda, H., Li, Z., Mano, Y. Saito, D., . . . Iidaka, T. (2010). Dynamic cultural influences on neural representations of the self. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(1), 1–11. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21192

ABSTRACT: People living in multicultural environments often encounter situations which require them to acquire different cultural schemas and to switch between these cultural schemas depending on their immediate sociocultural context. Prior behavioral studies show that priming cultural schemas reliably impacts mental processes and behavior underlying self-concept. However, less well understood is whether or not cultural priming affects neurobiological mechanisms underlying the self. Here we examined whether priming cultural values of individualism and collectivism in bicultural individuals affects neural activity in cortical midline structures underlying self-relevant processes using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Biculturals primed with individualistic values showed increased activation within medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) during general relative to contextual self-judgments, whereas biculturals primed with collectivistic values showed increased response within MPFC and PCC during contextual relative to general self-judgments. Moreover, degree of cultural priming was positively correlated with degree of MPFC and PCC activity during culturally congruent self-judgments. These findings illustrate the dynamic influence of culture on neural representations underlying the self and, more broadly, suggest a neurobiological basis by which people acculturate to novel environments.

Geertz, C. (1984). “From the native’s point of view”: On the nature of anthropological understanding. In R. A. Shweder & R. A. LeVine (Eds.), Culture theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion (pp. 123–136). New York: Cambridge University Press. Original work published 1974.

Hallman, H. (2011). Lure of the intimate: Power practices in Japanese adolescent friendship (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved October 19, 2011, from Dissertations & Theses @ University of California. (Publication No. AAT 3465785).

Goh, J. O, & Park, D. C. (2009). Culture sculpts the perceptual brain. Progress in Brain Research, 178, 95–111. doi:10.1016/S0079-6123(09)17807-X

ABSTRACT: Cultural differences in the way Westerners and East Asians perceive and attend to visual objects and contexts have now been shown across many behavioral studies. Westerners display more attention to objects and their features, in line with an analytic processing style, whereas East Asians attend more to contextual relationship, reflecting holistic processing. In this article, we review these behavioral differences and relate them to neuroimaging studies that show the impact of cultural differences even on ventral visual processing of objects and contexts. We additionally consider the evidence showing how extended experience within a culture via aging affects ventral visual function. We conclude that the brain findings are in agreement with the analytic/holistic dichotomy of Western and East Asian visual processing styles. Westerners engage greater object-processing activity while East Asians engage more context-processing activity in the ventral visual areas of the brain. Although such cultural imaging studies are still few, they provide important early evidence supporting the importance of cultural experiences in sculpting visual processing at the neural level.

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

ABSTRACT: Our brains and minds are shaped by our experiences, which mainly occur in the context of the culture in which we develop and live. Although psychologists have provided abundant evidence for diversity of human cognition and behaviour across cultures, the question of whether the neural correlates of human cognition are also culture-dependent is often not considered by neuroscientists. However, recent transcultural neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that one’s cultural background can influence the neural activity that underlies both high- and low-level cognitive functions. The findings provide a novel approach by which to distinguish culture-sensitive from culture-invariant neural mechanisms of human cognition.

Henrich, J., Heine, S.J., Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2–3), 61–83. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

ABSTRACT: Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

Hollan, D. (1992). Cross-cultural differences in the self. Journal of Anthropological Research, 48(4), 283–300.

Kitayama, S., Karasawa, M., Curhan K. B., Ryff, C. D., & Markus, H. R. (DEC 02, 2010) Independence and interdependence predict health and wellbeing: Divergent patterns in the United States and Japan. Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, 1(163). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00163

ABSTRACT: A cross-cultural survey was used to examine two hypotheses designed to link culture to wellbeing and health. The first hypothesis states that people are motivated toward prevalent cultural mandates of either independence (personal control) in the United States or interdependence (relational harmony) in Japan. As predicted, Americans with compromised personal control and Japanese with strained relationships reported high perceived constraint. The second hypothesis holds that people achieve wellbeing and health through actualizing the respective cultural mandates in their modes of being. As predicted, the strongest predictor of wellbeing and health was personal control in the United States, but the absence of relational strain in Japan. All analyses controlled for age, gender, educational attainment, and personality traits. The overall pattern of findings underscores culturally distinct pathways (independent versus interdependent) in achieving the positive life outcomes.

