Week 7: Chiao (2009) Cultural neuroscience: a once and future discipline

After the xmas break we returned to the topic of cultural psychology that we had critically discussed in our very first session. But this time we looked at how this had been expanded upon by the new and emerging field of cultural neuroscience. This new field attempts to combine cultural psychology, neurogenetics, and neuroscience. With the aim of investigating the following three questions:

1. how culture shapes brain functions
2. how brains give rise to cultural capacities
3. how cultural transmission takes place over multiple time-scales

However, the same issues that were discussed in week 1 returned. The notion of culture being used in these studies was questioned and critiqued. Most disappointingly, although Joan Chiao acknowledges that anthropology is vital for exploring these three questions it does not feature at all in her formulation of the field – with the caveat that she mentions that “neuroanthropology” will be important. But she does not go on to develop this point. As such, we then turned to this in the next week.

Despite this serious omission, the attempt to try and map out the relation between culture and cognition across genetic, psychological and neurological levels is admirable. However, I would contend that insofar that the ethnographic level of investigation is omitted, then the studying of the relation of brains and culture is incomplete.

The field of cultural neuroscience has been critiqued and assessed by numerous researchers from a range of fields. Here I relay the suggestions of Reynolds Losin and colleagues (2010, pp. 152-155) who conducted a meta-analysis of the literature in cultural neuroscience. They offer the following suggestions on how cultural neuroscience can be made into a viable project:

  1. Define and measure culture.

In their meta-analysis of the existing literature they note that only one study met this criterion, and it employed a narrow definition of culture (as a particular practice). Many of the other studies employed definitions that were too vague and were obscured by one-to-many relations, and important in group differences, that made the term superficial. Also see Roepstorff and colleagues (2010) for similar observations and criticisms.

  1. Unpackage culture

Of the studies examined, 14 partially met this criterion by “mentioning” specific cultural elements rather than culture in general, but only two studies then measured this specific variable and used it for analysis (one study failed this criterion altogether).

  1. Replicate cultures containing cultural element of interest (triangulation < n)

Only one study met this criterion and most failed, with four partials (including more than one group). Although, it is a bit unclear how they are applying this principle to the studies. It is still an important principle – if not the most. But failing studies against this criterion is also due to the macroscopic definition of culture that is used by these studies. This is further evidence in favour of the patterned practices approach of Roepstorff and colleagues (2010) since it doesn’t require the exotic lengths to which Reynolds Losin and colleagues seem to be implying. You can find vast difference within a single country dependent upon the narrow variable you have chosen, let alone across race, religious, socioeconomic and geographical lines: e.g. musicians versus doctors versus sportsman, etc.

  1. Match or measure onset/amount of cultural experience

Meeting this criterion fully is difficult because it requires participants to be tested in their native environments – and there are the complexities of cross scanner peculiarities. Firstly, again Roepstorff and colleagues (2010) stipulations would again be worth considering since highly different ‘cultural’ groups with different patterned practices can be found within the same geographic areas, thus mitigating this issue somewhat. But secondly, laboratory conditions are always going to be ‘un’-natural environments for participants. Furthermore, what about actual ‘exotic’ groups? Most of these groups will have to, presumably, travel a great distance to take part in a study involving brain imaging…? Reynolds Losin and colleagues are correct to point out that taking into account equivalent experience in a particular practice and age are very important factors that future studies need to take into account.

  1. Consider the effects of regional genetic variation

No study fully satisfied this criterion, and only one partial (!). Almost all the studies confounded genetic and cultural variation. In order to avoid this, introducing a triangulating group that shared cultural experience of one group and genetic inheritance of the other (e.g. two differing mono-cultural groups and an overlapping bi-cultural group) could begin to disentangle genetic and cultural factors. This also requires additional control groups to try and highlight regional genetic factors.

  1. Match groups

All studies partially or fully met this criterion by considering basic elements such as age and handedness, etc. But fully meeting the criterion required additionally neuro-psychological information relevant to the cultural variable to be collected, such as IQ tests, etc. Although no study failed this criterion, the authors lament that more than half only collected basic demographic data and didn’t look for additional group-matching information that enable unambiguous interpretation of the data. This is where I think increased ethnographic work could also be of benefit and go beyond what Reynolds Losin and colleagues here are suggesting.

  1. Equate stimuli

Most studies partially met this criterion by making some attempt that the stimulus was similar for all groups being studied. But for groups to fully meet this criteria (8 studies), this had to verified. Some of the other studies that didn’t fully meet this criterion acknowledged that a factor in the interpretation of the data could be a difference in meaning of the stimuli.

  1. Equate performance

Results were mixed in these regards (4 fails, 2 N/A, 4 partials and 7 passes). For studies to partially meet this criterion they had to check performance at the task and see if it was equivalent across the group. Fully meeting this criterion meant that all measured aspects of performance were equivalent within the group (homogeneity). Checking these variables are important for cultural neuroscience studies as they delimit possible explanatory factors – but is it reasonable to expect such homogeneity in all instances? And wont most larger studies find radical differences? This might again be support for Roepstorff and colleagues (2010). This seems to be a point of contention between cultural neuroscience/psychology and anthropology – as noted by Downey & Lende (2012) who reject the notion that culture is homogeneous across large groups.

Of these I think that number 1 and 3 are the most important.







Chiao 2009 Cultural neuroscience: a once and future discipline. Progress in Brain Research, 178, 287-304.

Downey & Lende 2012 Neuroanthropology and the Encultured Brain. (pp. 23-65) in D. Lende & G. Downey (Eds.) The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Reynolds Losin et al 2010 Culture and neuroscience: additive or synergistic? SCAN, 5, 148-158.

Roepstorff et al 2010 Enculturing brains through patterned practices. Neural Networks, 23, 1051–1059.


Additional links:

Here is a relatively recent video of Joan Chiao discussing cultural neuroscience.

Several of the experimental methods that are used by cultural psychology can be found online at labinthewild. I think that one can gain a much better understanding of how these tests work (and whether one thinks they are valid paradigms for testing cultural impacts on cognition) by taking the tests themselves. I would be really interested to know what other people’s experiences were of the tests labelled: “Are you more Eastern or Western?” and “What is your thinking style?”


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