The authors aptly ask whether cultural experiences modulate or determine preexisting patterns of neural activity. This is a crucial question, one common to all attempts at bridging brain and culture. But is it is relevant for understanding culture? As the authors themselves point out, even if the same brain region is “recruited” by different groups for the same task, “two cultures might have different meanings for the concepts involved in a task” (652). The significant level of analysis must therefore be that of meanings and practices.
Han and Northoff realize that the notion of culture involves complexities that cannot be studied via the usual experimental designs. They recognize, for example, that there is no such thing as a homogenous “Western” or “East Asian” culture. Research practices, however, are less nuanced. It has been remarked that cultural psychology may give the impression that “there is a very small number of cultural identities (North American vs. East or Southeast Asian) that vary principally on the dimensions of individualismcollectivism or independent-interdependent self-construal” (Cohen 2009, 194). The same applies to cultural neurosciences, whose methods and experimental designs inevitably homogenize and factorize culture. More importantly, cultural neuroscience does not take culture as its object of study but as an independent variable on which a dependent one, such as the individualist-collectivist position, rests.
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.
Shihui Han is a professor at Peking University.
Georg Northoff is a philosopher, neuroscientist and psychiatrist, holding degrees in all three disci...
Inspired by the homonymous book by Fernando Vidal and Francisco Ortega, this timespace presents the authors' genealogy of the cerebral subject and the influence of the neurological discourse in human sciences, mental health and culture.