Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Cultural Differences in Neural Function Associated with Object Processing

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Cultural Differences in Neural Function Associated with Object Processing

Article excerpt

Behavioral research suggests that Westerners focus more on objects, whereas East Asians attend more to relationships and contexts. We evaluated the neural basis for these cultural differences in an event-related fMRI study. East Asian and American participants incidentally encoded pictures of (1) a target object alone, (2) a background scene with no discernable target object, and (3) a distinct target object against a meaningful background. Americans, relative to East Asians, activated more regions implicated in object processing, including bilateral middle temporal gyrus, left superior parietal/angular gyrus, and right superior temporal/supramarginal gyrus. In contrast to the cultural differences in object-processing areas, few differences emerged in background-processing regions. These results suggest that cultural experiences subtly direct neural activity, particularly for focal objects, at an early stage of scene encoding.

Life experiences impact the organization and function of the brain. Structural changes occur in the posterior regions of the hippocampus on the basis of length of time as a London taxicab driver (Maguire et al., 2000), and after merely 3 months of training in juggling, differences were reported in the vicinity of V5 bilaterally and the left posterior intraparietal sulcus (Draganski et al., 2004). Even everyday experience with letters and numbers shapes functional neural organization (Polk & Farah, 1995; Polk et al., 2002; Puce, Allison, Asgari, Gore, & McCarthy, 1996). In the present study, we considered the role played by another type of experience-cultural experience-in affecting engagement of neural structures.

Recent behavioral work suggests that culture-specific experiences shape cognition in precise ways. Western cultures place more value on independence and individuality than do Eastern cultures, resulting in an attentional bias toward individual objects, with less regard for context and relationships among items. In contrast, East Asian cultures emphasize interdependent relationships and monitoring of context, resulting in an attentional bias toward contextual, relational processing of information (Nisbett, 2003; Nisbett & Masuda, 2003; Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001). These information-processing biases manifest themselves in cognitive behaviors. On a change blindness task, East Asians detect more changes in background contexts, whereas Americans detect more changes in foreground objects (as has been discussed in Nisbett & Masuda, 2003). On an auditory emotional Stroop task, East Asians experience more interference when required to ignore a conflicting context to make target judgments, whereas Americans experience more interference when basing judgments on context while ignoring the target (Ishii, Reyes, & Kitayama, 2001). Westerners perform better than East Asians at copying the absolute length of a line, regardless of frame size, whereas East Asians are more accurate than Westerners at reproducing the size of a line relative to its frame (Kitayama, Dufiy, Kawamura, & Larsen, 2003). In addition, Americans recognize previously seen objects in changed contexts better than do Asians, due to their increased focus on object information without regard to context (Chua, Boland, & Nisbett, 2005; Masuda & Nisbett, 2001).

The behavioral differences in attentional biases and judgments between Eastern and Western cultures suggest that there should be systematic cultural differences in neural responses to complex scenes. In the present eventrelated functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, East Asians and Westerners encoded pictures that differed in the amount of object and context information. When complex scenes that contained both objects and context were studied, we hypothesized that Americans would engage more object-based neural structures, whereas East Asians would engage those specialized for contextual processing. Candidate regions for increased object-based processing in Americans included occipital and temporal regions in the ventral "what" stream, as well as the ventral prefrontal cortex (Ungerleider, 1995). …

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