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

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  • Awesome article. Do you think it would be fair to look at the way society create a normative sense of perspective? Western: highly first-person. Eastern: a witness to the first-person.

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  • loci

    “Culture is your operating system”
    Terence Mckenna

  • Daniel

    This study sounds ridiculous… how do you separate culture from race? It looks like you should take say Chinese people growing up in America and compare them to Chinese people that had grown up in China for a worthwhile comparison.

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  • Interesting stuff. However, while I wouldn’t say the experiment sounds “ridiculous”, I do agree with Daniel that to be able to draw conclusions about how culture shapes cognition, you’d need to rule out genetic influences.

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  • I would highly disagree with Daniel. As an Asian who has spent most of her formative years in England; an Asian that spends more time with the local population – I’ve always had far more of an affinity to Westerners than I do other Asians. In fact when I go to my home country I always find it far harder to interact with those who have grown up here (irrespective of race). I’m not suggesting that genetics have absolutely no effect on the mind/brain, I’m just saying one would be foolish to underestimate the extent to which culture can affect our mind. I’d suggest that while genetics give us the base – what produces the possible delineations in which we can develop – it is culture that ultimately moulds us.

  • I think both sides of this argument are interesting, but I tend to lean towards culture affecting your habits and upbringing instead of race.. I have been overseas and even though I look the same as most of those people– I can not relate to them whatsoever.

  • The Institute of Natural Excellence has a new way to look at this and many other things in life, which is called Natural Excellence. It is based on recent research such as brain scans plus Asian and Western cultures combined with many new and old theories. According to Natural Excellence behaviour is based on a combination of your genes, the environment we grow up within, plus the situation we are in at the time a decision is made. This, together with our health and any “patterns” we have built up through experience effects our thoughts. Natural Excellence can help individuals, team and organisations work in harmony and deliver the maximum (including considering the environment as you need to be aware of this – its impact on you and you on it). It started in Asia and is spreading across the World. Many organisations are currently reviewing Natural Excellence to adopt it or have already done so- Barclays, SAP, Siemens, Foremost etc. So, genes, diet, health, your upbringing, the situation, the people around you and environment are all linked .. we are not islands, but a complex cocktail! Terry

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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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