Culture may affect the way your brain processes everything

Have you ever wondered whether your cultural background influences how your body or brain functions? The emerging field of cultural neuroscience is showing culture drives many aspects of human functioning and information processing, including how our brains work...

Of course, the term "culture" represents a hugely complex web of dynamic systems, including beliefs, languages and values. Religion, socio-economic status and gender may also be relevant — so it's not hard to see that culture is difficult to measure scientifically. It's multi-dimensional and intricate, and it's highly personal but also describes whole communities. One useful way of viewing culture is to think of it as providing a framework for understanding ourselves in relation to the world around us.

Broadly speaking, Western-based cultures focus on an independent and unique self that values autonomy, personal achievement and an analytical style of thinking. This is known as individualism. There's also a different kind of self-representation known as collectivism — and this cultural framework is more common in non-Western cultures, including populations from East Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries.

Collectivists tend to see themselves as more interdependent with others, and place high value on social harmony, interpersonal connections and a holistic style of thinking. And studies are now showing that how individualistic or collectivistic we are can change how we function as individuals and communities.

How we see ourselves in relation to others can influence a range of processes, including how we express emotions, make decisions, allocate our attention, and perceive the world around us.

For example, eye-tracking studies have shown that people from collectivistic cultures focus more on the contextual cues in complex visual scenes. When asked to view fish aquarium scenes, collectivistic groups focused more on the background plants and rocks — that is, the context. In contrast, individualistic groups preferred to pay attention to key objects in the scene, like the fish. These patterns of attention affected what details were remembered from the aquarium scenes.

We found similar patterns when showing people visual cues that were highly negative, for example, a photograph of a conflict scene. Using brain imaging, we found that collectivists engaged more context-dependent parts of the brain when compared to individualists. These findings are consistent with the idea that people with a collectivistic self-concept are more interconnected with the world around them. And there are many other studies that have shown differences like this between people from different cultural groups, with different world-views, social dynamics and self-identities.

But what does this research actually mean for us, and why is it important?

Our current understanding of human psychology may be limited by the fact that most research studies involve participants that represent a very narrow slice of humanity.

Most studies in the psychological sciences have been conducted in Western countries, drawing from a participant pool that is largely individualistic. This prominent group even has its own acronym — the "WEIRD" group — which stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. Interestingly, this group seems to act differently when compared to most other populations.

Ninety-five per cent of all studies in psychological sciences include research participants that reflect only 12 per cent of the world's culturally diverse communities. This is a problem, because we have often assumed that psychological research findings can be universally applied across cultural groups. But now we're beginning to understand that psychological research has some catching up to do in accounting for human diversity and its range of perspectives.

Are we treating trauma appropriately?

Insights from cultural neuroscience research may also help explain how cultural factors can influence mental health. There is a huge variation in the prevalence of psychological disorders across the world, and there are stark cultural differences in how mental health symptoms are perceived and understood by patients.

For example, anxiety symptoms in Chinese culture, where collectivistic self-representation is prominent, may be attributed to weakened body organs such as the heart or kidney, whereas a Western concept of anxiety is more related to a psychological feeling.

Psychological disorders are associated with changes in the brain mechanisms that regulate our emotional, cognitive and behavioural functions. For instance, in my own field of research, the neural systems underlying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have largely been mapped. Specific disruptions in core brain systems responsible for fear learning, threat detection, contextual processing, emotional memory and how we think of ourselves have been observed among groups with PTSD across multiple studies.

However, given the fact that culture also shapes these very same brain processes more generally, it stands to reason that culture may also influence the neural underpinnings of PTSD. Like the psychological sciences, most clinical neuroscience research in trauma has been conducted in Western countries with Western-based populations. 

But many people with collectivistic self-concepts are also exposed to significant amount of trauma. Refugee populations, who are commonly from non-Western cultural backgrounds, are more than four times more likely to experience PTSD in their lifetimes (approximately 1 in 3 people), compared to the general Australian population (approximately one in 14 people). This is due to fact that refugee trauma can be both very severe (common experiences include traumatic loss of loved ones, torture, exposure to conflict and mass violence) and cumulative (meaning many traumatic events can occur at once or over sustained periods of time).

For collectivists, who place high value on their social grouping as central to their self-identity, including wide family and community networks, the experience of forced displacement, including separation from family and culture, may be particularly harmful to their mental health.

Culture might influence the experience of trauma in the first place, as well as shape how the brain is affected by trauma. It may also have an impact on mental health consequences following trauma, and recovery pathways. These are all questions for future research, but they are important questions, because Australia is a multicultural country.

Alongside refugees, almost one third of the Australian population is born overseas, with a growing proportion of migrants from China, India, the Philippines and Malaysia — all cultures where collectivistic concepts of self are prominent. Without understanding the role of culture in PTSD, and mental disorders more generally, we risk being ill-equipped to respond to the mental health needs of all Australians.


Author: Dr Belinda Liddell is research fellow and deputy director of the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program in the School of Psychology at UNSW Sydney. She is also one of the Top 5 scientists for 2018.

Tags: identity, society, neuroscience , psychology, awareness , mindset, wellbeing

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