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Our brain on culture

February 10th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve attended recently an IB workshop on the new Language B curriculum. Intercultural understanding has become much more important in the new guide, and the link between L2 language learning and TOK is also emphasized. The blog post below offers a very interesting perspective for L2 language teachers to understand how culture can actually influence the neural activities of our brain.

Cultural Neuroscience

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.

Above is part of the abstract of a research paper by Shihui Han and Georg Northoff “Culture-Sensitive Neural Substrates of Human Cognition: A Transcultural Neuroimaging Approach”. The full version (pdf) is available.

I also found that Daniel Lende’s outline about the article is equally interesting. I quote here some interesting parts regarding Chinese language.

Cultural diversity of human cognition

By comparing cognitive functions in people from Western (European and American) and East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, et cetera) cultures, the ‘culture-and-cognition’ approach demonstrates that different sociocultural systems give rise to dissimilar thought styles. Westerners generally think in an analytical way, whereas East Asians generally think in a more holistic manner. For instance, during a perception task, Americans were better at detecting changes in salient objects than East Asians, and were less affected by contextual information.

Han and Northoff systematically cover research on “cultural effects on cognition,” including language and music and number representation and mental calculation.

Although some of the brain areas that are activated during language processing, such as the left superior posterior temporal gyrus and the inferior frontal gyrus, are similar for different languages (for example, Chinese, English and Japanese), a number of brain areas are language-specific. For instance, when native English speakers read English words the superior temporal gyrus is activated, whereas when native Chinese speakers read Chinese characters the dorsal extent of the inferior parietal lobe is activated. Rather than being an effect of culture in a broad sense, this finding might reflect a basic difference between non-phonetic and phonetic written languages: alphabetic words, such as English words, can be read by assembling fine-grained phonemic units, whereas written Chinese characters consist of intricate strokes and map onto phonology at the mono-syllable level.

As for number representation and mental calculation, Han and Northoff wrote:

Arabic numbers are used by various cultural groups for number representation and arithmetic processing. However, the neural mechanisms that underlie mental calculation in these cultures might be different. A recent fMRI study tested this possibility by scanning Chinese people and English-speaking Westerners, all living in China, during number-representation and mental-calculation tasks. In Westerners, judging the orientation of Arabic numeral stimuli generated greater activation in the left supplemental motor area, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area (relative to judging the orientation of non-numerical stimuli). By contrast, Chinese participants showed greater activation in the left premotor association area, including Brodmann areas 6, 8 and 9. In addition, Chinese participants showed greater activation in premotor areas during number-addition and number comparison tasks than during the number orientation task, whereas Westerners showed increasing activation in the perisylvian area as the task’s arithmetic load increased.

The lower activation of the left supplemental motor area in Chinese participants relative to Western participants might reflect faster number processing in Chinese people, possibly because the brevity of the Chinese language with respect to numbers might allow for a larger short-term memory. By contrast, English-speaking Westerners activated the language system (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) during mental calculation. This work demonstrates that different language systems might shape the neurocognitive processes of primarily non-language-related functions like mental calculation.

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