How Culture Shapes Our Mind and Brain

Most people would agree that culture can have a large effect on our daily lives — influencing what we may wear, say, or find humorous. But many people may be surprised to learn that culture may even effect how our brain responds to different stimuli. Indeed, until recently, most psychology and neuroscience researchers took for granted that their findings translated across individuals in various cultures. In the past decade, however, research has begun to unravel how cultural belief systems shape our thoughts and behaviors.

One of the strongest divides in thinking across cultures is the different perspectives about ‘the individual’ in East-Asian and Western-European/American cultures. Western-Europeans and Americans emphasize individuals as unique entities from others, while East-Asian cultures emphasize the individual in relation to other people and their environmental context. These viewpoints can be traced to the cultures’ unique philosophies concerning the individual. After all, Descartes noted “I think therefore I am,” which he used to prove that if one wonders whether or not they exist, they therefore must exist because they are capable of this and other such internal thoughts. Confucian philosophy, on the other hand, emphasizes that a person cannot fully exist alone, and that a person only reaches the highest form of existence once he/she mentally severs the divide between themselves, others and the environment.

Though these distinctions seem esoteric, they do in fact permeate contemporary psychology. For example, a classic finding in western psychology is that people are better at remembering adjectives related to themselves than adjectives related to a family member or strangers. When this study was replicated in China, however, Chinese participants remembered adjectives related to themselves and a family member equally well.

Based on the above and other similar findings in psychological research conducted across cultures, cognitive neuroscientists questioned whether the brain would respond differently to information about oneself, a family member, and strangers across individualistic and collectivist cultures. Past studies in American samples found that the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) shows stronger activation to viewing adjectives that describe the individual compared to adjectives describing a family member and strangers, highlighting the vmPFC’s role in representing the individual.  In a Chinese sample, however, the vmPFC is strongly active when participants view adjectives about themselves and a family member, though not for strangers.

Taken together, these divergent findings fit with each cultures’ conceptualization of the individual — independent in Western-European/American cultures, and intertwined with others in your environment in East-Asian cultures. Of course, this research should not be used to over-generalize differences in thinking across cultures. Indeed, there is also a great deal of research highlighting the commonalities in cognition across cultures. That said, acknowledging the subtle differences may help people in contemporary society — which is increasingly culturally diverse — appreciate the nuances in thought and behavior among the people we come across in our day to day lives.


Klein, S.B., Loftus, J. & Burton, H.A., (1989). Two self-reference effects: the importance of distinguishing between self-descriptiveness judgments and autobiographical retrieval in self-referent encoding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 853-865.

Qi, J., & Zhu, Y. (2002). Self-reference effect of Chinese college students. Psychological Science (in Chinese), 25, 275-278.

ZHU, Y., ZHANG, L., FAN, J., & HAN, S. (2007). Neural basis of cultural influence on self-representation NeuroImage, 34 (3), 1310-1316 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.08.047

Meghan Meyer, PhD (c)

Meghan Meyer, PhD candidate, studies social cognitive neuroscience at University of California-Los Angeles. Prior to joining UCLA, she worked on behavioral and brain imaging studies in the Stanford University Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Lab and the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago, and completed her M.A. in cognitive science, with a specialty in cognitive neuroscience, from Ecole Normale Superieur, in Paris, France. When she is not in the lab designing studies and analyzing data, she enjoys writing about scientific findings and their broader impact for general audiences.
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