March 16, 2010

Primer on Cultural Neuroscience

The March 1 issue of Newsweek offers an interesting article on cultural neuroscience, West Brain, East Brain: What a difference culture makes. I encourage you to read the entire article, and I post some excerpts, and the important conclusion:

Cultural neuroscience wouldn't be making waves if it found neurobiological bases only for well-known cultural differences. It is also uncovering the unexpected. For instance, a 2006 study found that native Chinese speakers use a different region of the brain to do simple arithmetic (3 + 4) or decide which number is larger than native English speakers do, even though both use Arabic numerals. The Chinese use the circuits that process visual and spatial information and plan movements (the latter may be related to the use of the abacus). But English speakers use language circuits. It is as if the West conceives numbers as just words, but the East imbues them with symbolic, spatial freight....

Not to be the skunk at this party, but I think it's important to ask whether neuroscience reveals anything more than we already know from, say, anthropology. For instance, it's well known that East Asian cultures prize the collective over the individual, and that Americans do the opposite. Does identifying brain correlates of those values offer any extra insight? After all, it's not as if anyone thought those values are the result of something in the liver.

...[C]ultural neuro-science does advance understanding. ...Especially when it shows how fundamental cultural differences are—so fundamental, perhaps, that "universal" notions such as human rights, democracy, and the like may be no such thing.

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