How Does Culture Influence the Way We Use Our Brains? Find Out Here.

We’ve all heard of “right-brain” and “left-brain” thinkers.

Left-brain thinkers are thought to be more logical and mathematical, while right-brain thinkers tend to lean emotional and artistic.

But are there any links between the way our brains function and our cultures?

We’ve talked a lot about gene-culture coevolution over these past few weeks.

In short, the theory suggests that genetics and culture are interconnected.

This brain imaging study about visual perceptual tasks seems to substantiate that theory.

Individualist vs. Collective 

Psychological research has shown that individualist and collective values are demonstrated in an individual’s view of objects in relation to their context.

Americans, valuing individuality, tend to view the two as independent from each other.

East Asian cultures, which value the collective, view objects as contextually interdependent.

These differences have been shown to impact perception and memory by behavioral scientists.

The Study: How Our Brains Work

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a look at whether these cultural tendencies can be measured in brain activity patterns.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from a group of 20 participants – 10 from East Asia, 10 from the U.S. – McGovern Institute for Brain Research Professor John Gabrieli and his team examined participants’ mental operations.

Participants were asked to compare a sequence of images, and their mental operations were mapped via blood flow changes in the brain.

The images were lines within squares.

Participants were asked to compare each image with the previous image, making judgments based on relative judgments of interdependent objects or absolute judgments of individual objects without context.

For instance, some questions asked whether the lines were proportional to the squares, regardless of size (interdependent); others asked whether the lines were the same length as each other, regardless of the squares (independent of context).

The Results: Confirmed

While the simplicity of the task resulted in no differences in accuracy between the groups, brain activation patterns did differ.

Relative judgments, which have been shown to be harder for Americans, stimulated the brain regions dedicated to mental tasks that demand attention. 

These regions were less active for absolute judgments.

As you might guess, the results for the East Asian group were the opposite, with brain activity becoming more active for absolute judgments and less for relative.

The paper’s lead author, Trey Hedden, said of the study:

“We were surprised at the magnitude of the difference between the two cultural groups, and also at how widespread the engagement of the brain’s attention system became when making judgments outside the cultural comfort zone.”

Even more interesting, questionnaires had been distributed prior to the exam to see how closely each individual identified with their culture, using questions regarding values and norms.

Those individuals who identified more intimately with their culture’s values showed a stronger reactive pattern of brain activity relative to their culture.

This study suggests that our culture – and how closely we individually identify with our culture – can influence the way our minds work.

Pretty heady.

Expat Returning Home? You May Face These Side Effects

We’ve been talking a lot the past few weeks about what it feels like to return home after spending significant time in another culture.

As an expat, you may find your return surprisingly difficult – mostly because reverse culture shock is unexpected.

In fact, you may become homesick for your host country.

Curious about what other side effects you may face?

In his book, The Art of Coming Home, Craig Storti outlines four mental and emotional side effects of returning home.

Marginality

Your experience living in another culture has changed who you are. Your identity has changed, your perspective has changed. You see things through a different lens.

You may find there’s a strain between your society and this new identity. You may feel like you don’t fit in in your own culture.

You are “home,” but your home doesn’t feel entirely comfortable anymore.

Criticality

Upon returning home, the values and norms you’ve adapted to abroad may make you more judgmental about your home country and society.

You may feel frustrated with the routines back home – or even unfamiliar with them. 

You might find yourself displacing this frustration on other people, becoming impatient and unpleasant.

In recalling your life abroad, you may romanticize your time there and find your home unpleasant in comparison.

This is normal.

Assessing the differences between your host country and your home country and feeling these frustrations is a typical reaction in returning home.

Exhaustion

Readjusting to a culture you’ve been apart from for a long time is just as exhausting as the initial adjustment to your host country

You have to relearn and consciously perform routines, customs, basic functions, or logistical tasks that were once done by rote, making the experience overwhelming.

Your own culture will hit you like a wave.

Just keep swimming.

Withdrawal

You may feel so disillusioned about your home culture that you start to withdraw from it and resist readapting to it, avoiding contact with your own society. 

This can provoke feelings of self-doubt or even depression.

You might want to escape. 

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock

Knowing all the effects of reverse culture shock can help you be prepared for them upon your return and build an action plan.

Luckily, you have one in your back pocket.

You are by now familiar with the steps it takes to feel at home in a culture.

After all, you adapted to a foreign one not too long ago.

And while it may seem silly, you must now apply them to your own culture and country in order to reintegrate back in.

Next week, we’ll talk about those steps in the context of returning home.