Liew, S. L., Ma, Y., Han, S., Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2011). Who’s afraid of the boss: Cultural differences in social hierarchies modulate self-face recognition in Chinese and Americans. PLoS ONE, 6, e16901. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016901

ABSTRACT: Human adults typically respond faster to their own face than to the faces of others. However, in Chinese participants, this self-face advantage is lost in the presence of one’s supervisor, and they respond faster to their supervisor’s face than to their own. While this “boss effect” suggests a strong modulation of self-processing in the presence of influential social superiors, the current study examined whether this effect was true across cultures. Given the wealth of literature on cultural differences between collectivist, interdependent versus individualistic, independent self-construals, we hypothesized that the boss effect might be weaker in independent than interdependent cultures. Twenty European American college students were asked to identify orientations of their own face or their supervisors’ face. We found that European Americans, unlike Chinese participants, did not show a “boss effect” and maintained the self-face advantage even in the presence of their supervisor’s face. Interestingly, however, their self-face advantage decreased as their ratings of their boss’s perceived social status increased, suggesting that self-processing in Americans is influenced more by one’s social status than by one’s hierarchical position as a social superior. In addition, when their boss’s face was presented with a labmate’s face, American participants responded faster to the boss’s face, indicating that the boss may represent general social dominance rather than a direct negative threat to oneself, in more independent cultures. Altogether, these results demonstrate a strong cultural modulation of self-processing in social contexts and suggest that the very concept of social positions, such as a boss, may hold markedly different meanings to the self across Western and East Asian cultures.

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (2010). Cultures and selves: A cycle of mutual constitution. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 420–430. doi:10.1177/1745691610375557

ABSTRACT: The study of culture and self casts psychology’s understanding of the self, identity, or agency as central to the analysis and interpretation of behavior and demonstrates that cultures and selves define and build upon each other in an ongoing cycle of mutual constitution. In a selective review of theoretical and empirical work, we define self and what the self does, define culture and how it constitutes the self (and vice versa), define independence and interdependence and determine how they shape psychological functioning, and examine the continuing challenges and controversies in the study of culture and self. We propose that a self is the “me” at the center of experience—a continually developing sense of awareness and agency that guides actions and takes shape as the individual, both brain and body, becomes attuned to various environments. Selves incorporate the patterning of their various environments and thus confer particular and culture-specific form and function to the psychological processes they organize (e.g., attention, perception, cognition, emotion, motivation, interpersonal relationship, group). In turn, as selves engage with their sociocultural contexts, they reinforce and sometimes change the ideas, practices, and institutions of these environments.

Northoff, G., Qin, P., & Feinbert, T. E. (2011). Brain imaging of the self – Conceptual, anatomical and methodological issues. Consciousness and Cognition, 20(1), 52–63. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.09.011

ABSTRACT: In this paper we consider two major issues: conceptual-experimental approaches to the self, and the neuroanatomical substrate of the self. We distinguish content- and processed-based concepts of the self that entail different experimental strategies, and anatomically, we investigate the concept of midline structures in further detail and present a novel view on the anatomy of an integrated subcortical-cortical midline system. Presenting meta-analytic evidence, we show that the anterior paralimbic, e.g. midline, regions do indeed seem to be specific for self-specific stimuli. We conclude that future investigation of the self need to develop novel concepts that are more empirically plausible than those currently in use. Different concepts of self will require novel experimental designs that include, for example, the brain’s resting state activity as an independent variable. Modifications of both conceptual and anatomical dimensions will allow an empirically more plausible account of the relationship between brain and self.

Wagner, R. (1981).  The invention of culture (Rev. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

List of Participants

Rita Astuti, Professor, Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics

Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Stanford University

Luke Butler, Graduate student, Psychology, Stanford University

Julia Cassaniti, Culture and Mind Postdoctoral Fellow, Anthropology, Stanford University

Eve Danziger, Associate Professor in Anthropology, University of Virginia

Suzanne Gaskins, Associate Professor of Psychology, Northeastern Illinois University

Dedre Gentner, Alice Gabrielle Twight Professor, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University

Kathyrn Geurts, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Hamline College

Alexa Hagerty, Graduate student, Anthropology, Stanford University

Douglas Hollan, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Graham Jones, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Michelle Karnes, Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Stanford University

John Lucy, William Benton Professor Department of Comparative Human Development, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago

Tanya Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor in Anthropology (and Psychology, by courtesy) Stanford University

Ellen Markman, Lewis M. Terman Professor of Psychology, Stanford University

Hazel Markus, Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Department of Psychology

Giulia Mazza, Graduate student, Anthropology, Stanford University

Jocelyn Marrow, Culture and Mind Postdoctoral Fellow, Anthropology, Stanford University

Joel Robbins, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego

Barbara Rogoff, University of California, Santa Cruz Foundation Distinguished Professor of Psychology

Sonya Pritzker, Assistant Researcher and Clinical Specialist at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine

Danilyn Rutherford, Associate Professor in Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Bambi Schieffelin, Collegiate Professor; Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Rupert Stasch, Associate Professor, University of California, San Diego

Allen Tran, Graduate Student, Anthropology, University of  California, San Diego

Jason Throop, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Aparecida Vilaça, Associate Professor in the Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology, Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro